The recent substitution in the WA legislature of “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation” deserves some semiotic exploration. The conflation of sex work and trafficking definitely also merits exploration, however, that is much too large a subject to tackle in just a few paragraphs. Instead, I am focusing on just the wording change and the implications it suggests both in the court of public opinion as well as the legal ramifications.
The most obvious question is, “why bother?” The evolution of laws against prostitution has a long and storied history. It began with the vaguely worded “Mann Act” in 1910. By 1914, prostitution was illegal in every, single state in the US. Since then the legality (or, rather, illegality) of it has been legislated and enforced in fits and starts. The recent push of “End Demand” in WA has created an atmosphere of intolerance. The folks promoting “End Demand” are using the “enormous” (enormous and yet somehow completely unverified) problem of trafficking to push their moral agenda on others. The real problem is that we really have no idea what the statistics for trafficking are in this state or any other. To be clear, anyone that is coerced into the sex industry against their will should be helped. It is a terrible thing and needs to be stopped – without question. However, trafficking is a clandestine industry that operates entirely outside the law. Any study that claims to have factual data on the numbers of trafficked people is a fallacy. There is simply no way to gain data on something that exists so thoroughly outside the law.
However, proponents are insisting that the legislature paint with broad strokes to “save” all these women (and of course, it is all women because virtually no one has addressed the idea that there may be men or transgender people that have been trafficked). This narrow-minded approach with far-reaching ramifications leads us to the wording change. We are back to “why bother”? Well, patronizing a prostitute is a fairly innocuous phrase. It is like patronizing your favorite restaurant or shoe store. The implication is that a person is conducting a relatively benign transaction.
“Sexual exploitation,” on the other hand, has definitive negative connotations. The definition of exploitation is:
1. the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work. The syntax of the phrase goes from transactional to adverse. When you add the word “sexual” before exploitation, it goes from adverse to repugnant. Which is exactly what the proponents of this change are working towards. The backstory is that lawmakers are pushing to have asset seizure be a punishment for people convicted of sexual exploitation.
If the wording still stood as “patronizing a prostitute,” seizing assets as a punishment would seem like a rather harsh move. However, when legislators use “exploitation,” the punishments seems much more fitting to the crime. Thusly, in the simplest of terms: lawmakers are using the negative representation of a phrase as a means to take your stuff. Which is, of course, repugnant.