By Swanee Hunt
Chair, Hunt Alternatives Fund
US federal law defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. The crime is not dependent on whether a border is crossed, or whether it occurs on the street, through the Internet, in a massage parlor, or any other particular setting.
Most public and private resources dedicated to human trafficking in the past decade have been crisis oriented, understandably geared toward rescuing and rehabilitating victims and, to some extent, prosecuting perpetrators like pimps and members of trafficking syndicates. However, policymakers, academics, and activists increasingly are recognizing that the endless supply of victims won’t abate unless we combat the demand for trafficking. That is to say, trafficking implies a commodity in a supply-distribution-demand chain. Promisingly, a growing number of countries and cities worldwide have designed policies and programs to end this demand.
In Eastern Europe, since the 1990s, the classic situation has been that recruiters (male and female) set up legitimate-looking modelling agencies, newspaper ads and job fairs. Throughout the imploded economies of these post-communist countries, they promise desperate women employment in foreign countries that will enable them to provide for their families back home. The “employment” turns out to be a life of sexual exploitation and abuse. That pattern has reappeared in conflict zones and areas of extreme poverty worldwide. And in a nightmarish extension, hundreds of thousands of small children of both sexes are being kidnapped or sold into brothels by family members.
In the U.S. (and worldwide) trafficking is almost interchangeable with prostitution, since most prostituted women and virtually all prostituted children are being pimped. Most women interviewed say they want a way out but can’t find one. With TV and film documentaries, new legislation, conferences, university courses, newspaper columns (notably Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times), magazine articles and books (several have come out in the last two years, authored by survivors, researchers, and activists), trafficking is being exposed, but there is much more to understand.
As media has picked up the rallying cry, horror stories about the fate of trafficked women and children are plentiful, while almost no attention is being given to the demand (purchasing) side. Likewise, law enforcement is complicit in creating a sense of impunity among buyers. Astoundingly, police in theU.S.pick up approximately ten sellers for every buyer. Given that a prostitute usually has been bought ten times a day or night, the real disproportion of arrests is one hundred to one. While legislation with dramatically increased fines is moving through many state legislatures, “even our miserable laws could be enforced in a gender-neutral way, and that would make a huge difference,” according to Ambassador John Miller, former head of the Trafficking in Persons office of the US State Department.
The person purchasing sex is as culpable as a pimp or trafficker, and, adding nuance, there are many ways in which the buyer, like the woman or child purchased, is a victim of his own action. (Although prostitutes are male and female, and the differences in their experience are often slight, this case focuses on the large majority of “sellers,” who are women and girls.) And so the call for change needn’t be mean-spirited. Abolitionists may maintain a position of universal compassion, even as they insist on a change in society.
Below are some of the most salient reasons that purchasing sex is destructive. (Although much in the paragraphs below applies to pedophilia – the compulsive buying of sex from children – that topic is not explicitly addressed here.)
1. Basic Human Respect
There is a qualitative difference between having one’s ideas plagiarized, being punched in the stomach, having a full wallet stolen, versus being dragged into a dark alley and raped. Sexuality is intrinsic to personal identity in a way that other parts of a person are not. Respect means recognizing and valuing a person at the level of identity, and putting another’s sexuality on the market violates the standard of respect on which our society is built. That standard is embodied in norms – and laws – that prohibit scores of actions: murder and stealing; bullying children; spitting on people; harassing employees. The list goes on.
Disregard for human decency is reflected in degrading words – “whore,” “slut” – society uses when speaking about women whose bodies are being bought. A john’s attitude frequently is “I paid for you, so I own you. I can do whatever I want with you, or to you.” A common belief is that by definition a prostitute cannot be raped. Selling her body, she has sold her basic human rights.
2. Care for Others
As inherently social creatures, we have standards for concern about the wellbeing of others. In fact, we label as “sick” those who are not bothered by the effect of their actions on others (“psychopath”) or on the society (“sociopath”). Those terms we easily apply to traffickers, many of whom are also pimps, but rarely to “johns” who feel no compunction about the harm they are perpetrating. Yet purchasing a prostitute virtually always damages that person.
Some survivors who have an opportunity to tell about their lives report that often when men learn details of what prostitutes endure, they stop buying sex. Non-governmental organizations working with prostituted women and girls report that before they were pulled into “the life,” virtually all were sexually abused. Prostituted women and children suffer from disease, addiction, destitution, rape, and trauma at a rate many times higher than the general population. Journalist Dawn Tongish reported in 2010 that the Dallas Police Department is now taking DNA samples from women and girls selling their bodies to truckers, given that they are 200 times more likely to be killed. “You were born with a name and you should die with a name,” the police tell their recruits. They add that identification of their bodies could give their families closure. Buying sex encourages a lifestyle that creates for the women and girls permanent physical damage and emotional scarring. Purchasing sex and genuine empathy toward the woman being bought are incompatible. Paying for sex is at least callous and at worst violent.
