Interesting findings and alternative interpretations from “Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota”

Posted by on August 14, 2017 in News, Research
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By Alex Trouteaud, Ph.D.
Director of Policy and Research, Demand Abolition

Minnesota has been a revered leader in addressing sex trafficking and forced prostitution for many years. The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has been a galvanizing force in the state’s leadership on victim services, legislative advocacy, research, and more. The latest study funded by the foundation, Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota, is a critically important tool in the state’s response to sex trafficking. That’s because the research focuses exclusively on the source of the problem: the sex buyers whose “demand” fuels the illicit industry.

The study combines information from several data sources to paint as complete a picture of sex buyers as possible, including stakeholder interviews, news reports, arrest data, and more. The authors describe the study’s ambitious objective as follows:

The goal is to help close a significant gap in research, practice and policy related to sex buyers. Here we present findings about who sex buyers are, where they live and purchase sex in Minnesota, how they enter the marketplace, and what they seek in the marketplace.

After carefully reviewing the data sources used in the study, I think a narrower description of the scope of findings is instructive; the data are mostly about arrested sex buyers. This is an observation, not a critique; it is an important lens for re-examining the key findings, several of which have received great news coverage.

Much of the data on sex buyers in the report comes from convicted (likely) buyers, augmented by perceptions from criminal justice system experts.

Let’s start with the headline getting the most attention in the news, which is phrased by the report authors as, “sex buyers in Minnesota are predominantly white men.” While this statement is accurate, it might also confuse. A couple of sentences later the authors clarify, “they seem to be demographically similar to the communities in which they live.” In this case, sex buyers are predominantly white because Minnesotans are predominately white, which means race is interesting insofar as it is not a factor influencing sex-buying…despite what salacious headlines may imply. The authors further reinforce this point by quoting Shively et al.:

“Studies of male consumers of commercial sex find that buyers are similar to the general population in most regards, and quite unlike most populations of criminal offenders.”

But is this finding, in this context, what researchers refer to as a null finding? I don’t think so. If we revisit the limitation of the data sources—that the information comes from arrested buyers—then what looks like a null finding is more likely an inspiring conclusion about Minnesota law enforcement’s approach to sex buyer accountability.

Historically, sex “providers/victims” (author’s terminology, chosen with care and caution) are arrested at much higher rates than sex buyers, and arrested sex buyers are disproportionately men of color. At Demand Abolition, we talk often about the importance of enforcing demand-reduction laws in ways that reduce racial discrimination and promote social justice. For instance, internet-based “reverse” stings tend to ensnare sex-buyers of all ages, races, and backgrounds, because they draw men from different communities, and make it less likely that law enforcement will selectively arrest perpetrators based on race and class.

Here’s my suggested re-phrasing of the report’s research finding about race:  Minnesota law enforcement officers arrest sex buyers of every status and background, avoiding historical biases against poor individuals and people of color. Considered this way, the finding is not only uncommon and grounded in context, but affirming of Minnesota law enforcement’s laudable efforts.

A similar issue arises when considering the following finding:

Our sources show that sex buyers purchase sex across the state and they travel from nearby towns, the suburbs, and from across the United States to purchase sex. Men typically do not purchase sex in their home community unless they live in a large urban area. Even in a big city, travel to other neighborhoods or suburbs is common.

The authors acknowledge that the data behind this finding comes from law enforcement stings, so while there is value in the finding, it is probably not accurate to say that “men typically do not purchase sex in their home communities.” Consider this metaphor: A fisherman casts his line to the middle of a pond, and a few minutes later a fish bites. If we know this type of fish usually lives at the shallow edge of the pond, does this mean we have discovered that this fish actually prefers to eat at the center of the pond? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just willing to travel if the bait is right.

Unless all types of bait are cast at all parts of the pond at all times of day, it is very risky to conclude the dietary habits of a fish. Better to observe a fish throughout the day and see where and what it eats. But the authors readily acknowledge that approach wasn’t doable in this study.

So what do we learn, given the limitations of the data? Something important, in my view. We learn that certain types of “supply” (providers/victims) draw “demand” (sex buyers) from across a labor market (and sometimes further). This finding demonstrates, as the authors would undoubtedly agree, that law enforcement agencies must work cooperatively across jurisdictions to address sex-buying in their communities. The data in this report suggest Minnesota law enforcement have already figured this out, and embraced it as a practice.

This report clearly demonstrates Minnesota’s commendable leadership in addressing sex trafficking and forced prostitution. It’s great to see how the data point to smart and fair law enforcement demand-reduction practices from state police agencies. While there may be different ways of thinking about some of the data presented by the authors, the real message is this: we need more research on the issue of demand, and the Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota report is an excellent step in that direction.

Report Authors’ Preferred Report Citation:

Lauren Martin, Christina Melander, Harshada Karnik, & Corelle Nakamura. (2017). Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in the State of Minnesota (available at uroc.umn.edu/sextrafficking). August 2017.