Buyer Beware Campaign Moves the State One Step Closer to Being Inhospitable to Traffickers

In 2011, sex buyers tipped their hands and disclosed what they believed would dissuade them from using women involved in prostitution. In the comprehensive study, Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don’t Buy Sex Melissa Farley, PHD, Founding Director of Prostitution Research and Education, and Peter Qualliotine, co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), interviewed over 100 sex buyers in hopes of discovering, among other things, any deterrents that would be effective. In it, the men identified considerably small penalties; 89% said they would be deterred if their name were added to a sex offender registry, 90% said they would be deterred if a $1,000-$2,000 penalty were imposed, and 100% of sex buyers said they would be deterred if sentenced to a one-month jail term.

Thanks to a historic coalition between law enforcement and community advocates throughout King County, the estimated 27,000 King County men soliciting sex online every day may get to test their own theories. This week, the prosecutor’s office unveiled a new pilot program, Buyer Beware, which aims to reduce local demand for prostitution by 20% in the next two years. The campaign is part of a national strategy, Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), that seeks to hold men accountable for fueling the demand side of the sex trade. Currently, ten US cities are participating with similar initiatives, including Boston, Denver, Chicago and Portland.

Buyer Beware includes expanded training for undercover sting operations, a commitment to increased arrests and prosecution of buyers, more publicity of those arrests and convictions, and the utilization of pop-up ads on the Internet, in places such as Backpage, where buyers are trolling sex ads. The hope is to educate men about the harm they are causing, and warn them of potential consequences. The initiative also commits to redirecting imposed fines to support victim services. REST has been privileged to participate in a coordinated effort with a number of agencies by providing support and services to the girls and young women recovered in sting operations.

“Historically, women and girls involved in prostitution were arrested up to 10 times more often than sex buyers, and were three to four times more likely to face prosecution,” said Val Richey, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor, who handles most of the office’s prostitution-related felony cases. But now, their office vows to focus on reducing demand by targeting sex buyers rather than victims.

Throughout the county, buyers convicted of patronizing adults for commercial sex may face up to 27 months of jail time, a $5,000 fine, and registration as a sex offender – all conditions sex buyers identified as sufficient deterrents in the study. Additionally, all buyers convicted will be required to complete a 10-week course, similar to a Batterers’ Intervention Program for domestic-violence offenders.

Washington State led the nation with the first anti-trafficking laws and currently boasts the nation’s most comprehensive anti-trafficking laws. We have not exhausted every effort to see Washington State become inhospitable to human trafficking, but initiatives such as Buyer Beware continue to take an aggressive stand against exploitation. Says Seattle Attorney Pete Holmes: “If you come to Seattle, don’t plan on buying sex. If you do, you’ll stay here a lot longer.”