Seattle, WA

Tactics Used

Buyer Arrests
Reverse stings
Identity Disclosure
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension
Employment Loss
IT Based Tactics

Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, with approximately 725,000 residents. It is the largest city and county seat of King County, WA. The city has struggled with persistent and widespread prostitution and sex trafficking problems for decades, which has included multiple serial killers that have targeted sexually exploited women and youth, and cases of male sex buyers torturing individuals being sold in prostitution. Seattle’s reputation as an international seaport, as well its proximity to the Canadian border, are often cited by law enforcement as major factors driving the city’s prostitution and sex trafficking networks. The city is also noted by federal and local law enforcement to be a prominent stop on domestic pimping and human trafficking circuits, facilitated by the city’s geographic placement and the major interstate highways I-5 and I-90.

Reverse Stings, Vehicle Seizure, SOAP Orders, and Identity Disclosure:

The Seattle Police Department (with occasional support from the King County Sheriff’s Office) employs several tactics to identify and apprehend local sex buyers.  The SPD was among the first departments in the nation to use street-level reverse stings, beginning in 1974. Operations are now conducted on a routine basis, using one or more female undercover officers as decoys. Once arrested, sex buyers may be served with SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) orders, barring them from reentering areas of the city known for commercial sex activity. Depending upon the circumstances of the arrest, sex buyers may also have their vehicles impounded and be charged an additional $1,000 retrieval fee.  Police may also release the names of arrestees to the local media, although the publication of their identities remains at the discretion of news outlets.

As an increasing number of the city’s sex sales now begin online, SPD vice detectives also utilize web-based stings to intercept sex buyers attempting to solicit sex online. One such operation, conducted in 2006, placed decoy advertisements with photos of undercover female officers selling sex to Craigslist. As men responded to the listings and arranged to meet the officer at a local hotel, they were arrested by police. The department also collaborates with and provides technical assistance and training to peers in nearby communities; in fall 2014, for example, the SPD assisted officers in nearby Des Moines with a web-based reversal that resulted in the arrest of nine sex buyers.

In October 2014, media reported that the SPD planned to ramp up demand-reduction efforts as part of the countywide Buyer Beware initiative, launched by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. The initiative will prioritize the arrest of sex buyers over sellers, while offering and redirecting sellers to social service programs in lieu of arrest. At the county level, it will include additional public awareness efforts (e.g., online pop-up ads to deter would-be sex buyers) and an expanded john school program for convicted offenders. To read more about Buyer Beware, see King County. When asked about the program, a representative with the SPD commented:

“We now recognize that to truly be effective, we need to target the demand, and shift from arresting survivors to arresting the sex buyers.”

In September 2019, a Seattle Police Department captain was arrested by his fellow officers in a reverse sting. The veteran officer offered $40 to an undercover officer who was posing as a prostituting woman.  He was was one of five men arrested in the Aurora sting, and according to jail records, he was booked and released in less than 30 minutes. The processing of this sex buyer was later investigated to determine if the Captain had received preferential treatment. Reportedly, a body cam video showed a sergeant telling the Captain that he would make the arrest as “painless as possible,” before turning off the camera, and that the man was in contact with high-ranking officers almost immediately and taken downtown instead of the north precinct. He also was given an expedited booking and release.  The man was placed on administration leave after his arrest on suspicion of sexual exploitation, a charge for patronizing a prostitute.  There are no public reports indicating that the Captain was fired or resigned in response to his arrest.

John School Programs

In February 2009, Mayor Nickels and city council members, in conjunction with the City of Seattle Human Services Department and the city’s municipal court system, established a mandatory education program for those charged with prostitution-related offenses. The john school, modeled after San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP), offers men without prior convictions the opportunity to expunge the charge from their record. To do so, sex buyers must pay a $150 enrollment fee and complete the seven-hour seminar. The course, which includes lectures from health professionals and former prostituted women, also addresses the growing presence of trafficking networks in the region. By discussing the long-term impacts of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation on victims and their families, the program hopes to educate sex buyers about the potential consequences of purchasing commercial sex.

In 2015, a second program was launched in Seattle that is intended to address the belief systems motivating sex buyers. “Stopping Sexual Exploitation: a Program for Men” was developed and implemented by Peter Qualliotine, the co-founder of the Seattle-based “Organization for Prostitution Survivors” (OPS). The program a ten-week “transformative justice” intervention for court and self-referred sex buyers.  The program includes 10 weekly sessions:  Two individual 60-minute sessions before participation in the group, and then eight weekly group sessions of 2.5 hours each.  The feel of $90 per session is paid by the buyers, and the proceeds support survivor services.  Exercises and group discussions engage participants in a process of-self reflection and critical analysis.  The program consists of the following topics or components:

  • Sexuality and Gender Socialization
  • Harm to Victim/Survivors
  • The Sexual Violence Continuum
  • Pimping, Trafficking and Domestic Violence
  • Power and Violence
  • Vulnerability
  • Mutuality in Relationships
  • The Will to Change

In 2019, the program was transferred from OPS to the Lantern Project and modified.  Its description may be found here.

