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Swanee Hunt

Buyers of sex must be held accountable

By Swanee Hunt
August 8, 2011

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STATE LAWMAKERS and the public are increasingly recognizing the inextricable links between sex trafficking and prostitution. The dynamic is straight out of Economics 101. Without demand for purchasable bodies, there would be no supply of women and girls, and no distribution by violent traffickers and pimps.

Now the Legislature is considering one of the strongest, most comprehensive anti-trafficking bills in the country - one that supports the survivors, prosecutes traffickers, and holds buyers of sex accountable.

Organizations working with prostituted women and girls in Boston report that they had histories of sexual abuse before they were pulled into “the life.’’ Many never had a safe place of their own. They move from one hotel to another, paid for by their pimp, who uses violence and intense control to impose a quota, setting an amount of how much they need to earn a night.

Boston Police pick up around 10 women or girls for every one man, for a transaction as illegal for him as it is for her. But if she has had 10 buyers in a night, that means 10 men should be arrested for every one woman or girl.

Women and girls selling their bodies almost never do so freely. Poverty, abuse, and a chaotic upbringing create a context where they can’t even begin to make a rational choice. The average age in which a female in the United States enters prostitution is 13. If a girl is sold to 10 men a night, six nights a week, she’s statutorily raped 15,000 times by her 18th birthday, when she suddenly “consents.’’ A buyer may say he has never purchased a child, but how would he know?

Our foundation, Hunt Alternatives Fund, recently funded a study on the commercial sex industry in Boston. We interviewed more than 200 men - both buyers and non-buyers - on their attitudes about prostitution. Two-thirds of both groups recognize that most prostituted women are lured, tricked, or trafficked into “the life.’’ Paying for sex, they know, is callous (of course, it’s also often violent and sometimes deadly). Still, most johns repress empathy toward those they are buying. In addition, since most buyers are functioning members of society (with wives and children), they have to live with their secret and many feel badly about it. Fifty-four percent used negative words (“dirty,’’ “depressed’’) to describe how they feel after purchasing sex, compared with 36 percent before. Counterintuitively, men’s self-esteem decreases as they insist on self-gratification.

The great news is that buying sex isn’t inevitable. An astounding 88 percent of Boston buyers say they’d be deterred by knowing that notification would be sent to a family member if they were arrested. (In Sweden, where street prostitution is down stunningly, a letter ordering the buyer to appear in court is sent to the man, but at his home address.) A majority of buyers say higher fines would dissuade them. Other deterrents include being put on a sex offender registry; having their pictures or names in the local newspaper, on a billboard, or on the Internet (although these public measures are disastrous to their innocent wives and children); having a driver’s license suspended or car impounded. In San Francisco, arrests and a first-offender education program have reduced recidivism by more than 40 percent, according to a Justice Department study.

Among the changes our legislators are considering: increasing maximum fines for purchasing sex from $500 to $5,000, setting a minimum fine of $1,000, and calling clearly for the use of “john schools,’’ a one- or two-day first-offender education program. According to the research, these changes would significantly curb demand.

Some people wonder if prostitution should be legalized, in order to dignify it. But Cherie Jimenez, founder and director of Kim’s Project, a survivor-led program in Boston, says that buyers see prostituted women as a commodity. “Legal or not,’’ she said, “there’s no dignity in prostitution.’’

I’ll leave it to others to conjecture on how we as a society could get this so wrong. The good news is that we know what to do to make it right. We’ve done it for domestic violence and hundreds of other public-health issues. We can get this one right too.

Swanee Hunt is author of “Half-Life of a Zealot.’’