Seattle’s Shadow Economy

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

From real estate to retail, Zillow to Amazon, innovation has long powered the Puget Sound region’s economic expansion, making it one of the fastest-growing areas in America.  

As that economic boom creates more wealth and disposable income, it is nurturing a similarly thriving, innovative sector that Seattle would rather not talk about. Seattle is home to what may well be the fastest-growing underground sex industry in the United States, one that is ahead of the curve in utilizing the internet. 

This mark of distinction stems from a landmark study on the American sex industry commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and released last year. The study focused on eight major American cities — Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C. — and set out to collect nationwide data on the underground sector for the first time.

To compile this information, commissioned researchers from the Urban Institute spoke with hundreds of sex workers, pimps, local police officers, federal agents and others with knowledge of or experience in the sex industry. They found that while most of the study’s target cities saw their sex economies stagnate between 2005 and 2012, Seattle’s more than doubled, as measured by the estimated amount of cash changing hands in it. 

As recently as 2005, the sex industry was smaller than guns and drugs in Seattle’s underground cash economy. In recent years, it reportedly has grown bigger than both. Where only a few years ago the sex trade represented 50 cents of every $100 spent in the city, it now accounts for nearly a dollar. 

With greater public focus on the thriving sex trade, a debate is brewing about just how, or if, the industry should be regulated. The Seattle Times editorial board has called for heightened regulations around online sex markets and a tighter focus on fighting underage sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The group Sex Workers Outreach Project, by contrast, argues that many sex workers are engaged in the business voluntarily and should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone. It organized a three-day symposium in December with the purpose of destigmatizing the sex trade. What all agree on is that the sex industry has become bigger, more sophisticated and harder to control. The federal study calls Seattle a forerunner in using the internet to modernize the industry and make it more consumer friendly.  

The underground sex trade comprises three major components: prostitutes bought online, prostitutes bought on the street, and an independent industry staffed almost exclusively by Asian immigrants and represented mainly by “happy ending” massage parlors. 

This last category is the prime driver of Seattle’s growth, according to the study, which notes that erotic massage parlors have become more abundant across the Puget Sound region. They function as businesses offering traditional massages or spa treatments, but where customers can offer “tips” for sex acts, usually about $60 per transaction. Intercourse is not common, though there are many exceptions. 
Seattle and Bellevue contain some of the fastest growth in this sector nationwide, according to the study. Local law enforcement doesn’t disagree with the assertion.

“You’ll hear that this is primarily a Seattle and Pacific Northwest phenomenon,” says Captain Eric Sano, who leads the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. “That’s primarily because we’re a border state with a huge international airport. They come over the border, they fly in through SeaTac [Airport] and it’s a destination city.”

This alone can’t account for the massage parlors’ outsize role in the sex economy. One Seattle police officer told researchers, “I watch these places and all of a sudden, I see them ship off 10 grand one week and then ship off 10 grand another week. ... They’re not doing $10,000 a week in business. ... Makes you wonder where the money’s coming from, doesn’t it?”

One theory is the parlors are connected to residential brothels staffed by Asian immigrants, a recent phenomenon the study deems unique to the Puget Sound region. The typical “happy ending” massage parlors are unassuming in the extreme, situated in strip malls and other low-rent locales, with exteriors that seem ambivalent about attracting clients. Similarly low-key brothels are springing up in residential zones, often in the homes and condos of middle class neighborhoods.

“This is especially happening on the Eastside,” says Sergeant Jaycin Diaz of SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit. “You get very nice apartment complexes over there and [prostitutes] are working right out of it. It looks like any other apartment, but three Asian girls are staying there and conducting business all day long. Over there, they’re probably getting a lot of tech clientele.”

The main researcher on the federal study, Meredith Dank of the Urban Institute, says these brothels increasingly surround big employers like Boeing and Microsoft. Situated in nondescript residences, they offer a degree of privacy and convenience to a higher-income clientele. Given that their employees can see up to 18 clients a day, it’s hard to imagine they’ll go undetected by their neighbors forever.