3. Lack of Free Choice
Women who sell their bodies almost never do so of their own free will. Children – never do. The vast majority of those who sell themselves are financially or emotionally deprived – many desperately so. They feel trapped. In Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, Robert Jensen discusses the deadly cycle of submission: “When acts of obedience and compliance become necessary for survival, members of oppressed groups learn to anticipate the orders and desires of those who have power over them, and their power compliance is then used by the dominant group to justify its dominance.”
Pimps ask girls they pick up at shopping malls or on street corners to call them “Daddy.” For a runaway, this relationship is regularly a reenactment of her situation with her original father (from whom she escaped or was removed), and thus has an irresistible pull. Frequently the sellers have been manipulated or deceived. In many situations, they have been subjected to explicit violence and threatened with more if they do not bring in cash for their pimps. According to scholar Catherine MacKinnon, “Most if not all prostitution is ringed with force in the most conventional sense, from incest to kidnapping to forced drugging to assault to criminal law.”
Men who buy sex are almost all aware at some level – even if they are in denial – that women and girls would not be selling their bodies if they were not subject to coercion. Solid public policy is not built around a small number of exceptions. In the ante-bellumUnited States, the existence of blacks who were owned but not abused did not make slavery less wrong. Similarly, the existence of prostituted women who are not abused does not make the purchase of their bodies less wrong.
4. Individual Freedom Versus Social Interest
No act exists in isolation, apart from a communal context. Every person’s action contributes to a future social pattern. Every one of us shapes our cultures and bears that responsibility. Thus every decision must be weighed in terms of the overall effect on the community, even while every lawmaker must be cognizant of the impingement on personal freedom.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” An individual purchasing the body of another for sexual gratification is participating in, and helping fuel, an industry that is overwhelmingly destructive not only to hundreds of thousands of women and children, but to society as a whole. The industry attracts unscrupulous profit-motivated traffickers, fuels organized crime, feeds an appetite for illicit sex, and perpetuates an unjust society. One person’s pursuit of happiness must not be at the expense of another’s life and liberty.
5. Objectification of Sexuality
We live in a society in which sex is ubiquitously commodified. Advertisements – whether for vodka or a cell phone – link sex to consumption. The question is not whether we will let sexual excitement influence our lives, but rather how much. Every person draws his or her own line, but the existence of a continuum in no way implies that one is not responsible for where the line is drawn. Buying a body for one’s sexual pleasure is far down the continuum. Putting a dollar value on a vagina or anus is an extreme act, with a profound effect on the person whose body is bought.
According to Farley (above), the large majority of men who buy prostitutes also use pornography to masturbate; for many users, buying sex from prostituted women and girls is only one step further, as they feel compelled to act out their fantasy. Tracking the astronomical increase in XXX-rated material, Jensen (above) reports that “Adult Education” lists in its January 2006 catalogue, a stunning 13,588 new hard-core videos/DVDs. Several other sources estimate that pornography in theUnited Statesis a $10 billion plus industry. Intimate acts ought not be marketable like furniture on craigslist.
6. Coarsening of Conscience
Men understand that prostituted women and girls live with shame. They are afraid to tell their families of their lives, fearing they will be shunned. Says the Irish NGO Ruhama, which brings sellers out of prostitution: “It is a form of social death…. They may be ostracized, humiliated, unable to share their lives with others, isolated, and afraid to speak openly about their experiences and their difficulties. They are reluctant to seek help and report crimes against them fearing judgment, prejudice and further stigmatization.” In response to this shame, the women and girls must create a defense, often escaping through drugs and alcohol, or psychological dissociation, in order to live with their trauma. Men know that few prostitutes would want their daughters to enter the life – nor would they.
In turn, men are ashamed to tell their wives, children, or parents that they are buying others’ bodies. Living with their secret coarsens their conscience and weaken its hold over their behavior. Some psychiatrists believe that fear of shame is a key deterrent to men who hold themselves in high regard. The same self-inflicted disgrace propels others into buying sex, as they act out their sense of inadequacy. The sense of shame and fear of being discovered is born out in the list of deterrents men report (below, in #14). For those living with humiliation, denial is a likely defense, as the men compartmentalize their actions.
