The 11700 block of Aurora Avenue North in Seattle, near where the city conducted its latest sting. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)
It started with an ad on the website Backpage: “Barbie’s Doll House Massage & Spa Grand Opening.” Posted in , the notice made no mention of sex, but there were clues that indicated something more than massage was being offered: women in tight shirts lined up underneath a pink-hued banner featuring the silhouette of a model, like those seen on a trucker’s mud flaps. This grand opening was to happen somewhere in North Seattle – call for the address.
But the ad, posted on a site that knowingly allowed users to advertise prostitution, was not really for a newly opened brothel either. It was, rather, the bait in a police sting, the second in as many years from the Seattle Police Department. The first, known as the Euro Spa operation, ended in the arrests of over 200 men in 2016. Barbie’s Dollhouse would be round two.
These stings fit into the city’s broader strategy for targeting prostitution, one focused not on those selling sex, but on the people buying it.
It’s been championed by City Attorney Pete Holmes, who first began considering the new approach following a trip to Boston for a conference in 2012, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has even accepted money from an organization that explicitly promotes this model.
As the Barbie’s Dollhouse cases have begun to move through the city’s court system, defense attorneys are frustrated that the city is repeating what they view as a sloppy operation. Almost every case that was not a guilty plea in the first Euro Spa operation was dismissed by either the judge or jury and the one guilty verdict that resulted from the sting was overturned on appeal. The critics doubt this second round will be different.
At the same time, some sex workers argue the operations are misguided, criminalizing what they consider a safer form of prostitution while letting actual human traffickers off the hook.
As part of a shift toward the “Nordic Model” approach to prostitution, the Seattle Police Department has largely stopped targeting sex workers for arrest. Officers with the department’s vice unit often run undercover operations on the street – up and down Aurora avenue, for example – both as men seeking sex and women selling it.
While the vice unit may pick up a handful of sex buyers – or “johns” – by camping out along Aurora Avenue, the number of those arrests have been nothing compared to the draw of the faux massage parlors. “We never anticipated this volume,” Sgt. Tom Umporowicz told the Seattle Times after the Euro Spa operation, which was run out of a small University District storefront.
That operation resulted in 204 arrests and received widespread media attention. One year later, before many of the Euro Spa cases had been resolved in court, the Barbie’s Dollhouse operation was launched.
The men who answered the ad on Backpage were directed to a nondescript building near the Aurora Avenue Home Depot, in North Seattle. Upon entering, they would meet one of several undercover officers posing as a sex worker. The officer would ask the man if he wanted to hear about their specials – “handjob,” was ist meetville “blowjob” or ”full sex.”