By Autumn Burris
In the NFL, players are routinely flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the field, but now, at least one player is being penalized for his recent off-field actions, too. The Denver Broncos’ Ryan Murphy and his brother were picked up by police on Tuesday—less than 60 miles from where his team played on Super Bowl Sunday—as part of a sting targeting the illegal sex trade. Though Murphy wasn’t arrested or charged with a crime, it did create media attention around the concept of sex-buying and I want to use this opportunity to send a message: buying another human being for your own sexual gratification is unacceptable, regardless of your position in society.
It’s a myth that prostitution is a victimless crime, and that what “consenting” adults do behind closed doors is their business. As an exited survivor of the sex trade, I can assure you: a vast majority of those sold in the trade are not there because they want to be, and most sex buyers don’t do background checks or care if the person is trafficked or underage.
Sex buyers are the driving force behind all sex trafficking and prostitution. Without the buyers’ currency, these industries—which harm vulnerable people and bring crime into our communities—wouldn’t exist. People will tell you that prostitution and sex trafficking are wildly different, but believe me when I tell you they are much closer than most people understand.
You cannot separate prostitution and sex trafficking, because prostitution is where sex trafficking happens. And without a comprehensive, survivor-informed approach to address the problem, we’ll never end the sexual exploitation of all the women, men, boys, and girls caught up in this predatory system.
First, we must debunk the myth of “sex work.” There is no such thing as “sex work,” because being forced to have sex is not a job—it’s the exploitation of someone’s vulnerabilities and fears. In the illegal sex trade, choice and consent are absent; it’s compensated rape.
The vast majority of people involved in commercial sex come from vulnerable circumstances. They’ve often been marginalized by poverty, racism, homelessness, substance abuse, or lack of opportunities. Many are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Prostitution by its very nature is violent and exploitative, and far from the Hollywood version you see in movies like Pretty Woman.
I know because I was out there once. And like countless others, I wasn’t waiting for some buyer to save me, I was searching for real opportunities to exit. Once I managed to get out, I dedicated my life to helping others do the same, providing resources and social recognition to people who have been hurt by this predatory industry. Currently, I am the founding director of Survivors for Solutions, an expert consultant with the Office of Victims of Crime, Technical and Training Center, and a member of CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) in Denver. Thanks to these collaborations among elected officials, law enforcement, and victims’ advocates, we’re changing the way people see the sex trade and those trapped in it.
There was a time when local authorities were arresting nearly three prostituted people for every one sex buyer—as if it was the victims’ fault his or her body was being bought. Now it’s the opposite: in Denver, three buyers are arrested for every one prostituted person. That’s true progress, and I’m proud to be part of the movement that’s working to change our culture to one where sex buyers are no longer allowed to flaunt the law with impunity while vulnerable people are stigmatized and criminalized for the crime of NOT having other options. We’re not there yet, but we’re making strides—and that gives me hope.