Below is an open letter from organizations with decades of experiences addressing gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking, expressing concerns about House Bill 1989 which is intended to provide funding for “exit services” for people to leave the sex trade. We support more funding for services for this population, but believe that services should be designed to enhance safety and self-determination, rather than paternalistically push toward “exit.” Text of the open letter as well as links to PDF files of the open letter and our proposed changes follow.
Open Letter from Gender-Based Violence Organizations regarding House Bill 1989
January 24, 2022
Dear Chair Senn and members of the House Children, Youth & Families Committee,
We are leading organizations in Washington working to end sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence. As organizations with many decades of experience supporting survivors of violence and their communities, we support the establishment of more healing services to individuals in the sex trade that will expand the range of options available to them as well as more coordination among organizations providing such services. However, we are concerned that House Bill 1989 limits the scope of services for adults and also that people directly impacted by the law are not centered or included in its implementation.
1. In Section 1(3), healing services are designed to “intervene and prevent further exploitation” and to provide an “exit path from commercial sexual exploitation.” We believe this language creates a barrier to services for many people the bill intends to serve, as most people do not view themselves as “commercially sexually exploited” and may not view “exit” as a viable option at the moment they need or connect with healing services. We believe that offering low-barrier, harm reduction-based services designed to enhance safety and self-determination is the more appropriate, humane and responsible option and that those types of services will create a wider range of options, including the choice to exit sex trade.
2. Throughout the bill, the phrase “commercial sexual exploitation” is used, but without definition and perhaps without fully considering the impact of the term. Existing laws refer to “commercial sexual exploitation” only in reference to minors who are in the sex trade (e.g. RCW 7.68) and not to adults. As such, the bill is a departure from the existing legal framing, and treats adults who are in the sex trade akin to children, denying their agency. Further, when the City of Seattle modified its ordinance to rename the misdemeanor crime of “patronizing a prostitute” to “commercial sexual exploitation” a while back, it led to unintended consequences including prejudicial treatment in immigration determinations.
Additional language in Sec. 1(4)(d) specifically excludes the community most knowledgeable about the needs of people working in the sex trade. The bill’s mandate to involve “diverse community representatives who have lived experience of exiting commercial exploitation” in the development of the request for proposals unfortunately excludes and silences people who are currently in the sex trade, despite the fact they are the intended recipients of services it will fund. For the greatest success, we believe people closest to the issue should be included in the policy development and implementation, especially in the coordination efforts of healing and transition centers. (A separate bill, Senate Bill 5793 seeks to provide stipends to low-income or underrepresented community members to participate in state committees, which will help people in the sex trade have a voice in the process.)
We hope to continue to dialogue with the members of the committee to address our concerns and make the bill better.
Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence
Coalition for Rights & Safety for People in the Sex Trade
Gender Justice League
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence