Policy aims to build trust among sex workers
Author: Taylor Mirfendereski
Published: 7:41 AM PST January 9, 2018
Updated: 6:24 PM PST January 9, 2018
LOCAL 3 Articles

Policy aims to build trust among sex workers

Chapter 1

Squashing Fear

The 19-year-old removed her clothes in the backseat of the black rental SUV and asked for $100 before she would have sex with Courtney Wayne Dawson.

But instead of cash, Dawson pulled out a kitchen knife.

He attacked the prostitute, gashing her fingers, before he raped her in the Aurora Avenue parking spot, hidden between two large semi-trucks.

The woman climbed out of the front seat so fast, she left a shoe and her underwear behind. Covered in her own blood, she watched the Colorado businessman drive away on that 2011 August night.

It was the night the 19-year-old joined the ranks of thousands of sex workers who've experienced physical and sexual violence on the job. But she's among just a few who felt empowered to report the violent crime to police.

Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing violence in their lifetime, according to the American Journal of Public Health. But often, the perpetrators are never caught because their victims stay silent out of fear they'll suffer their own legal consequences for engaging in prostitution.

It's a fear that King County prosecutors hope to squash with a recent policy change. Sex workers will no longer face prosecution for prostitution when they're seeking medical help or reporting a crime against someone else or themselves. The new policy mimics Washington's Good Samaritan law that protects people who call 911 when someone overdoses on drugs.

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Richey, who runs the sexual assault unit, maintains an unofficial list of a dozen or so cases that his office has prosecuted against people who commit violent crimes against people in the sex industry.

Valiant Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney in King County
Valiant Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney in King County

His list includes convicted rapists, like 43-year-old Dawson, and murderers like serial killer Gary Ridgeway. Ridgeway, known as the "Green River killer,” pled guilty to murdering at least 49 Washington women before he was caught in 2001. The list also includes the case against Song Wang, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2015 killing of a Bellevue women who advertised sexual services on backpage.com.

Richey's concern, he said, is that his list doesn't even scratch the surface. And he wants to get justice for the victimized sex workers who have been too afraid to speak up.

Chapter 2

Formalizing An Existing Practice

In some ways, the internal policy is just a formal step for the office that began moving away from criminalizing prostitution years ago -- in favor of pressing charges against the people who buy sex from them.

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“The reality is that we weren't going to be prosecuting (prostitutes) for this, but there was a perception that they would be prosecuted,” Richey said. "What we are trying to do is bridge the gab between perception and reality."

In 2009, prostitutes working in King County faced charges about two-and-a-half times as often as sex buyers. But the trend reversed over time, in part due to another department policy that forbids prosecutors from filing prostitution-related charges until a person has first been offered services to get out of the sex industry and refused.

Plus, the culture in the county began to change after police officers and prosecutors started talking to survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution, along with the victim advocates who work to protect them.

“Everything I knew about the experience in prostitution was one of pain and exploitation,” said Richey, who led the county's push for a victim-centered approach. “We wouldn't go around and start arresting all the domestic violence survivors in an effort to stop domestic violence, so why were we doing it here?"

In 2016, the King County Prosecutor's Office charged sex buyers nearly five times as often as prostitutes, according to an analysis of office data. It's a move that Richey says accomplished more in the fight against sex trafficking than the historic practice of targeting prostitutes.

GRAPHIC: Prostitution vs. Patronizing Charges In King County

"If your goal is to try to end exploitation, arresting and prosecuting (prostitutes) doesn't help accomplish the goal,” Richey said.

"The more that they were in the criminal justice system and had convictions and arrests, the less likely they were able to get out because they couldn't get housing, they couldn't get other jobs and they couldn't make the transition that everybody wants them to make,” he added.

Chapter 3

Will It Work?

Not all sex industry experts and former prostitutes think the policy will have an impact on sex workers in King County will respond.

“So basically getting rewarded for being a snitch? No,” Jennifer Tucker, a former prostitute, said after hearing the news about the policy. “There is like this 'code of ethics' that you don't tell.”

Tucker, who said she was trapped in the sex industry for six years, left the life of paid sex work behind in February 2016.

The 39-year-old says she was repeatedly robbed, raped and beaten by both customers and pimps for years, but she never told police out of fear for her life and because of an unwritten rule in the sex industry that prostitutes shouldn't turn in their clients.

Jennifer Tucker
Jennifer Tucker

Tucker said she was also afraid that she'd get busted for the drug-related crimes she committed because of her lifestyle in the sex industry.

“Every time you go on a 'date' (with a customer), you are putting your life on the line, and you know that,” she said, adding that the King County policy is a good first step but that more changes need to happen to gain the trust of prostitutes and sex trafficking victims.

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Marin Stewart, a former prostitute turned victim advocate, agreed that the policy sends a positive message from the prosecutor's office. But she said it's not the “final ingredient” because it doesn't address the real reason victims don't always come forward.

“Honestly, a girl or boy (in prostitution) is not afraid to notify law enforcement because they are afraid of what's going to happen to them legally. They are afraid of what their pimp is going to do to them,” Stewart said.

But April Seekins, a 45-year-old former prostitute, is convinced that sex workers who don't have a pimp will take advantage of the King County policy.

“If I knew I wasn't going to get in trouble, I would do it in a heartbeat,” said Seekins, who said she worked without a pimp for five years before leaving the industry in 2012.

Richey, the prosecutor, said he believes the policy can work once the county's sex workers learn of it through social service providers and advocates.

But he said he is aware of the “code” the former prostitutes describe, and it's a problem.

"That is a very concerning state of affairs because it really highlights the cohesive nature of the relationship between the client and the person in prostitution,” he said. "I mean, what are we saying then? That people in prostitution can be raped and that they can't come forward because they might lose their clients? That is not a good situation.”

It's why the prosecutor is so impressed with the bravery of the 19-year-old prostitute who called the police after Dawson attacked and raped her in that Aurora Avenue parking spot.

And it's the reason why the woman's rapist is now serving a 16-year sentence behind bars.