7. Damage to Other Relationships
Treating sex as an impersonal transaction affects the ability of a man to use sexuality as a language of love. Memories of experiences with a prostitute become associated with sex and cannot simply be checked at the door when a man is with a partner he adores. For single men, purchasing sex thus creates a serious limitation to future intimate partnerships.
For men in committed relationships, the complications are even greater. With most monogamous couples (the majority of buyers are in concurrent committed relationships), fidelity includes not only abstaining from sex with another person, but also honesty and transparency; buying sex is like a secret affair, requiring a web of deception around place, time, and money. Often buyers try to convince themselves and others that they are unfaithful because “my wife doesn’t give me enough,” shifting the blame to her. Still guilt stands between the two, damaging or destroying an earlier robust relationship. When the truth comes out, partners often break up. Children are strained as they shuttle between divorced parents.
Even if the couple stays together, regaining enough trust may be a herculean feat, consuming time and energy. The mental and physical health of the betrayed usually suffers. The irresponsibility of the betrayer who gave into his impulse for a thrill comes at great social cost, damaging many of the people closest to him: partner, children, and parents.
There are less obvious dangers to the buyer beyond sexually transmitted diseases or exposure to violent pimps and traffickers. In some cases, he is putting his job and professional reputation at risk. He may become a target of extortion. Toward those he is buying, the john must repress his empathy, compassion that is natural and fundamental to community, friendship, family, and identity. Since the majority of johns are functioning members of society, they are living with a secret inconsistency, and with a divided sense of self. When others say they admire or love him, he knows they are admiring or loving the “him” he presents, and only that. He is not a psychologically whole, integrated, congruent person.
Consistent with the shame described above, even as he may be trying to build his ego with his “conquests,” the effect on his self-regard is corrosive. Farley’sBostonresearch reports that men used 54 percent negative words (“dirty,” “depressed”) describing how they felt after purchasing sex, compared with 36 percent before. Counter-intuitively, men’s self-esteem decreases as they insist on self-gratification.
9. Ethical Standards
Most secular and religious ethics have at their base some version of Abraham Lincoln’s words: “As I would not be a slave, so would I not be a slave owner.” In Christianity, it’s called The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” For Jews, the Talmud enjoins, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.” The first Imam in Shia Islam and fourth Caliphe in Sunni Ali ibin Abi Talib said, “You should desire for others what you desire for yourself, and hate for others what you hate for yourself.”
Immanuel Kant wrote that action must be evaluated against the prospect of every person committing that action; yet few who buy sex think it would be all right for their wives, daughters, sons, or themselves to be selling their bodies for others’ sexual gratification. Situation ethics (Joseph Fletcher) offered some relief from Kant’s strict measure, but he says that digression from that norm must be in the service of Agape – love of one’s neighbor. Buying another person’s body for one’s own gratification does not meet that test. It is inherently narcissistic, self-absorbed, and hostile. (Farley’s recent research reveals a significant difference between buyers and non-buyers in the desire to dominate women.) The June 12, 2011 New York Times refers to “naked hubris.”
10. Harming the Young
Even if he wanted to have sex only with adults, a buyer has no way of knowing if the person he is soliciting is a minor. In fact, the average age in which a female in the United States enters prostitution is 13. (For boys it’s 12.) If a girl is sold to ten men a night, six nights a week, she or he is statutorily raped 15,000 times by her 18th birthday, when she suddenly “consents.”
In most prostitution encounters, then, the buyer is taking advantage of the fact that someone else’s life has gone desperately wrong. But not all men are so “innocent.” Thrill seeking builds on itself: most men filling planes headed for Thailandto rape children did not start their purchasing as pedophiles. Child-sex seekers are plentiful in the US. Atlantaresearch commissioned by A Future Not A Past reported that 47% of “shoppers” proceeded with their efforts to buy sex when given three cues that the seller was under eighteen. In Girls Like Us, Rachel Lloyd, founder and executive director of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, and herself a survivor, describes her work with hundreds of adolescents like Aisha: “One day she rolls up a leg of her sweat pants to show me the crude tattoo of her pimp’s name that he’d hand-carved into her inner thigh as he sat between her legs holding a gun to her head.”
Whether the person he buys is “of age” or not, the buyer is participating in a trade in which children, who are more vulnerable than adults, are being harvested for their bodies.
11. Destructive Gender Dynamics
The overwhelming number of buyers are men, and the overwhelming number of those being bought are women. The dynamic of gender imbalance is undeniable. The fact than some women choose to offer themselves as high-priced “escorts” does not change that power discrepancy, since (as described above) the crushing number of people selling themselves are women and girls who have been raped and otherwise sexually traumatized by men when they were younger. Those who seem to freely choose a life of prostitution do so against a backdrop of inequality.
