A Victim-Centric Approach to the Prostitution of Youth in Seattle

November 6th, 2009

Seattle has a problem. It’s on a circuit, one which extends from Vancouver, BC, down to LA and Las Vegas. It’s the prostitution circuit.

While doing deep background research I spoke with a case manager who said you’d be hard-pressed to find a prostitute in her late 30’s. I asked her to clarify. As prostitutes age, she said, there are three possible outcomes: she gets out of “the life,” she gets put in jail, she gets killed.

The case manager works exclusively with teens which, according to a report commissioned by the City of Seattle, is when many prostitutes become involved in “the life.”

“Virtually everyone interviewed who works with youth directly brought up individual cases of youth aged 13 and 14 observed on the street and in services….Police observe more youth ages 16-17 in prostitution, but acknowledge they may have been involved for a long time before they come to the attention of the police,” Debra Boyer states in “Who Pays the Price? Assessment of Youth Involvement in Prostitution in Seattle”

Click through the jump to learn more…

Boyer’s assessment is part of an effort by a diverse array of stakeholders wanting a new method for addressing the prostitution of juveniles. They desire a more victim-centric approach; they understand what human trafficking is, how it affects victims, and just how long it takes for healing. Unfortunately, because of the King County budget crisis, the ready-to-go pilot project “Safe Housing and Treatment for Children in Prostitution” was shelved.

Sara Jean Green writes in the Seattle Times “In a partnership with the county and the United Way of King County, the city program would have created an emergency shelter, transitional housing and targeted social services for girls 11 to 18 who are forced to sell their bodies in seedy motels and along infamous stretches of highway….the county’s financial crisis has practically killed the proposal.”

Increasing the story’s complexity, beyond the “victim-centric” concept, is how society generally views prostitutes: as voluntary participants and criminals. Many victims hurt their case when they don’t identify as victims, say what they’re doing is voluntary, or brag about how much money they can make in one night–money most turn over to a pimp. However, labeling a prostituted juvenile a criminal is counter to United Nations protocol, United States and Washington State laws which classify juveniles engaged in commercial sex as victims of human trafficking.

Additionally, law enforcement is finding gang members–who may themselves be young and have ready access to teens–are increasingly turning to pimping as it can be safer for them and more lucrative than drug sales. Service providers ask, how can a 14 year old be expected to psychologically or physically defend herself from a predatory and violent man who is skilled at manipulation?

This story about members of the West Side Street Mobb and their juvenile prostitution ring helps illustrate this, albeit more from a standpoint of prosecution. This article and this article are also about the case.

Recently, the New York Times published two articles on runaways and how the recession may be affecting homeless youth; I think the piece reveals the vulnerability of some teen populations. The first article is here and the second is here.

I’ve been working on this story, slowly building the partnerships and relationships necessary while hunting down funding through grants and fellowships. I want to tell this domestic story, and to focus on sex trafficking, because I believe it’s not only an important story but one that strikes as close to home as possible. It will force us to open our eyes, even though we’ve learned how to look away, and in doing so we’ll see there are things we can do–easy things–which can put an end to human trafficking.

While sex trafficking will be the backbone of the narrative, what I am reporting on is how Seattle is altering its institutional and cultural norms to become victim-centric in its approach to human trafficking. In spite of all the research and protocol out there, this is a very rare way to respond. If Seattle succeeds in taking the city off the “circuit” it will have designed a replicable program for national and international use for sex and labor trafficking. The documentary work I do can support the City’s project and help educate, train, and build awareness not only for the issue, but on how to combat it with the victim’s welfare first.

If this motivates you, and I hope it does, here are some very easy things you can do:

• Pledge your support to Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess who is trying to secure funding for the pilot project. Phone: 206.684.8806

• Lobby Kurt Triplett, the King County Executive who cut $1.25 million of funding from the County’s battered budget intended for the “Safe Housing and Treatment for Children in Prostitution.” Phone: 206.296.4040, email:

• Support the work I am doing: hire me for commercial or corporate work, weddings, purchase prints, or provide a direct, non-deductable donation. The profits of my commercial work supports the social documentary work I do, and I want to apply myself fully to reporting on this issue.

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2 Responses to “A Victim-Centric Approach to the Prostitution of Youth in Seattle”

  1. Kathleen Page says:

    Dear Mr. Matsui:

    I am in the Social Work Master’s program at the University of Washington, Tacoma. The assignment in my policy class is a 15 page paper on a policy and I chose teen trafficking. My research lead me to your article. As I mentioned before I am a poor student but there must be something we can do together as a class. When I present my paper I will be sure to have all of my 42 classmates call the numbers above.

    I will also forward this info to my cohorts at the Seattle campus. Would it be possible for me to interview you about this subject and get any other information from you that you think is important? I am passionate about this subject because of my own personal experience.

    If you want to contact me my number is 253-250-9830.

    Sincerely, Kathleen Page

  2. tim matsui says:


    I’m glad you found this page. I’m happy to be a resource or point you towards resources that would help out. There’s a student in the Seattle MSW program who’s working with the city right now who may be of great help to you as well.

    I’ll try to give you a ring today,



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