As with nearly every other service, the internet has made erotic massage parlors easier than ever to find. Websites like eroticmp.com and rubmaps.com provide detailed locations and even reviews. This is similar to johns-and-escorts sites like The Review Board, where sex is openly bought, sold and reviewed. That site and others allow escorts to sell their companionship for high prices; they also enable prostitutes to move away from using pimps and toward operating independently. Savannah Sly of the Sex Workers Outreach Project holds it up as an example of a healthy, victimless market in which a system of references keeps both prostitutes and their customers safe from violence and crime. 

One might assume this online openness would present an easy target for arrests. The reality is that the police only have the resources to crack down on a fraction of the sexual activity in the area. There are thousands of online sex ads appearing everywhere from Backpage.com to The Review Board to Eros.com.

“The internet’s been around for 20 years, but it only started broadly being used for this about seven years ago,” says Diaz. “There’s a new site that pops up every day.” Diaz describes the number of local online sex posts as “absolutely endless.” Research by the King County prosecutor’s office estimates 27,000 individuals buy sex from more than 100 websites every day in the county.

Just as when a homeowner faces a flood — as both Sano and Diaz describe the modern sex industry online — and forced decisions must be made about what items can be saved, police have chosen to tolerate much of the underground sex market and focus specifically on a single overriding concern: the exploitation of underage girls. It’s not clear how pervasive the use of underage girls is online, but the federal study and local law enforcement say sites like The Review Board do not seem to exploit minors with any frequency and are therefore lower on the enforcement agenda. 

As Seattle’s sex industry expands, however, it is raising complex questions about how enforcement can adapt. While enforcement efforts have focused on underage sex workers, the decentralized online marketplace has made identifying and helping underage sex workers much more difficult. There was a time, for instance, when police could cruise known prostitution hotspots — Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North, for example — and spot the underage women in the business. “Now,” Diaz says, “on North Aurora there’s the very rare juvenile, but what you’re mainly seeing is girls with substance abuse issues. … [Now] the younger ones who are relatively new, the ones we try to go ahead and have a chance of making a difference with, they’re online.” 

The sex industry has also become a prime money maker for street gangs that see it as lower risk than weapon or drug sales. These gangs are often the prime recruiters of underage women. A 2008 report by Seattle’s Human Services Department estimates as many as 500 minors are exploited in the city’s sex trade every day. Given other data on the local industry, that number has likely grown since then, partly because social networks have made it far easier for gang-affiliated pimps to recruit prostitutes.

“There’s always been a whole grooming process, but it’s getting way better now,” says Diaz. “There are so many social mediums right now, like Facebook. … Now, [pimps] are reaching out to these girls and … they’re cultivating that relationship, becoming that boyfriend figure. … And they can do it with several different girls online and bring them into the fold a whole lot easier than before. Before, they had to meet them somewhere, had to see them at the mall or whatever, develop that relationship. Now they can do it for hours a day on their computer or iPad.”

How the sex industry is regulated can shape the way the industry develops. Washington’s erotic massage parlors are a perfect example of this. Until last summer, foot masseuses — or reflexologists — were the only massage therapists who weren’t required to obtain state licenses. Therefore, says Sano, “Most places focused on foot massages had prostitution occurring in them.” A new law requires licensing of reflexologists, but Sano says it’s too early to gauge its overall effects. 

Sano says police departments nationwide are watching what Seattle does on this issue and learning from what he calls the city’s “victim-centric approach.” It bears a strong resemblance to the “Nordic Model” of prostitution regulation, with arrests focusing on the buyers of sex in an effort to stem demand. Those selling sex are offered services and other assistance instead of arrest records, making it easier for them to leave the business. 

Some would like to see police go further and decriminalize aspects of the trade. The argument is that this change would move the industry out of the shadows to some extent, helping to expose transactions that are ostensibly “victimless” and those that are not. Sano believes every woman involved in the business is a victim and that decriminalization will only create more. 

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