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What is Demand Abolition?

Demand Abolition is working to eradicate illegal commercial sex in the U.S. by combating the demand for it. Prostitution, which includes sex trafficking, degrades those being exploited (usually women and children), as well as the men who buy them. If no one was willing to buy sex—or was too afraid of legal and social ramifications to so—this exploitative industry, and all its inherit harms, would end.

It takes collaboration to establish lasting change, so we work with an active network of survivors, criminal justice professionals, practitioners, researchers, policymakers, corporate leaders, philanthropists, and media representatives. We serve as the nexus of information on the best policies, practices, and technology for reducing sex-buying. With our partners, we identify and advocate for demand-reduction interventions that are effective, sustainable, pragmatic, and respectful.

We have a simple message: To stop commercial sexual exploitation, demand an end to sex-buying.

Why place such a strong focus on the demand for paid sex?

Demand drives the illegal sex industry. If no one bought sexual access to another person, the sex trade, and all its harms, would stop. But, as long as some people feel they can buy sex without consequences, pimps and human traffickers will meet that demand with vulnerable women, children, and men. Research suggests (1, 2, 3) that the most effective way to reduce the harms of the illegal sex trade is to adopt tactics and policies that target sex buyers. The vast majority of prostituted people are extremely vulnerable (4, 5, 6). For them, involvement in the sex trade isn’t about choice; it’s about having no other choices.

Despite their vulnerability, many prostituted people are still treated like criminals, occupying a disproportionate share of law enforcement and the court system’s time and resources. Buyers, on the other hand, are too often ignored or excused. (In our home state of Massachusetts, 70% of all prostitution arrests made in 2013 were women (7).)

What have you done to effect change in this area?

  1. Our work has been instrumental in bringing demand reduction to the forefront of the national movement to end commercial sexual exploitation, including: Advocating for demand reduction policies, practices, and programs with allies across diverse sectors, such as heads of federal government agencies, members of Congress, and national influencers and thought leaders.
    Example: We helped organize a coalition of 35 mayors from many of the country’s largest cities to support a resolution calling for stronger anti-demand tactics in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation at the 2015 National US Conference of Mayors; it was adopted unanimously by all 200 attendees.
  2. Compiling high-quality, unique data on the size and scope of the illegal sex trade, including studying the effectiveness of tactics designed to deter sex buyers.
    Example: We are in the final stages of a first-of-its-kind study that will give us, national insight on how many men are either actively or considering buying sex, as well as first-hand information on what has effectively prevented men from buying sex based on their past experiences.
  3. Leading a network of practitioners that are designing and testing innovative and effective demand reduction strategies. We are sharing these findings with allies across the country through educational material, trainings, and national convenings. Through this network we are collecting and compiling a set of innovative tactics that can be used to combat demand at the local, state, and national levels.
    Example: We have convened more than 500 individuals through in-person and virtual convenings to share promising practices around demand reduction. Our monthly webinars cover a range of topics relevant to law enforcement, policymakers and citizen advocates.

What is the CEASE Network?

The CEASE Network (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) is a collection of pioneering cities committed to reducing sex-buying in their communities by 20 percent. Active in 26 cities and reaching over 500 practitioners from across law enforcement, survivor leaders, businesses, and other civic activists, the CEASE Network is piloting tactics that will create a comprehensive blueprint for reducing demand. This multi-sector initiative, conceptualized and supported by Demand Abolition and launched in 2014, seeks to eliminate the harm caused to vulnerable people exploited by the illegal sex trade. Together we are designing, testing, and sharing cutting-edge demand reduction strategies with allies all over the country.

Major CEASE Network successes include:

  • Denver—Prior to the launch of CEASE Denver, the city’s police force was arresting nearly three prostituted people for every one sex buyer. Now it’s the opposite, thanks to a coordinated effort by prosecutors, police, the department of human services, and the mayor’s office—who make up the core of the city’s CEASE team.
  • Seattle—King County’s CEASE team, which includes Seattle, has dramatically shifted how prostitution is understood nationally by exposing the harm generated by a small percentage of buyers who purchase sex in large volumes. Locally, our team has assisted in the take down of a highly organized ring of sex-buyers, worked to have prostitution solicitation charges reclassified as crimes of sexual exploitation, and have been instrumental in the launch of a national organization that engages businesses in the fight against sex-buying.
  • Portland—Portland has pioneered the concept of cyber patrols which disrupts buyers responding to decoy ads online. Using this tactic, over 10,000 buyers have been contacted with deterrence messages delivered by male allies seeking to make a difference in their community. This tactic will soon be active in seven additional CEASE cities, expanding the program to a national level.
  • Phoenix—CEASE Phoenix Metro, in conjunction with the City of Phoenix Human Trafficking Task Force, launched a successful law enforcement initiative targeting would-be sex-buyers. Known as “Jamming the Johns” the operation seeks to disrupts buyers responding to decoy ads online by engaging would-be-buyers in conversations with law enforcement officers who explain to them how damaging the illegal sex industry is and warns them that police in the area are cracking down on buyers.

Would legalizing or fully decriminalizing paid sex make the sex trade safer?


Even in areas where prostitution is legal or fully decriminalized, prostituted people (and many sex buyers) are still victimized by commercial sexual exploitation. Interviews with prostituted individuals in New Zealand reveal that decriminalization has not curbed the violence that most people experience (8). In addition, sex trafficking is “most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalized.” (9) Evaluations have also found that when prostitution goes unchallenged and unchecked, it creates a façade of legitimacy that masks sexual exploitation. That leaves pimps and traffickers undeterred, and enables brothels to “function as legalized outlets for victims of sex trafficking.” (10)

Some claim that fully decriminalizing prostitution would mean that people could safely and willingly buy and sell sex, eliminating the market for trafficked individuals. But research suggests otherwise; countries with lax prostitution laws have higher rates of trafficking (11). Why? Because the demand for purchased sex surges, fueling new markets for underground prostitution (12). This leads to the expansion of entrepreneurial criminal enterprises. A 2012 study of 150 countries (13), published in the journal World Development, concluded that legal prostitution increases human trafficking inflows, as a result of the expanded demand for paid sex.

If full decriminalization or legalization isn’t the answer, what is?

Partial decriminalization of the sex trade—where sex buyers are criminalized but those they purchase are not—is a promising, progressive approach. Often referred to as the “Nordic model,” this type of partial decriminalization is inspired by laws passed in

Sweden in the late 1990s that decriminalized the sale of sex but increased penalties for buyers, and provided exit services for those looking to leave the sex trade. The spirit of the law is simple: most people sold for sex are being exploited in some capacity, but buyers are always willing participants. As the only party with universal agency, sex buyers should be held accountable for prostitution and all the harm it causes. Currently in use in Norway, France, Canada, Northern Ireland, and a handful of other countries and US cities, partial decriminalization is an effective, socially just way to end this inherently exploitive practice, and it is gaining momentum all over the world.