Public Education, Neighborhood Action

As of the end of 2012, an NGO, the Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking (BEST) alliance, was engaged in launching a program designed to engage businesses in addressing demand for commercial sex as a means of combating sex trafficking.   Their “Inhospitable to Trafficking Project” is designed to raise awareness about the harms of prostitution. As of the end of 2012, the same person who will be leading part of BEST’s training of hotel employees leads the Seattle john school classes. He’s been working with survivors and buyers for over 20 years and for the BEST program will be using some of the same training material he uses in the john school, aimed at convincing men not to buy sex or to condone or facilitate commercial sex.  The Project will raise awareness about the penalties for buying sex in Washington–which have increased substantially.  The Project is also intended to clearly communicate that facilitating prostitution is a crime–and they will urge hotel managers who participate in the training to create and implement “in-house” penalties for employees who are caught facilitating prostitution.  An assumption of the program is that most of the hotel-based facilitation of prostitution involves hotel employees helping buyers find individuals offering commercial sex acts. The training will address an audience in which a large majority may have spent their careers seeing and overlooking prostitution, and may view prostitution as a victimless crime. It is also intended to impact employees in hotels who themselves are buyers.

In May 2014, a new community group – Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors — mobilized to combat prostitution, handing out new brochures to individuals selling sex on the street with information on how they can get help, and urging them to help apprehend sex buyers.

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure:

In October, 2017, a longtime morning show host at Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle, confirmed he was no longer employed with the station. The announcement came less than two months after the man was reportedly caught in a prostitution sting in Bellevue, WA. The man made the announcement of his departure on Twitter, but without making specific reference to the allegations against him. He was employed by the station for 23 years. Bellevue Police had announced in the previous month that it had arrested 110 men in an undercover operation aimed at online prostitution called “Operation On Demand.” The buyers were arrested after arriving at a condo and agreeing to exchange money for sex. The Seattle Times, citing a police report, wrote that the man arrived at the condo and put $160 on a bedside table in exchange for one half-hour of sex.

Also in 2017, a tenured professor at the University of Washington was fired after two investigations found he sexually harassed employees and misused university money. His termination came more than 18 months after the investigations ended. In 2016, a university investigation determined that the man had violated the school’s sexual harassment policies with two employees. A second investigation, conducted by the UW School of Medicine concluded that he had misused university funds by asking an employee to do chores for him and soliciting a prostituted person.

Buyer Beware Program

In 2014 King County launched a new initiative designed to reduce the demand for prostitution, change the attitudes and behaviors of men arrested for patronization, and change cultural acceptance for the purchase of sex. The Buyer Beware initiative is a partnership with eight police departments and city attorneys’ offices across King County that are shifting their emphasis to pursue the buyers of commercial sex. The initiative is led by the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Participating community organizations include Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), Stolen Youth, and Seattle Against Slavery. Participating law enforcement agencies include the King County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Seattle, Des Moines, Kent, Federal Way, Bellevue, and Renton.

Buyer Beware brings together local prosecuting authorities with community service organizations and survivors to carry out a comprehensive strategy to reduce demand and facilitate exit from prostitution. The Buyer Beware program’s model emphasizes the prosecution of sex buyers and connecting prostituted people to services. The original goal in 2014 was to reduce demand for commercial sex by 20 percent in two years.

The general approach is essentially the “Nordic Model” or “Equality Model,” which decriminalizes selling sex and shifts to a victim service orientation to prostituted or trafficked persons, but retains legal prohibitions against buying or profiting from the sale of sex. This model can be accomplished without changing prostitution law, through discretionary decisions not to arrest and prosecute prostituted or trafficked persons, even if selling sex remains illegal in state law and local ordinances). The Buyer Beware program places a systematic law enforcement emphasis on arrests and prosecutions of sex buyers, and increasing penalties to deter them. In addition to shifting the emphasis on arrests and victim services, interventions of the Buyer Beware program include John School, Neighborhood Action, and Public Education. Its key elements are:

  • Referring sex buyers to “Stopping Sexual Exploitation,” a comprehensive intervention program.
  • Collecting fines from arrested sex buyers to fund services for prostituted people.
  • Reducing arrests and prosecutions of prostituted persons in favor of referral to services.
  • Expanding effective services to assist prostituted people in leaving the life.
  • Forming an alliance of public and private employers committed to implementing policies and practices against sex buying.
  • Engaging high school and college students on the harm of commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Conducting social media campaigns to engage young men on the harms of sex buying.
  • Engaging a spectrum of community sectors, including public health, education, business, media and criminal justice to change cultural norms around buying sex.

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews

Buyer Beware Program:

John School:

Reverse Stings (Mode Not Specified):

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

SOAP Orders:

Neighborhood Action:

Identity Disclosure:

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure:

Auto Seizure:

Public Education:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type City
Population 724305
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