If participants in Tuesday’s Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) conference get their wish, there’s going to be a new topic for water-cooler conversations at Seattle-area tech businesses: stopping sex trafficking.
The event, called Sex Trafficking and the Tech Industry, tackled not only the role that technology companies could play in curbing prostitution, which has a huge online component, but also took an unflinching look at the role tech workers play by soliciting prostitutes.
Because while tech clearly isn’t solely to blame for the problem, it is one of the industries disproportionately represented among sex buyers.
Men soliciting under-age prostitutes are 79 percent white and mostly middle and upper-class, while the prostitutes are predominantly African American, according to King County statistics. And while it’s nearly impossible to say how many men are paying for sex, local authorities say the number could be more than 20,000.
There are more than 100 websites for buying sex in our region and there were 25,000 ads a month on one site alone, said Valiant Richey, a King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. “It’s a massive market.”
The county can arrest approximately 300 to 400 men buying sex per year, but it isn’t enough.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Richey said. “It is impossible for the criminal justice system to solve this issue.”
The approximately 70 participants in the half-day conference in Seattle discussed various strategies for combatting sex trafficking, but much of the conversation focused on the culture of the tech industry at large and its struggles to make women feel welcome and supported in the field.
Presenters and representatives from the sector agreed that leadership from CEOs and others in positions of power is essential for creating a respectful, female-friendly environment that could help address sex trafficking along with other equality issues.
During a panel discussion, Dawn Lepore, former CEO and chairman of the board of drugstore.com, emphasized the importance of male leadership among their peers in fighting sex trafficking.
“Unless the men who run many of the technology companies take this on and are advocates for it, it’s going to be harder to change the tech industry,” Lepore said.
Some of the first steps are educating men about the effects of sex trafficking on prostitutes.
“There is a great misconception about this problem,” said Bill Richter, a partner at the VC firm Madrona Venture Group and WTIA board chair. “In the tech community, we’re big fans of the entrepreneur” and some popular depictions of prostitutes — including Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” and Jamie Lee Curtis in “Trading Places” — portray these women as entrepreneurs.
“That couldn’t be further from the reality of all of this,” Richter said.
Rather, data show that 85 percent of prostitutes have experienced sexual and physical abuse as children and more than 89 percent would leave prostitution if given an alternative, according to data shared by the local nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), which organized the conference with the WTIA. The event was held at the Pacific Medical Center on Beacon Hill.
Conference presenter Mike Provenzano works with men who are convicted of buying sex in King County. He serves as a men’s accountability facilitator with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, helping educate people.
The majority of men soliciting prostitutes know they’re hurting the women, but “they want to ignore the fact that what they’re doing is harmful,” he said. “Accepting that harm and the fact that someone has been personally contributing to abuse is a really tough thing.”
And it runs counter to some of the messages around sex that men have been raised to believe, Provenzano said. They believe that they’re entitled to sex, that they need to demonstrate their manliness through sexual conquest and that it’s fine to objectify women.
“As men, please be allies to women and girls and do your best to show up and not objectify,” Provenzano said.
Brent Turner, chief operating officer of Rover.com and one of the panelists, agreed that tech leaders and men in particular needed to step up and have conversations about sex trafficking that could admittedly be awkward.
“You don’t turn cultures without getting uncomfortable with each other,” he said, “and it is on the guys.”
The panel and presenters discussed whether companies should adopt policies explicitly prohibiting employees from soliciting prostitutes during work hours and from using work computers and phones for that purpose.
“Basic human rights violations fall into the category of out-of-bounds things,” said Turner, who is also board chairman for the nonprofit Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST). At the same time, he argued that rules forbidding participation in sex trafficking might not be as effective as establishing workplace values that would clearly frown up such behavior, and stepping in to talk to individuals if they’re not aligned with those values.
Those interested in implementing specific policies to address the issue were encouraged to join the BEST Employers Alliance to take a public stand against sex trafficking. BEST also has resources available to companies including workshops, best practices for combatting sex trafficking and employee training.
Mar Brettmann, BEST founder, applauded the WTIA for taking on this issue.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of an entire industry coming together to talk about stopping sex trafficking,” Brettmann said. “What you’re doing is something very exciting and new.”
The group also talked about the potential for building new technology to help address the issue more broadly. One idea was to take the tools normally used to target personalized ads to online shoppers, and apply them to people shopping for sex instead. In this case, a search for prostitutes could lead to information about the harm caused by prostitution, and resources for getting help.
“If we put that to some of the entrepreneurs in the city,” Richter said, “I feel like it could be done tomorrow.”
The group additionally discussed the importance of helping women, and particularly minority women, find better-paying jobs, reducing their need to turn to illegal activities to support themselves and their families.
Conference participants were encouraged to sign up with BEST and pressure others to take action as well.
Unless people start talking about it, “we are unaware of this happening in our midst,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
Now this more informed group needs to spread the word to their workers and peers in leadership positions. “This is not the end of the conversation for the WTIA,” he said, “this is just the beginning.”