This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change.
Much of the advocacy and public health response to commercial sex and exploitation is focused on the victims, the majority of whom are female.
But there is another way to address the issue, and that is to reduce demand by intervening with the pursuers of paid sex, a group almost entirely made up of men.
“You can have a victim who is sexually exploited without having a trafficker, but you can’t have a victim who’s sexually exploited without a buyer,” said Robyn Levinson, the program coordinator for Alameda County’s H.E.A.T Watch, a five-point program designed to combat human trafficking.
“At the end of the day,” Levinson said, “the individuals who continue to perpetuate sexual exploitation are buyers, and as long as there are buyers, there will be a supply to feed that demand.”
Alameda County is just one of many cities and municipalities across the nation placing an increased emphasis on curbing commercial sex demand. One consistent theme in demand reduction across these communities is the use of male-dominant initiatives to confront potential buyers.
“To really reach that population, we need to engage men to deal with men,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. “To confront their behavior, to hold them accountable and to mentor younger men who might not be aware of how exploitive sex buying is.”
Any Man Can Be A Buyer
When it comes to commercial sex buying, there isn’t a buyer archetype.
“Men are driven by the fact that they think what they’re doing is normal,” said Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research at Demand Abolition, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that’s working to abolish the illegal commercial sex industry in the United States by eliminating the demand for purchased sex.
Trouteaud has made a career out of trying to understand who sex buyers are, why they do what they do, whom they target and what’s being done to stop them. His findings show that appearances and perception play a minor role at best.
“What I like to tell people,” Trouteaud said, “is that if you just think about the type of men you see and encounter on a daily basis — someone in law enforcement or someone in a church or someone who teaches — they’re just as likely to be buying sex as the kind of guy you think of as a creepy loner or a career criminal.”
Last year, Demand Abolition surveyed 8,200 men* about their sex buying behaviors. Of the 553 respondents in the Oakland area, the majority of buyers earn more than $60,000 a year, and typically purchased sex for the first time when they were between 18 and 24 years old. Offending rates are just as high in rural communities as they are in the cities and suburbs.
Just under half of those buyers are married, and many have children.
Researchers, advocacy organizations and law enforcement departments are learning that normative influences, such as being exposed to prostitution at a young age by older family members or friends, pornography and the traditional lack of legal action against sex purchasing, accelerate sex buying behaviors in men. They also know what decelerates those behaviors: the perception of risk.
“The more guys understand the risks involved,” Trouteaud said, “the less likely they are to continue buying sex.”
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