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King County Flips The Script On Prostitution, Targeting Buyers Instead Of Sex Workers

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
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Law enforcement authorities in King County have announced a major change in how they go after prostitution. They said they plan to stop targeting prostituted women, and train their sites instead on the men paying for sex.

Police and advocates say prostituted women have long been targeted for arrest – 10 times more often than the buyers, according to the Washington State Patrol.

The experience of Noel Gomez is typical. She is co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors, and before that she was a sex worker herself. She recalled an encounter with police during which she was cuffed and detained. As for her customer, she said the officer simply asked how much he had paid.

“The officer took the money and gave it back to the John, and told the John to get out of the area. I was wondering why I was the only one that was in trouble and handcuffed, but I knew that’s just the way it was,” she said.

But law enforcement officials say that’s about to change under a new countywide initiative called Buyer Beware.

“We now recognize that to truly be effective, we need to target the demand, and shift from arresting survivors to arresting the sex buyers,” said Seattle Police Deputy Chief Carmen Best.

Police said they will step up Internet stings in which officers pose as sex workers. They plan to place ads on search engines and web sites aimed at those trolling for sex. And they will launch a new eight-week course for convicted sex buyers. That class is designed to be part of the offender’s sentence, not a way to avoid prosecution like some similar programs.

Prostituted women, on the other hand, are to receive social services rather than jail time.

King County is joining 10 other metropolitan areas in piloting the new approach. The initiative is funded by a two-year grant from the Boston-based Demand Abolition, and aims to reduce prostitution by 20 percent over two years. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.