Men commit the great majority of violent crimes suffered by women. In addition, the advantage men have over women and children in terms of physical strength, financial means, and social status is an essential factor in an assessment of how voluntary the seller’s choice really is. Males and females don’t start out on an even playing field. Financially and psychologically, the ability to buy implies entitlement. Whether gender differences are grounded in socialization or biologically determined is irrelevant. They are real.
Swedish and Norwegian Parliamentarians (among others) say that the trade in women’s and girls’ bodies must be viewed from the perspective of pervasive and blatant male privilege. A society in which women held equal power to men would behave differently. It’s no accident that headlines have outed Cisneros, Clinton, Edwards, Engles, Gingrich, Hart, Kennedy, Sanford, Spitzer, Schwarzenegger, Vitter, and Wiener. The New York Times article quoted above asserts, “When it comes to scandal, girls won’t be boys.”
12. Against the Law
In all but a very few places in theUnited States, prostitution is unlawful for both the buyer and seller. The buyer is breaking the law as certainly as if he is beating up his girlfriend or wife.
That parallel is intentional: Sex buyers confirmed having committed significantly more sexually coercive acts against women (non-prostituting and prostituting women) than non-sex buyers. A large national sample examined by Monto and McRee, as well as other studies, show that men who use prostitutes have more frequently committed rape. As a group, these men are much more likely than non-buyers to commit many other crimes. In Farley’sBostonresearch, almost three times as many buyers reported prior felony convictions compared to non-buyers. In almost every crime area, whether breaking and entering, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, or assault, the johns had committed significantly more offences.
The discrepancy is so significant that Farley recommends that police regularly collect DNA samples from arrested men, and that they interrogate the men (instead of the victimized women and girls) for information regarding pimps and traffickers.
13. Negative Consequences of Legalization
Legalizing the selling and buying of bodies does not have the dignifying and regulating effect for which proponents may hope. Instead, it gives license to a practice overwhelming destructive to those caught up in the system. Regulated or not, cigarettes still kill. But legalizing normalizes. According to a Swedish expert, in theNetherlands, the number of men who say they would or do buy sex is multiple times that inSweden, where buying is illegal.
The drive to legalize prostitution is a misplaced effort driven in part by a small group of feminists correctly worried about the unjust stigma heaped on those who are selling. They make a valid point that laws and law enforcement should be transformed so that individual prostitutes receive care, not punishment. But rather than aiding prostituted women with regulations such as health check ups, legal prostitution attracts illegal prostitution (such as with children), as traffickers recognize an environment where buying is acceptable. The mayor ofAmsterdamhas been gradually shutting down the red light district for exactly that reason.
Canadian journalist Victor Malerek (The Johns) calls legalization “harm reduction” rather than “harm elimination.” “Legalizing prostitution is a gift to Johns. It is an invitation to rape and will only exacerbate demand. It will not empower women, as the message that it will convey is ‘It is okay to buy and sell the bodies of women.’” Prostitution according to Malarek “is not a job opportunity or an occupation but a lifelong jail sentence.”
14. Not Inevitable
In the same way that we have come to reject the truism that “boys will be boys” when it comes to domestic violence, we can require that men not treat women and girls however they want sexually, based on their impulses. For many men, buying sex is self-medicating; when they are depressed, they turn to the apparent affection, the stimulation, or the distraction of purchased sex. For others, the appeal is having control over someone else: “I bought her, so she must do whatever I say.” For others it seems to be more of an adolescent “acting out.”
In these and other situations, multiple interventions are possible. An astounding 88% ofBostonbuyers say they would be deterred by knowing that a letter would be sent to a family member if they were arrested. (InSweden, where street prostitution is down 80%, a letter ordering the buyer to appear in court is sent to the man, but at his home address.) Other deterrents approximately as high are adding the person to a sex offender registry; putting his photo or name in the local newspaper, or on a billboard or the internet (although these public measures are disastrous to innocent wives and children); suspending his driver’s license or impounding his car; imposing a higher fine or requiring community service.
For those who frequently and regularly purchase other’s bodies, individual therapy and twelve-step programs for sex addicts can help men retrain their minds and restrain their actions. Members of Sex Addicts Anonymous poignantly explain: “When we started attending SAA meetings… we heard stories similar to ours and realized that recovery from our malady was possible. We learned through the SAA Fellowship that we were not hopelessly defective.” In other words, the powerful urge to buy sex is a sickness that can be healed. In corroboration, in San Francisco, arrests and one or two day “johns schools” (designed by a survivor) have reduced recidivism by more than 40%.