Sex trade workers need protection, not legalization

In this week’s edition of “Keep your bad ideas far away from us,” we learn of a measure back in the other Washington that aims to legalize prostitution.

Introduced by progressive D.C. Council members, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 sounds benign enough. But it eliminates criminal penalties for all parties involved in the exchange of sexual activity for money.

In some liberal-leaning municipalities, you’ll find the idea gaining traction. Tammy Morales, a candidate for Seattle City Council, took to Twitter this summer saying she favors legalizing sex work.

And Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii recently said: “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime.”

Decriminalizing prostitution is the bold, libertarian idea du jour, and it’s downright dangerous. Washington may have been one of the first two states to legalize one vice (recreational marijuana, for those scoring at home), but that doesn’t mean we should consider decriminalizing them all.

Kyra Doubeck, executive director of Washington Trafficking Prevention, a nonprofit based in Tacoma, said she’s alarmed by how hard politicians and lobbyists have been pushing for legalization in D.C.

“Whenever a measure gets passed in one part of the country, it opens the door for legislation everywhere,” Doubeck told us last week.

Doubeck, a survivor of the sex trade, worries legalization could turn the nation’s capital into a mecca for sex tourism. In countries where prostitution is legal, she says, human trafficking always increases. “Demand always outweighs supply. There just aren’t enough people willing to do it.”

And considering that Washington state is a national leader in human trafficking prosecutions, the idea should be shunned by conservatives, progressives and libertarians alike.

Not all trafficking victims are sex workers; according to a report by Humanities Washington, victims also can be found in domestic servitude, construction and nail salons. But the majority of commercial sex-trade workers come from trafficking, and many are minors.

Arguments for making prostitution legal include the elimination of pimps and unsafe conditions. Proponents say legalization would be the first step in getting millions of sex workers medical care and law enforcement protection. In some European countries, sex workers even have pension plans.

But beware arguments that reduce this complicated issue to a simple matter of better working conditions for self-employed sex workers.

This is not about a transactional exchange between consenting adults. Shared Hope International says human trafficking is booming because of a high demand for commercial sex with minors.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports one in seven runaways in 2017 was a child sex trafficking victim and 88 percent of those children were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.

Prostitution is almost always a symptom of a larger problem. Statistics bear out the ugly truth; most people in the sex trade have been victims of abuse and exploitation and are vulnerable to predatory behavior and drug dependence.

While we can’t get behind legalizing prostitution, we do support our state’s newest laws protecting sex workers.

As of this past summer, people in the sex trade can report violent crimes and seek emergency assistance without fear of prosecution. They should always have access to justice for crimes committed against them.

Another new law protects adult entertainers. The state Department of Labor and Industries is developing a training program that outlines rights and responsibilities, and how to report sexual abuse and harassment. Starting next July, entertainers will know the risk of human trafficking and workplace injuries before obtaining a license.

This is important because unlawful activity routinely orbits around sex work and adult entertainment. We saw that last month when an adult cabaret in Lakewood was shut down because it was an alleged hotbed of illegal activity, in addition to being deemed a public nuisance.

Law enforcement’s focus should stay fixed on shutting down non-compliant businesses like Deja Vu in Lakewood, as well as arresting and prosecuting sex-trade consumers.

In Washington, solicitation of prostitution is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. During the last legislative session, lawmakers missed an opportunity for a significant increase in penalties.

The bill deserves stronger consideration in Olympia next year. Target demand, and supply will diminish.