SIFF theater hosts discourse on prostitution

It was an emotionally charged night in Queen Anne’s SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.) as images of prostitution, abuse, drug use and heartbreak flashed across the screen. Audible gasps could be heard from the audience when a 19-year-old prostitute named Lisa shot up heroin into her neck and when a scene of a pimp of another young prostitute named Natalie told her, “This is what God wants,” weeks before he beat her brutally.

On April 22, the theater hosted an event in conjunction with The Seattle Times’ ongoing coverage of their series “Saving Our Youth from Sexual Exploitation,” with a documentary screening of director Tim Matsui’s “The Long Night,” followed by a panel discussion with four Seattle community members.

Panel members included Noel Gomez, founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS); Seattle Police Lt. Jim Fitzgerald; Valiant Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County; and Nicholas Oakley project manager for Project Respect from the Center for Children & Youth Justice. Seattle Times writers Thanh Tan and Sara Jean Green moderated the panel.

“The movie was sickening,” said audience member Donna Crawford, a member of the Southwest King County Coalition Against Trafficking. “It just breaks my heart, but it was also a very mild presentation of the issue that only touched on some of the horrors that exist.”


Stopping the cycle

The film focused on the life of Natalie, who fell into prostitution at age 15 as a runaway, and that of Lisa, who began prostituting at age 13 after becoming homeless. The film was interwoven with interviews with Natalie’s parents, to she has since returned, and testimonies from three King County law enforcement representatives involved in the vice crimes unit.

While the film claims no specific agenda, the message behind these individuals’ stories was clear: There needs to be a shifting perspective on the way sex workers are perceived and more emphasis made on the recovery and understanding of what these young women go through.

Focusing on arresting johns and pimps and deterring them from engaging in buying and selling sex in the first place was identified during the panel as of utmost priority. Reducing the demand for prostitution, instead of criminalizing and shaming the women themselves, is the most effective and necessary approach to eradicating exploiting before it even starts, according to Richey.

“This issue is everywhere in King County,” Richey said. “Across all races and all socioeconomic levels, where there is demand there will be supply.”

He emphasized there is a widely held misconception that because paying for sex is consensual — aside from the often-overlooked issue of rape that occurs in sex work —many people believe these women enjoy and voluntarily choose to be in this line of work.

Panel member Gomez knows this problematic mindset all too well. Gomez worked as a prostitute for 15 years before escaping the lifestyle and eventually founded OPS to provide much-needed support for prostitutes who choose to seek help.

She said that 87 percent of women engaged in sex work want a way out, but most are trapped in a systematic cycle of drug addiction, abuse, homelessness and restraint by their pimps, making prostitution anything but a choice. Many of these women come from childhood backgrounds of sexual or other physical abuse and end up in prostitution at very young ages, frequently solicited by men decades older than themselves.

“Now 25 years in this life, I have not met a woman or youth yet who has told me they want to be there,” Gomez said. 


‘Unrelenting’ exploitation

The panel members spoke of the website, a service similar to Craigslist that allows users to post and engage with advertisements that, in the case of prostitution, promote women or pimps selling sex.

According to Richey, it is not uncommon for a posting of one girl to rack up to 250 responses in just two hours.

“[Johns] can just go shopping,” Richey said. “It just makes exploitation unrelenting.” isn’t the only online source of sex trafficking, as there are at least 130 other similar websites available for the same purpose, according to Richey.

Panel member Oakley said that, until recently in Washington, the general attitude toward young prostitutes was that they are criminals who need to be blamed and punished by the criminal justice system, instead of seeing them as victims in need of help. 

“Society needs to quit looking at [prostitutes] like they’re trash,” Gomez said. “They need men to stop trying to buy them and treat them like they’re nobody. It’s just a reenactment of the trauma that happened to them when they were children. These women and girls need consistency and need people in their lives who will help them walk through the pain and help them get out.”


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