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Shawn Vestal: For women at risk, risks just got higher

Lynn Everson, who runs the needle exchange at the Spokane Regional Health District, maintains a lists of dangerous tricks – customers of local prostitutes. (Jesse Tinsley)
Lynn Everson, who runs the needle exchange at the Spokane Regional Health District, maintains a lists of dangerous tricks – customers of local prostitutes. (Jesse Tinsley)

Lynn Everson keeps a Bad Trick List.

It’s a compilation of assaults, abuses and horror stories inflicted upon women working on the streets as prostitutes in Spokane – an early warning system meant to provide some thin protection to a group of women with virtually none: Look out for this guy. Unless you are extremely familiar with the saddest, ugliest corners of the community, the Bad Trick List will make you recoil.

There was the guy who drove around in a red sports car, picking up girls and choking them until they passed out. Or the fellow who hired a woman, took her to a basement, tied her to a pole with wire, wrapped a plastic bag over her head with wire, assaulted her and then left her there. She escaped before he could return, fleeing to get help. The man was caught, convicted of a crime, registered as a level 1 sex offender – the least offensive level – and was soon back out there, picking up women, Everson said.

In the wake of the Great Spokane Spa Raid, we should all pay attention to the Bad Trick List. Because that’s the environment waiting for about 200 women who were working in those massage parlors that were busted with such fanfare.

“I think the effect of the raids is to put women into even riskier positions than they were in the massage parlors,” said Everson. “It’s a very tough life to get out of.”

Everson has been coordinator of Spokane’s needle exchange, in the health department’s HIV/AIDS prevention program, for 23 years. She calls herself a “dinosaur of outreach,” but it’s more accurate to call her the godmother of the most vulnerable – a person who has been protecting and helping the least among us, on a human and humane level, as the rest of us pass by or pass judgment.

It’s one of the ironies of our fascination with prostitution and pimping – as a crime, as a subject, as a story, as a rap lyric, as a tease – that we’re not very interested in or empathetic about the women who do it; about the kinds of suffering and desperation that lead them there; about the ways in which we sit, as a society, aloof and moralizing and punitive. About the ways we dehumanize them.

“Prostitution is not a choice,” she said. “It’s a lack of choices. When there is nothing else a woman … can do to survive, they work in prostitution.”

Police from all over the region busted eight “spas” last week in an investigation driven by Airway Heights police. The women working there were not arrested – nor were any men – but owners were. As part of the investigation, a local website that included information about “bad clients” has been taken down, said Sophie Hirschfeld, a volunteer who says she helps and counsels local escorts through the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Hirschfeld said that the spa busts and the removal of that online bad trick list have the effect of removing a “safety net” for escorts in the area. “Looking the other way would have been a lot better,” she said.

As a practical matter, police can’t decide to simply look the other way, said Spokane Officer Jennifer DeRuwe. The raids were not driven by the Spokane Police Department. The SPD helped on the day of raids, as did every other police agency in the region, but whatever one thinks of the priorities on display in the raids, they did not flow primarily from the Spokane department.

Still, DeRuwe said, police can’t simply ignore or sanction crimes, or create get-out-of-jail-free zones. The women are in danger because they’re engaged in dangerous, criminal activity, she said, not because police busted the spas.

Everson said that spas were a relatively controlled, safe environment. As for “looking the other way” – there has long been little secret about what the places actually were.

“The massage parlors were in operation, in different incarnations, for the entire 23 years that I have been doing my job,” Everson said. “I’m 90 percent sure they were in operation long before that.

“I don’t know why the decision was made, but it just makes me really sad that women are out on the streets or on the Internet, and more vulnerable than they were in a massage parlor.”

Everson is an expert in this vulnerability. She comes at the subject from a different perspective than police or the public, she says – she wants to keep women as safe and healthy as possible until they can make it to a better life. They battle violence, homelessness, addiction, “major feelings of worthlessness” and a firsthand acquaintance with the absolute worst among us.

Perhaps we all ought to hear a report from Everson’s Bad Trick List on a regular basis. It is sobering in the extreme. It does not do a thing for your faith in humanity – except maybe to remind you of the humanity of women we mostly just ignore.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.