On a warm evening a few weeks ago my partner and I were sitting in an unmarked car along Highway 99 near Seatac. From our vantage point we watched several young women walking the sidewalk, waving at passing cars and occasionally hopping in next to a male driver.
By all accounts, the sex trade on Highway 99 continues in much the same way since the Green River Killer stalked the strip’s most vulnerable prostitutes 25 years ago. With one exception.
Milling around the entrance to a fast food restaurant across the street were more than a dozen young men wearing bandanas and clothing in the colors of the area’s predominant gang. They were also keeping an eye on the working women, including one young man who detached himself from the group and crossed the street. He approached a scantily clad young woman talking with her girlfriends.
The body language of the conversation suggested nothing more than a subordinate being chewed out by the boss. When he was done yelling, the young man pointed her to the street. Crying, she continued to plead her case until he shoved her in the direction he wanted her to go. We jumped out and arrested him for the assault, and as we did I took note of the blue bandana around his head and the gang tattoo emblazoned on his forearm.
Criminal street gangs’ involvement in the human trafficking business is relatively new. Gang members have always been eager to commit crimes that hold less chance of an arrest or lengthy incarceration, and for that and other reasons their presence is now entrenched.
Gang members also brought their brand of violent and misogynistic behavior into the sex industry, making it that much more dangerous an environment for the girls and women caught in the lifestyle. That is especially true for those “recruited” by gang members using threats, enticements or physical force. These people are then sold on the street or on Internet sites such as the seedy Backpage.com.
Despite this revelation, prostitution is still perceived as a “victimless crime.” That erroneous view has been promoted by Hollywood movies and television shows for years – it is a misperception that was recently pointed out in an article written by Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and published in The Huffington Post.
In the article Mr. McKenna addresses the disparity between Hollywood’s glamorized notion of prostitution – resurrected by a new television series, Client List, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt – and the reality of women in thrall to the sex trade.
The back story for Client List is familiar: A young woman makes a conscious choice to enter the sex trade and is faced with few obstacles other than her own conscience. That same premise was used for Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, and it is an utter fallacy.
In reality, many prostitutes new to the sex trade are juvenile runaways caught in heavy-handed relationships with gang members. The few who willingly walk the strip find out quickly that independence is a myth. Sooner or later they will be confronted by a gang member who (as in the incident described above) considers himself owner of the street and the women who walk its pavement.
When it comes to buying the illusion, however, the public is not alone. Few police agencies seem willing to expend dwindling resources enforcing state laws against promoting prostitution. This has been slow to change despite the legislature’s recent passage of RCW 9A.88.070, which makes promoting prostitution through threat or force a Class B felony. Those of us in law enforcement need to do more to protect these victims, who are both vulnerable and invisible.
Attorney General McKenna’s words should not be ignored. His office has delved into the increasingly violent crimes associated with criminal street gangs, and his depth of knowledge on the topic comes from engaging with affected communities, civic leaders and police agencies. He knows well that many young women are not willing participants in the sex trade – they are dehumanized commodities in the human trafficking market, locked in place by violent street thugs.
And unlike Gary Ridgway, these creeps are hiding in plain sight.