Since 2012, Seattle has followed the “Nordic model” of arresting sex buyers over workers. Starting last summer, that’s on hold.
In a marked departure from the city of Seattle’s approach to dealing with street prostitution the past seven years, Seattle police officers this summer returned to routinely arresting and booking sex workers on Aurora Avenue in North Seattle.
While the city has publicly and proudly pursued the “demand” side of the sex trade — those purchasing sex — the City Attorney’s Office and the Seattle Police Department since 2012 have mostly shied away from booking the sex workers themselves, directing them instead to services.
Despite some criticism, the city has stood by the approach, known as the “Nordic model,” as a progressive alternative to the old way of addressing prostitution. But in the face of a sharp spike in the amount of street-based sex work, service providers exceeding their capacity and intense pressure from North Seattle residents and businesses, the Seattle Police Department began moving away from the Nordic model last July — at least temporarily.
“We’ve had to look at this differently than what our approach has been traditionally in the last few years, which has been a victim-first, trauma-informed type of approach,” said Capt. Mike Edwards, head of SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit.
Since July, SPD has made about 120 arrests via sting operations, said Edwards. While some of those arrested are “johns” buying sex, the large majority are the mostly women workers selling it.
Most of those arrests are not being charged by the City Attorney’s Office and serve only to temporarily remove the women from the area for several days or weeks. Edwards said it’s either that or do nothing. “We’ll make the arrests; we’ll file the bookings,” said Edwards. “That’s not a solution in and of itself. For us it’s really back to that piece of almost the community caretaking approach — to at least get them out of the environment, albeit for a short period of time.”
The decision to change the department’s approach came from the top command staff and was in response to a number of things, said Edwards.
For one, the amount of sex work on Aurora has increased dramatically, according to police and outreach workers. Edwards said a lot of that was driven by the federal shutdown of Backpage, a website where sex workers and buyers once connected. Municipalities across the country have reported increases in street prostitution after the website’s closure.
Officers also have noticed an uptick in people coming from California to work in Seattle, said Edwards, although he was unsure why.
As the amount of sex work has increased, so has community pressure on the department to do something. “It’s coming from citizens, business groups, individual business owners,” said Edwards. “The chief’s office has heard it in community meetings, emails, phone calls — there’s been an awful lot of expression of concern as well as anger because of how visible and high profile it’s been up there.”
Finally, said Edwards, the diversion programs the police department once leaned on so heavily as an alternative to arrest are at capacity. That leaves the department to choose between immediately turning people back onto the street or booking them into jail, said Edwards. The department has decided on the latter, even if it’s not preferable.
Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association and co-founder of the prearrest Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), has said publicly that LEAD case managers are at capacity. She will argue to the Seattle City Council on Wednesday that SPD’s recent shift in approach to street prostitution is proof-positive of why prearrest diversion needs more funding.
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- “I can’t see what’s possibly degrading about being my own boss, being financially secure by my own means, and still having the time and emotional energy to be able to pour into my art,” says artist Ramona Slick.
- COURTESY THE ARTIST
Sex work is not a monolithic culture of human trafficking and abuse. Conversations that break stigmas, explore empowerment, and encourage consent are a huge part of the adult industry. This isn’t to say that people don’t become involved in sex work because of unfortunate circumstances or that human trafficking isn’t an alarming concern—those fears are valid. But as a former sex worker and current artist, I know what it can be like to be in the adult industry in the public sphere. For some artists, traumatic stories and personal histories are shared through their art. For others, documentation of queerness and sexual liberation accompany their erotic work.
I first got into sex work while writing about sex. After researching the work of financial dominatrixes, I decided to dabble in cam work, and eventually found my place as an online humilatrix, humiliating cis men with daily tasks. My artwork is heavily focused on the body, sexuality, and personal narrative, so it was only natural to eventually interweave the two. My visual art references video work, text, and still images from my time in the sex industry as I interacted with most of my clients through the Internet. Not only did my time as a sex worker benefit my creative practice financially, but I was able to experiment with a new body of work based off of my experience as a femme sex working artist.
