WBUR’s Bob Oakes speaks with Tom Perez, founder of the EPIK Project, about how he disrupts online sex-buying at the source—and how he’s bringing his model to Boston. Perez and his team in Portland, Oregon post decoy ads to websites that advertise sexual services. When potential customers respond, instead of reaching someone selling sex, they are connected to a male volunteer, who explains that sex-buying is “not a victimless crime…it’s inherently harmful to the women who are bought and sold.” These interventions also direct callers to support services and further information.
Perez’ model is gaining ground, but he’s up against a staggeringly large, mostly hidden demand for paid sex. Throughout the interview, his phone is inundated with responses to a recently-placed decoy ad—in just an hour, it rings more than 60 times. That’s more than one response per minute, in response to a single ad on a website that hosts thousands of them (hundreds posted every hour). Despite the scale of the problem, Perez is confident that his approach works; he’s now recruiting a team of volunteers in Boston.
“I knew that people were being bought and sold for sex in places like Cambodia and Thailand — you know, faraway places…But I realized a few years ago, learned, that it was happening right in my own backyard. When I started to learn… what it did to the community, I couldn’t look away. I had to try and do something.”
Part two of the WBUR series features two powerful stories of survival. Audrey Morrissey and “LaLa” were both in their teens, albeit decades apart, when they were first exploited. “LaLa” explains:
“I needed money and I didn’t know how to get a job…I didn’t know what else to do. So, I went online and I started selling myself there. I thought it was the only thing I was good at.”
Years of abuse later, they’ve both escaped “the life,” and now fight the exploitation of young girls through My Life My Choice, a nonprofit that empowers youth to be agents of change. Educating buyers and potential buyers is equally important—they’re the ones, as Demand Abolition Founding Director Lina Nealon tells Oakes, who are “fueling this exploitative, inherently violent industry.”
WBUR also interviews a former buyer, “S.S.,” a white-collar, 65-year-old man who purchased sex for more than four years before seeking help to stop the destructive behavior and treat his sex addiction. S.S., like many who perpetuate the illegal commercial sex industry, admits he never thought about the effect of his actions on the women and girls he bought, and says he rarely considered whether they’d been coerced or were unwilling.
“I think that this was about my own gratification and really about very little else. I’m embarrassed to say, I’m ashamed to say that, but that was the case.”