(WOMENSENEWS)–The vicious business of sexual slavery has begun to be understood, to a certain extent, by experts. A certain amount of information has been gathered about the perpetrators of this type of trafficking and their victims–the people who are purchased, sold and moved across borders each year for the purposes of sex exploitation.
What’s less understood, say organizers of a sex-trafficking conference that startedyesterday in Chicago and continues today, is the demand side of the equation: that is, the people who pay for sexual services such as prostitution and products such as pornography.
“Everybody’s been focusing on the misery of the victims, which gets us nowhere,” says Sandra Hunnicutt, founder of Captive Daughters, a Los Angeles anti-sex trafficking organization that is co-sponsoring the conference with DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute in Chicago.
Experts at the conference believe there is a direct connection between demand and trafficking. They say demand for sexual services and products such as prostitution, pornography or mail-order brides helps to create the need for women and girls to provide these “services,” which creates an incentive for the traffickers to ply their trade.
Who Is Paying for Sex?
The U.S. government estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked annually, and of that global number, an estimated 50,000 women and children from around the world are trafficked annually into the United States specifically for the sex trade.
But who are the buyers of these people and their services? How many of them are there? How can they be dissuaded from purchasing sex from prostitutes who may be enslaved? Those are some of the questions that need to be faced, say organizers of the conference about the global forces of demand behind sex trafficking.
Although human trafficking can often be a voluntary process, in which people willingly pay smugglers to move them across international borders, much of the trade also involves people being purchased or kidnapped and then sold and moved to another location, for forced labor. When the labor they are forced into is prostitution, modeling for pornography, marriage as mail-order “brides,” or other sex-related work, they are considered sex slaves. The vast majority of those forced into sex work are women and underage girls, although some men and underage boys are also victimized.
“Dismantle demand” is the ultimate goal, Hunnicutt says. By defining and studying the buyers, or demand side, of sex trafficking, the conference participants say they want to start fighting this type of trafficking on a new front.
Other Industries May Influence Demand for Commercial Sex
Some quasi-mainstream enterprises help to drive demand, Hunnicutt says. For example, she believes that the Internet and video porn industries are using underage children, and she sees them as providing the titillating experiences that prompt men to then purchase sex with prostitutes. Even newspapers that rely heavily on sex ads for financing help to encourage demand, Hunnicutt says.
So-called gentlemen’s clubs, commonly known as “high-class strip joints,” fall into this category, says Morrison Torrey, a professor of law at the DePaul University College of Law. They present themselves as places where businessmen can meet, dine and watch scantily-clad, beautiful women dance. But it’s believed that many or most are also providing the opportunity for prostitution.
For example, Atlanta’s Gold Club has drawn major media attention ever since its owner was charged in 2001 with prostitution and other crimes, including paying protection money to New York’s Gambino crime family. He eventually struck a deal with prosecutors that led to the club’s closing.
“Many of these so-called gentlemen’s clubs where businesses actually rent conference rooms to be sexual with women, that is creating this overall problem that men are permitted to view women as sex objects,” said Torrey.
The conference may even wind up targeting some mainstream enterprises as factors that enable demand for sexual services to thrive. For example, the telephone directories in even moderately sized cities include liberal helpings of advertisements for escort and massage outcall services. Conference participants believe these services, like strip clubs, are often if not always thinly-veiled prostitution services.
Conference May Adopt Action Plan
Torrey, who will prepare a paper on the conference’s findings, hopes the conference will not only improve understanding of demand, but also help to develop a stronger multi-disciplinary community among the grassroots activists, members of academia, government employees and officials, and private practice attorneys, among others, who are participating. They plan for it to result in a paper outlining a fairly specific action plan for counteracting demand that can be used on many fronts: to talk with police, lobby governments and work with international non-governmental organizations.
One of the main goals of the conference centers on what it does not want to do, noted Kaethe Morris Hoffer, an attorney with experience in violence-against-women issues. Many open-invitation trafficking conferences veer off into educational sessions for lay people who need convincing that trafficking and sexual slavery exist, or that they are violations of human rights. Or they veer off into a debate about whether prostitution should be legalized, she said. This conference seeks to avoid those pitfalls by excluding lay people and inviting only experts and focusing the agenda narrowly on demand only.
Already, some participants know what they want in an action plan. Many, for instance, want to change the current practice of police arresting prostitutes but letting their clients off, despite laws on the books that make it a crime for both parties to participate in prostitution. The hope is that if men are held responsible for breaking laws against prostitution and child abuse through arrests and prosecutions, they would be discouraged and dissuaded from buying sex. This would cut down on demand, which would mean that there would be less reason for traffickers to force women into prostitution.
Norma Hotaling, founder and director of The Sage Project, Inc. in San Francisco and its “John School,” a first offenders’ educational program that covers legal, health and other risks of prostitution, knows of this practice from first-hand experience and attributes it to “total misogyny.”
In Recovery, She Created ‘John School’
She is in recovery from a 21-year heroin habit, participated as an adult in prostitution and was abused through prostitution as a child. She says she was arrested about 30 times by the same department that later helped her to form the John School.
Often, Hotaling says, police officers who catch a prostitute and her client (often called a “John”) together will arrest the possibly underage girl prostitute but send the client home, justifying it by saying they don’t want to “ruin the guy’s life.” Some officers have told her that they believe the prostitute is entirely at fault and that her client is the victim. Even when the prostitute is a teen-ager, which means that the client could be arrested for child abuse in addition to patronizing a prostitute, some officers have told Hotaling they believe that the prostitute is having fun by having sex with as many as 15 men a night, she says.
“One thing I know that (The Sage Project) will call for is the decriminalization of women,” Hotaling says, although this brings her perilously close to the legalization debate that the conference has committed to avoid. “The arrests are usually towards the women even through the laws are written in nondiscriminatory fashion.” By making it unacceptable to arrest the women, she believes, the law-enforcement emphasis will shift to arresting the clients, which will discourage demand.
With Hotaling’s experience has come the belief that prevention education in schools and working with boys are important. Rather than painting boys and men as genetically predetermined sexual beasts, she describes their behavior in human terms.
“When you go to a woman who is working in the sex trade, you are pretending to have intimacy, you are not learning how,” says Hotaling. “It’s a fake, dishonest relationship. Most of the men in the (first offenders) class are taking very complex needs and saying, ‘Oh, it’s just sex.’ But they’re taking loneliness, sorrow, anger, and narrowing it down to a paid sex act.”
Access to women through prostitution denies boys the chance to connect with themselves through time alone and to create meaningful relationships that have intimacy and depth, says Hotaling.
“That’s what’s missing in the lives of the men that I work with.”
Victoria Zunitch is a freelance journalist in New York City who writes about women’s issues and business topics.
For more information:
U.S. Department of State–global issues
“Responses to Human Trafficking”:
SAGE Standing Against Global Exploitation: