Val Richey, King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, has been working with local law enforcement over the past year to solve the problem of human trafficking — an issue he said the prosecutor’s office has handled incorrectly.
“We were arresting the prostitutes, but still seeing increases in prostitution cases throughout the county,” Richey said. “We realized the problem wasn’t the prostitutes, but the men out there buying them. The true problem of human trafficking is the high demand for buying sex in our area.”
Richey spoke about how the prosecutor’s office is working to solve the issue of the demand for soliciting sex at a community forum held Jan. 8 at Federal Way City Hall. The event was put on by the Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking, a local group that educates the Federal Way community and students on the issues of human trafficking.
“The women being sold for sex are usually not there by choice, they have suffered greatly in their life and need help,” Richey said. “They are out there because there are men wanting to buy sex and exploiters take advantage of this.”
In a 2008 survey Richey’s office conducted, they found that at any time, there is an estimated 300-500 prostituted children around 12-14 years old in King County each year. The study found more than 27,000 men are actively soliciting sex online at one of 100 websites in King County per day.
“Sexual exploitation is frequently thought of as a woman’s issue, however, we believe that all people have a role to play in ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation and that it is essential for men to play a primary role in the solution to the problem,” said Brenda Oliver, executive director of the Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking. “Violence against women is a human rights issue.”
The prosecutor’s office is now focusing on arresting buyers, giving them harsh penalties when they are caught and promoting the consequences of buying sex through various media channels.
“The best way we can get rid of this problem is to talk about it,” Richey said. “We want to make it a socially unacceptable thing to do and to tell our buyers, ‘hey, you are going to get caught.’”
One way the prosecutor’s office is doing that is by posting memes about how buying sex is wrong.
“We have found that these memes are reaching the audience we want, which are younger men ages 18-24,” Richey said. “That culture is heavily into social media and if we can make them laugh and then stop and think about the message on this meme, it will at least get the conversation going.”
Richey also partnered with organizations such as the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and Real Escape from the Sex Trade. These organizations are available to help men considering buying or who have bought sex in the past.
“The men that buy sex don’t do it a little, they do it quite a bit,” Richey said. “It’s important not only to punish these men, but to spend time with them and provide them with the resources they need so they don’t do it again.”
One requirement for buyers who are caught is to go through a 10 week treatment program. Peter Qualliotine, director of men’s accountability for Organization for Prostitution Survivors, said men who buy sex often feel shamed by their actions.
“Deep down, they feel that is wrong,” he said. “But there are various reasons they do that. Some have been sexually hurt before and some are filling a void inside of them because their ‘manhood’ has been compromised in some way.”
Qualliotine pointed out society places harsh expectations on how men and women are supposed to act that is impossible for anyone to meet.
“Men are raised to be unemotional, to be aggressors, to fight and to get women,” Qualliotine said. “This is a terrible thing to teach our young men because when we take away their compassion and their feelings, the cost is their humanity.”
Qualliotine said women are taught that good girls dress conservative, are quiet and respectful. Bad girls are loud, rebellious and wear short skirts.
“This is a huge problem as well because we are placing this responsibility of how women are treated on social constructs,” he said. “There are no good girls or bad girls, there are girls that are each very different and should all be treated with respect by men. Social change and a shift in cultural norms are needed to end the demand for commercial sexual exploitation.”
Richey is also working with law enforcement to get them to send prostituted people to treatment centers and work on arresting buyers.
“The Federal Way Police Department has been one of our local departments that has been incredibly responsive and interested in helping us solve this issue,” Richey said.
Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking is working with the Federal Way community on this issue by hosting a 5K walk/run fundraising event May 16 at the Federal Way Farmer’s Market. They are teaming up with local schools, parents, families and community partners and sponsors for the third annual event. The goal of the event is to raise money for local organizations supporting the cause and to raise awareness of the issue.
Those interested can register online starting Jan. 15 at www.fwcat.org.
“We all have a role to play in helping end human trafficking in our city,” said Edward Sumner, director of development at Real Escape from the Sex Trade. “To defer that responsibility to organizations and our police department is convenient and altogether insufficient.”
For more information on human trafficking, visit www.fwcat.org.