The words we use when we speak about crimes are important, and especially when we speak about sex crimes. Everyone understands, for example, what the word “rape” means, but what exactly does the term “sexual assault” mean? The phrase actually has different legal definitions in different states. Similarly, everyone knows what it means to “solicit” or “patronize” a prostitute, but precisely what does “sexual exploitation” mean? It’s a question that a lot of people in Seattle have recently been asking.

Until January 2015, a city ordinance in Seattle outlawed what was called “patronizing a prostitute.” However, at that time, the city ordinance was revised so that patronizing a prostitute is now called “sexual exploitation.” The change has resulted in at least one man being terminated from his job.

If you are an immigrant, a conviction for “sexual exploitation” could make you a candidate for deportation. No one can be sure what other damage has been done. Anyone in Seattle who is charged with “sexual exploitation” will need to speak right away with an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney.

Except for Seattle, the crime is called patronizing or soliciting a prostitute. Sexual exploitation is a non-violent misdemeanor, and frankly, a first patronizing or soliciting offense is not considered a major crime. However, calling the crime “sexual exploitation” is entirely Seattle’s own idea. No other jurisdiction in the state of Washington – or anywhere else in the U.S. – refers to soliciting or patronizing a prostitute as “sexual exploitation.”

WHY IS “SEXUAL EXPLOITATION” THE TERM USED IN SEATTLE?

According to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the term “sexual exploitation” acknowledges the fact that many women have been threatened or otherwise coerced and forced into prostitution. Using the language of “sexual exploitation” indicates the city’s commitment to hold responsible those who create the demand for prostitution, thus keeping the pimps and human traffickers – the exploiters who make the profits – in business. City Attorney Pete Holmes tells the Seattle Times, “We explained our reasoning and the City Council accepted it unanimously and agreed that words matter and we’re going to call it what it is – sexual exploitation.”

While the thinking and motives of the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council are not wrong and may, in fact, be admirable, the problem is that the phrase “sexual exploitation” is confusing and possibly misleading, and legal language really does need to be clear and precise.

Make no mistake – a growing public awareness of the truth about human trafficking and prostitution is good and important. But what we call a crime must be a precise description of the crime itself – not a description of what happens before or after the crime and not an expression of our philosophy about criminal justice.

According to USLegal.com, “Sexual exploitation means taking the advantage of sexuality and attractiveness of a person to make a personal gain or profit. It is the abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes.” Black’s Law Dictionary, eighth edition, defines “exploitive” as “the act of taking unfair advantage of another for one’s own benefit.”

IS THE CITY RESPONSIBLE FOR AVOIDABLE MISUNDERSTANDINGS?

One local defense attorney told the Times, “Sexual exploitation sounds like you’ve got a woman in a cage in the basement,” and it also “sounds like a felony.” The result has been mistakes on criminal-background employment checks and fears that a conviction could mean deportation if an offender convicted of “sexual exploitation” is an immigrant. Federal immigration authorities who are in charge of approving visas have broad discretion and a huge backlog, so they are not likely to take the time to find out exactly what “sexual exploitation” means in Seattle. They may, in fact, assume that it’s a violent felony.

That assumption was made by at least one leading private data firm that provides criminal background checks to employers, and it’s apparently why one 24-year-old man – who spoke to the Seattle Times on condition of anonymity – lost his job in Arizona. He was one of the 204 men arrested during a ten-day prostitution “sting” operation in 2016 targeting the “johns” who solicit prostitutes in Seattle.

As a first-time offender facing a misdemeanor charge, he was given a deferred sentence, and he agreed to conditions that included six hours of classes and eighty hours of community service. He did everything a judge in Seattle told him that he had to do.

Although he has “paid his debt to society,” this young man is now paying even more. A criminal background check that can be purchased from a leading private data firm wrongly reports that he has been convicted of a felony sex crime. He was provisionally hired to work at an Arizona supermarket, until the background check returned and misidentified him as a convicted felon. As of June, his attempts to have the data firm correct the report have been futile.

HOW ARE SEATTLE AUTHORITIES RESPONDING TO THE PROBLEM?

Since the Seattle Times first reported on inaccurate background checks linked to “sexual exploitation” convictions, the City Attorney’s Office has promised to “look into it.” City Attorney Holmes says that his office is also working with attorneys at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to ensure that immigrants convicted of “sexual exploitation” in Seattle are treated properly by immigration authorities. He told the Times, “We’re really trying hard to get on the same page. We’re trying to make sure we’re appreciating unintended consequences.”

Not everyone who is charged with “sexual exploitation” is guilty. More frequently than most people think, solicitation and prostitution charges arise from mistakes or misunderstandings. It’s entirely possible for someone to be “inappropriate” and/or misinterpreted with no crime and no criminal intent. It is also possible – as with almost any criminal charge – that a defendant charged with “sexual exploitation” has been misidentified or falsely accused.

If you are the person accused of “sexual exploitation” in Seattle, or if you are charged with any sex crime – misdemeanor or felony – in this state, a prosecutor still must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You will need to be represented by an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney who understands the law, protects your legal rights, and knows how to mount an aggressive, effective defense on your behalf. The legal penalties are harsh for sex crime convictions in this state, even for misdemeanors, and the damage to someone’s reputation and future can sometimes be irreparable.