I was not surprised at all to learn that Robert Kraft, one of Boston’s most prominent citizens and one of sports’ most powerful men, was buying sex. What truly surprised me, and even encouraged me, was that he was actually caught. I have been working with both survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and with men who buy sex for almost 30 years, and he fits the profile of a high frequency sex buyer, most of whom are never arrested. He is rich, white, male, and in a position of power. I’ve got nothing against white men per se. I am a white man. Some of my best friends are white men. These friends are typically quick to acknowledge that their race and gender brings privilege. These men tend also to understand that because of that privilege, they have blind spots that they must seek out to be aware of, and to be accountable for. These friends would never buy sex. They understand that it is precisely when we have such power that we should not use it to exploit others. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.
My work with sex buyers and with men in general reflects these values. We must go deep. It involves effecting a profound shift in attitudes toward gender, sex, self, relationships and justice. This work needs to happen on an individual level and on a societal level. It is happening with #MeToo movement, and we see it here. This is what is perhaps most compelling about the Kraft case. Historically and tragically, it has been people who are prostituted – it has been those who are are harmed and exploited that have been targeted by law enforcement and scapegoated by society. Focus is finally shifting to the cause of commercial sexual exploitation, the buyer, who is almost never held accountable but who, if he didn’t purchase sex, would shut down this multi-billion-dollar market in selfishness and cruelty in an instant.
Recent research from Demand Abolition, a leading advocate for holding buyers accountable, helps shed light on the sex buyer. As I mentioned earlier, many high frequency buyers have high incomes, but what’s more important is that there are prevalent attitudes that these men share. I was struck particularly by the following sentence in the findings section, “The main driver of sex buying, “normalized beliefs” about the commercial sex trade, combines interrelated ideas: prostituted women enjoy the act, it is mostly a victimless crime, buyers are merely taking care of their needs, and they are just “guys being guys.”
These ‘normalized beliefs’ are at the root of the victim blaming and sexual entitlement that drive sex buying behaviors. They create the social norms that men who buy sex wish to perceive. They are not normal in a statistical sense, however, and they are NOT TRUE. Most paid prostitutes do not “enjoy the act.” Worse, most experience great harm and want to leave prostitution, but they cannot find other options for survival. Most men, however, do not ever enact these beliefs. In fact, the Demand Abolition study finds that 80% of men will never buy sex. Yet buyers are correct at one level; the beliefs are normative since they represent a currently accepted mythology about commercial sexual exploitation and masculinity.
Thankfully, very clear policy imperatives flow from what we actually know to be true. Some of the key policy recommendations from Demand Abolition’s report include: Shift law enforcement’s finite resources from arresting and adjudicating prostituted persons towards arresting and adjudicating buyers; make available federal short-term funding programs to support state and local law enforcement agencies ready to make demand-reduction reforms; and implement mandatory minimum fines of adjudicated buyers to help offset costs of survivor exit services, effective long-term buyer education programs, and law enforcement demand operations.
The challenges can seem overwhelming, but change is more possible than we may think. The Demand Abolition study finds that among currently active sex buyers, only 25 percent of the buying population accounts for 75 percent of the demand for commercial sex. This indicates that a relatively small percentage of men are responsible for the majority of commercial sex related transactions. The study also finds that if there is a credible threat of arrest through operations like that of Robert Kraft in South Florida, they will feel pressure to stop buying. Again, these high frequency buyers are men of means who, if they continue to be treated without impunity, have a lot to lose.
Peter Qualliotine has been working to engage men to end commercial sexual exploitation and gender-based violence since 1990. In 2012, he and Noel Gomez co-founded the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS). With OPS, he developed and launched a 10 week sex buyer education program that is utilized by courts throughout King County, WA and served as founding co-cordinator of the Ending Exploitation Collaborative. He is also a founding co-chair and sits on the Executive Committee of World Without Exploitation. Peter recently relocated to Western Massachusetts.