Human trafficking prevalent in Seattle-Tacoma area

By Ayden Bolin

The issue of human trafficking in the Pierce and King counties has caused major problems for the region. Human trafficking, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is the third-largest criminal industry in the world, and it is defined by the use of force, fraud and/or coercion to gainfully profit from somebody else’s labor or sex acts. This includes anybody under the age of 18 who has been forced to do manual labor or sex work.

According to Jan Runbeck, a faculty member at the University of Washington, Tacoma’s School of Nursing, human trafficking is often divided into two categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. The former of the two mainly happens in factories and agriculture, where a vulnerable person is forced to do labor. This type of forced labor can be seen in small businesses such as restaurants, salons and massage parlors as well.

Sex trafficking, on the other hand, is when someone is forced to perform sex acts for the profit of a third party.

“If a 16-year-old trades sex for a place to sleep at night, then that’s considered trafficking,” Runbeck said. “So even though the person who gave that 16-year-old a place to sleep that night maybe didn’t gain money, or ‘pimp’ the kid, they took advantage of the kid by trading a place to stay.”

Jan Runbeck works for the Pierce County Coalition Against Trafficking (PCCAT), a local organization that aims to educate the public on trafficking and how to mitigate the issue. Their mission statement reads, “We are a group who wholeheartedly wants to make an impact within our community to end human trafficking by raising awareness and taking action.”

“CSEC stands for Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. The best way to prevent it from a public health point of view is to prevent it in the first place, instead of treating it. When we first became aware of this problem, there was no place to send any victims of trafficking. Now, Tacoma, Pierce County is at least starting to recognize a problem, and we are starting to come up with resources for victims,” Runbeck said.

“We are finding the best way to prevent it is from a younger age, teaching empathy in young boys, and teach self-esteem in young girls. We don’t want boys growing up to be buyers or sellers, and we don’t want girls to grow up to be victims,” Runbeck said.

The PCCAT has worked to increase public awareness of the issue by pairing with other coalitions as well as church groups in the Tacoma area. A big emphasis has also been placed on law enforcement, social workers, health providers and educators to see victims and assist them.

People who are victims of human trafficking are often in vulnerable or oppressed populations. Children, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ and low-income people are the most likely to be targeted by human trafficking rings, according to the PCCAT.

“All children are vulnerable by default. The prefrontal cortex in the brain does not develop fully until 25, so people younger than that cannot fully appreciate consequences. That being said, any girl who has a low level of self-esteem is at higher risk. Kids in foster care systems, kids who are runaways, kids in minority populations, kids who are homeless, kids who are LQBTQ, all are much much higher-represented in this population,” Runbeck said

According to the Washington Technology Industry Association, the three areas with the most sex trafficking industry are Los Angeles, California, New York City, New York, and Pierce/King County in Washington. Washington’s issue revolves around who the buyers are.

“This is a business. You’ve got buyers, which are the ‘Johns,’ and sellers, which are the ‘pimps,’” Runbeck said.

Buyers in Pierce and King Counties are prevalent and wealthy. According to the Washington Technology Industry Association, 12 percent of online buyers are in the technology industry. The peak time for buying sex online is 2 p.m., and there are over 100 websites to buy black-market sex online. In King County, the average buyer is just under 50 years old, highly educated, and is white-collar. In fact, 47 percent of buyers have an income of over $100,000 dollars a year. To top it off, 63 percent of prostituted people have met clients on company property. This means that many perpetrators supporting sex trafficking are buying sex online at work, and later meeting the victim at work.

“In 2013, Arizona State University published a report that said in King County, Washington, in just one 24-hour period, 6,847 men bought sex online. The Urban Institute did a study of eight cities of commercial sex industry both legal and illegal over a course of nine years, and in all eight cities, when the dollar amount went down, demand went down. Except in Seattle, the demand went up. In all forms of activity, Seattle has become a hotter and hotter place for sex trafficking,” Runbeck said.

With Microsoft, Amazon and smaller startups in the tech industry basing their business out of King and Pierce Counties, sex trafficking is becoming an increasingly big issue. With such a demand for illegal activity, more and more people are being forced into sex slavery.

“The average girl nets the average pimp $150,000 dollars a year, so now gangs are coming up with harems,” Runbeck said. “Here in Pierce County, it is as easy to get a girl as easy as it is to order a pizza.”

What is more concerning is that victims of sex trafficking tend to have a shorter life expectancy and greater risk for asthma, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, smoking and obesity. This brings the issue of human trafficking to an issue of public health, as the healthcare system in the United States works on a system of premiums based on the entire network of coverage.

“So we are all paying for the long-term effects of these things, but to make that connection of, ‘Well, why do I have to pay higher premiums because someone else is obese?’ Well maybe that obese person was a victim of child abuse. And maybe that child abuse was because some IT guy was sitting in his Microsoft tower at 2 o’clock and bought a kid online. It’s a really complicated issue,” Runbeck said.

The best way to combat this issue is through prevention and education, rather than mitigation after the fact. Our society needs to take steps to recognize victims of sex crimes, and to condemn the perpetrators of sexual violence. This all starts with socializing people to be more conscious of sex crimes and taking active individual steps to be supportive. To become more involved with this issue, visit the Washington Engage website at