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Buying sex? It will cost you

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  February 21, 2012 03:44 PM

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By Ed Davis and Swanee Hunt

Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in this country. A century and a half later, people are still bought and sold – here in Boston.

Attorney General Martha Coakley warns that human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in Massachusetts. The term “trafficking” evokes images of people smuggled across borders; but FBI, UN, and Congressional definitions describe any children, women, or men coerced into physical violence, mental abuse, and even death.

Take a look (or don’t) at, so-called massage parlors and escort services, as well as the seediest or most upscale bars and hotels across the Commonwealth. It’s right under our noses.

Organized crime has to be fought with organized action: we’re teaming up to bust those abusing the most vulnerable among us. On Sunday, the nation’s strongest anti-trafficking legislation went into effect. The new law supports victims of human trafficking (which includes most prostitution), increases punishment of pimps and complicit businesses, and – focusing on cause, not effect – targets those fueling the sex market: the buyers.

Want to buy sex in Massachusetts? Think again.

It will now cost a buyer a minimum of $1,000 – but could set him back as much as $5,000. Or he may get two and a half years in jail to reflect on how his actions perpetuated an inherently violent and misogynist industry.

Buying in Boston? Our Boston Police Department was cracking down on “johns” even before this legislation; now the heat is getting hotter.

Over Super Bowl weekend, Boston police arrested 15 buyers — including two charged with trying to purchase a 15-year-old girl. Most were white, married, in their forties. The operation was part of the second “National Day of Johns Arrests,” organized by Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff Tom Dart, which brought together more than a dozen local and federal agencies across eight states to nab 359 would-be-buyers.

Across the Unites States, the growing trend among criminal justice professionals, legislators, and non-profits is to stress not just the supply (mostly women and children) or distribution (pimps and other traffickers), but the demand (johns). Sure it’s hard to stop men from acting on destructive urges. But that will happen more quickly than solving problems that generate the supply: like racism (still pervasive), poverty (22 percdnt of America’s kids), and child abuse (which produce runaways, picked up almost immediately by pimps).

Many countries – beginning 13 years ago with Sweden – are demonstrating how stopping demand dramatically decreases the number of prostituted people. In the United States:

• Billboards tower above highways in Florida, Georgia, and Illinois, break the news to buyers with messages such as “Dear John, It’s over.”

• Eighty communities are running “john schools” -- classes that expose first-time offenders to the realities of the sex trade and warn them of future penalties. (The US Justice Department contracted with Boston’s Abt Associates, which found that a San Francisco one-day course designed by a survivor, showed forty percent less recidivism).

• Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller signed a pledge to end public tolerance for the sex industry as part of his anti-demand awareness campaign during the Super Bowl. His efforts are part of the National Association of Attorneys General platform, which includes demand reduction.

Other communities and police from Seattle to Denver to New York City are educating boys to prevent them from becoming buyers, forming neighborhood watch groups to report trolling men, and sending letters home notifying johns to appear in court. Some are considering adding buyers to sex offender registries or collecting their DNA.

Opponents argue that picking up “consenting adults” for a “victimless crime” is Victorian.
But what’s outdated is the notion that prostitution is harmless. Both of us have seen firsthand the devastation on those whose bodies are bought, on families and communities, and on the buyers themselves.

Granted, a small percentage of women in prostitution claim they’re opting for a career like any other. But in the US, females enter “the life” in their early teens and are statutorily raped thousands of times before they are “consenting adults.” At that point, what are their options?

Adds Mary Setterholm, “For some of us, our dignified choice to support our families led us into this socially 'undignified' sex trade. But to combine consent with extreme sexual objectification is like saying women demanded liberty to be slaves. The new law is shifting a spotlight on the core issue - demand, not choice.”

Long story short, solid public policy doesn’t shape laws to protect the wishes of a small minority when evidence of harm to the majority is crushing.

But will higher penalties against buyers make a difference? Boys will be boys, right? Wrong. We cracked that myth with domestic violence. Now we charge the abuser even if his partner “chooses” to stay with him.

In a recent study commissioned by Demand Abolition, purchasers say that levying higher fines and jail time, impounding cars, and notifying family members would deter them. But all those depend on police action. That’s why the Boston PD is docking the buyers and supporting the bought. We must remember that every girl victimized by a buyer or pimp is someone's daughter, and we must work together to end exploitation. Some guys may be shamed, but the Great Emancipator would be proud.

Ed Davis is Boston's police commissioner. Swanee Hunt, chair of Demand Abolition, is a lecturer in public policy and a senior adviser for trafficking research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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