Former sex worker Annie Sprinkle once said in an interview that “almost all top women performance artists have told me that they were in the sex industry as streetwalkers, go-go dancers, etc. I think the sex industry is a much bigger funder of the arts than the [National Endowment for the Arts].” Artists like David Wojnarowicz and Kathleen Hanna were also sex workers before they began their other careers. Flexibility with time and increased revenue are all essential to the life of an artist—these two paths intersect more than we think.
- Julia Arredondo
- NANDO ESPINOSA HERRERA
Julia Arredondo, 32, first got into sex work in 2016 when she moved to Chicago. After watching a documentary on “sugaring” (receiving financial compensation in exchange for some kind of relationship), she made a Seeking Arrangements profile and began going on dates. “Sex work provides me more pay—and sometimes more respect—than many of my regular employers,” she says. Inspired by her dates while sugaring, Arrendondo, a publisher, printmaker, entrepreneur, and product designer, wrote a collection of poems detailing her time with rich, older men titled Addicted to the Money. “I don’t want to marry him / I want to become him,” she writes in the book published by Vice Versa Press. Her zines “Guide to Being Alone” and “Empty Bedrooms” are about navigating solitude and exploring empty spaces. Since her sex work is typically confined to the night shift, Arredondo has the freedom to work on her creative practice during the day. Her next installation, No More Lazy Lover Altar, which pays homage to botanica culture and ritualistic forms of healing, goes on display on Friday, October 18, at the Arcade Gallery as part of the Weisman Award Exhibition at Columbia College.
“Although creative work is just as labor intensive, the market has yet to understand creative work as an equally equitable labor, so fighting for fair compensation is something I do on the [regular],” Arredondo says. The Humboldt Park resident isn’t in the position to take out loans or to take on more debt, so sex work has given her the “capital to kickstart a few businesses” and to also continue her art career. “I was able to save, and to take better care of myself, due to the income I was pulling in,” she says. “Essentially, I’ve been monetarily empowered.”
Since becoming a sex worker, Arredondo has grown a great amount in terms of her self-worth and self-respect, she says. “My clients treated me better than many of my lovers, and they essentially invested in my future,” she says. In her piece Fuckboy Compensation Invoice she comments on how all of her relationships are transactional. “Whether or not money is involved is besides the point,” she says. “Essentially, our relationships are a balance of give-and-take, and the Fuckboy Compensation Invoice is a tool used to reclaim that time monetarily.” Arredondo is showing at Cleveland’s Morgan Conservatory in an exhibition titled “Printmaking as Resistance” from October 18 through November 16 and is working on a book through Lit Riot Press in New York.
In the 1970s, women-identifying artists explored sex work as a vehicle for questioning identity, publicity, and performance. Rebecca Schneider’s The Explicit Body in Performance discusses the way that performance artists have similiarties to sex workers and how many were involved in the sex work industry. Julia Bryan-Wilson writes in Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work Since the 1970s that, “Given the amounts of money that continue to change hands in the art market—a culture of seductive commerce that flies in the face of the current worldwide recession, described in broadly sexual terms as ‘overheated,’ ‘frenzied,’ or ‘near a climax’—art is widely recognized as libidinal, desirous, and transactional.” The parallels between art and sex are undeniable.
In early 2019, in honor of International Sex Workers Rights Day, the organization Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago (SWOP) coordinated an exhibition, “Chicago Sex Workers Art Show,” at Agitator Gallery. (Full disclosure: I have a short video piece and a few still images in the show from when men paid me to humiliate them.) The gallery’s goal was to celebrate sex workers along with their resilience and creativity. Another collaboration between Agitator and SWOP, “Redlight: Chicago Sex Worker Performance Series,” featured burlesque, music, and spoken word presented by sex-working artists. SWOP Chicago is a grassroots organization that began in 2006 as a chapter of the larger organization that works to improve the lives of former or current sex workers. SWOP’s goal is to fight stigma, provide a support system, and encourage safety. The chapter offers guidance and resources and even has a base specifically on the south side of the city. Organizations like SWOP are popping up around the globe as people learn about and engage more openly with sex work.