Backstage at the Highway 99 Blues Club in downtown Seattle, a woman pulls nude nylons over her toes. She fastens each stocking to her leopard-print lingerie. She inspects her long red hair in a mirror and reapplies lipstick.
Soon, she’ll pull a trench coat over it all and strut to the stage.
Her only concern about the comedy-fueled strip tease she’s about to perform is that a guitar amp was left on stage and she could trip over it.
The fact that she’ll be mostly nude? Not a problem.
This is “Maggie McMuffin” and she wants you to know she’s not a victim. That and a few other things.
“Mostly, the stigma,” she said. “I want to make it so people understand that sex work is work. It is just like any industry where there are labor rights violations that we need to be aware of and those violations happen even more due to the stigma.”
She’s an activist with the Seattle chapter of SWOP, the Sex Worker Outreach Project. Her colleagues are many things, including strippers, phone sex operators, dominatrixes and, some of them, escorts. Most of the work they do is legal. Some of it is not.
Last week, Amnesty International came out in favor of decriminalizing consensual sex work. SWOP members are celebrating while continuing their push for sex worker rights locally.
McMuffin says that when sex workers get assaulted, robbed, beaten, and raped, they don’t feel they can ask for help because their work is underground.
This is the whole essence of SWOP’s argument — and Amnesty International’s, too.
McMuffin and her fellow SWOP members take issue with much of the movement to fight sex trafficking. Like “Vignette,” who’s getting a cocktail in between acts and says she’s unhappy with local officials’ approach.
“The way they’re doing it is actually hurting more people than they realize,” she said. “They’re creating this thing where you have to be either a person who’s a victim — no free will in what you’re doing — or a criminal who need to be punished. Period.”
Vignette says local efforts to save teenagers forced into prostitution by a pimp are worthy, but misguided.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes recently wrote an op-ed in The Seattle Times. It anticipated Amnesty’s decision on decriminalizing sex work, which they said would be a very harmful action.
They said their approach follows what’s known as the “Nordic Model.” You target the buyers of sex so that you stop the demand and young girls won’t get trafficked.
After the op-ed came out, Holmes explained his stance.
“The trafficking that is going on in this city and involving, in many cases very young girls, is being driven by the demand side,” he said.
“So what you have here are prosecutors exercising their discretion to attack the demand side and not further victimize women.”
He dismissed the idea that there’s a sex economy here that ought to be recognized, one with willing participants on both sides.
“The notion that there is the free consenting exchange in commerce, if those really exist, then Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and I are not interested in them,” he said. “They have nothing to fear from us. In fact, our only interest in women engaged in the trade, in the life, is that they be offered ways out.”
This kind of talk angers SWOP member Savannah Sly. She’s the one who got the local chapter active in recent years. She and other SWOP members met with Holmes and Satterberg in March and offered their ideas for solutions.
“This article totally flies in the face of that meeting,” Sly said. “It may as well have never even happened, frankly. We feel completely ignored, despite having gotten in the same room as these people to explain to them the realities of our situations.”
Holmes and other officials who are involved in protecting human trafficking victims say the SWOP members, these adults who willingly get into sex work, are a teeny, tiny minority.
Debra Boyer co-wrote the editorial with Satterberg and Holmes. She’s the Executive Director of the Seattle Organization for Prostitution Survivors. She says SWOP’s message is helping to expand abuse.
“[SWOP] is doing extraordinary harm suggesting prostitution is consensual,” she said.
Boyer says prostitution is a form of gender violence and can’t be considered safe in any circumstance.
Sly argues stamping out this giant industry in its entirety just doesn’t make any sense. But what’s stopping those buyers who might be picking up a 14-year-old on the street who has a pimp on the corner?
“That’s what they’re talking about, but they’re also talking about it in response to the Amnesty International proposal, which is totally ridiculous,” she said.
“Anyone who has read the first page of the Amnesty International proposal to take an embracive stance on the decriminalization of prostitution will see that Amnesty clearly outlines that any crimes against minors and children including sex trafficking will not be tolerated and should be criminalized.”
Boyer says that’s not realistic.
“People want to believe that this is a choice. People want to believe that this is consensual. In most cases, it is not. [Decriminalizing would make it] hard to maintain services and concern for all those women who are not there consensually.”
At the variety show in Seattle, SWOP member Vignette is finishing her drink. She says sex work is a reality and the way to protect more women and girls is to talk about that.
“It’s like, if you do this job, you’re basically choosing to be harassed, arrested, raped, or followed,” she said. “People don’t think that you should be allowed to be treated like a full human being if you’re working in this trade, if that makes sense.”
She shakes her head. For now, it’s time to enjoy the show. Her friends are on stage.