Fifteen-year-old Tricia Grant was chatting with a girlfriend during dinner in a popular restaurant in Auburn, Maine. In her young life, Tricia had experienced hardships no child should suffer: sexual violence, housing insecurity, exposure to drugs and domestic abuse. She was also the mother of a one-year-old boy. Above all, Tricia confided in her friend, she feared losing her baby.
Two men eavesdropping on the conversation approached the girls and offered them a way to earn money. Excited by this potential lifeline, the girls showed up at the given address the following evening. That night, the men raped Tricia and her friend, put a pager in Tricia’s hands, and immediately began selling the girls to sex buyers in Maine and throughout New England. Her friend is still missing.
“The pager would go off and I knew it meant that I would be brought either to a strip club, a hotel room, a truck stop, or a house party. Never once was I asked how old I was, or if I needed help,” said Grant, now 44 years old, and the executive director of the survivor-led organization Just Love Worldwide. “I didn’t know there was a name for what was done to me or that it wasn’t my fault, so I never told anybody.”
Maine State Representative of South Portland Lois Galgay Reckitt understands all too well these intractable patterns of male violence against women, abuse of power, stigma, and shame. A long-time feminist advocate, Galgay Reckitt co-founded the Maine Women’s Lobby in the 1970s and lobbied for the passage of Maine’s first civil rights law for the LGBTQ community.
Lois Galgay Reckitt and Governor Janet Mills
Bearing witness to Tricia’s story and in collaboration with dozens of other survivors in Maine, Rep. Galgay Reckitt spearheaded a multi-year, bi-partisan campaign to educate her colleagues about the impact of prostitution and how its pieces fit with the puzzles of intimate partner abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. The exchange of money for these cruelties, they advocated, did not add up to consent.
Legalizing or decriminalizing the sex trade, as some were proposing as a solution, would only expand the market of sexual exploitation under the economic laws of supply, demand, and revenues for the sex trade.
Pimps and traffickers rely on a vibrant demand of sex buyers to fill their coffers and – similar to pigs’ exceptional sense of smell in unearthing rare truffles – they can instantly sniff out a person’s vulnerabilities and exploit them. When the state legalizes or decriminalizes the sex trade, third-party profiteers and traffickers multiply auction blocks, in the style of brothels, illicit “massage parlors” and other commercial sex establishments, to deliver their prey.
Maine had to find a better solution. Thanks to the advocacy of survivors like Grant and allies like Rep. Galgay Reckitt – they did.
On June 26, 2023, Governor Janet Mills signed An Act to Reduce Commercial Sexual Exploitation, eliminating the crime of engaging in prostitution and maintaining penalties for patronizing. The law ends the arrests and incarceration solely of people bought and sold in prostitution while still holding their sex buyers and other perpetrators accountable for the grievous harm they cause.
Two weeks later, An Act to Provide Remedies for Survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation followed suit. A services component to the law, the law mandates the state to offer comprehensive services survivors need to help them rebuild their lives. It also seals records of prostitution convictions so survivors can forge their future without fear of discrimination in housing or employment, for example.
With these Acts, Maine became the first state in the nation to adopt a legal framework known as the Equality Model, also called the Nordic or Abolitionist Model. Enacted in eight countries around the world, including Sweden, France, Canada and Israel, the law recognizes the system of prostitution as a barrier to equality.
The Patriarchs sculpted the system of prostitution from their bedrock to exert dominance over women and feminized bodies in worlds that valued neither. Conquerors exported it across continents and seas to secure the desecration of Indigenous and African women that still permeates today. It cannot exist without sex buyers.
Survivors of prostitution report that sex buyers are often more brutal than pimps. The patronizers’ sense of entitlement coupled with the power of their money hand them a license to humiliate, maim, torture, leave for dead, or worse.
Farmer and habitual sex buyer Robert Pickton, known as The Butcher, murdered 49 prostituted women. Another sex buyer, “Green River Killer” Gary Leon Ridgway, a commercial truck painter, killed 48 women. And now in New York, investigations are underway linking architect and chronic sex buyer Rex Heuermann to the Gilgo Beach murders of sex trafficked and prostituted women. Among them was Maine native Megan Waterman, pimped by her boyfriend and sold to Heuermann who allegedly dumped her body on the north side of Ocean Parkway.
In each of these and other serial killer cases linked to prostitution, the blueprints are similar: next-door neighbors consumed with hatred for women and who rely on law enforcement’s stubborn indifference to both holding patronizers accountable and to the suffering of the prostituted. The Gilgo Beach tragedy shows that if New York were committed to apprehending sex buyers, lives could have been saved.
The Equality Model calls on us to change our deep-seated cultural beliefs that prostitution is either inevitable, or “work,” or punishment for the forsaken children who should have known better. Implementation is not easy; it requires both financial investments and political will.
But it can be done. Since enacting its law in 2016, France has increased prosecutions against pimps and traffickers by 54%, and fined close to 10,000 sex buyers using those revenues to fund comprehensive, trauma-informed services to hundreds of people in the sex trade, mostly women of color.
The law requires an understanding that purchasing sexual acts is not a harmless pastime for lonely men or a way to feed uncontrollable sexual urges, but rather is a practice of gender-based violence, often laced with racism, and always with misogyny and dehumanization.
Rep. Galgay Reckitt knows these truths in her bones from her pioneering days fighting domestic abuse and sexual violence. The call to action is the same: don’t look away, don’t make excuses, don’t ask whether anyone chose it.
Instead, ask who is suffering and why, who is causing the harm, and who is profiting from the multi-billion-dollar sex trade with impunity.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Grant. “But I’m so proud that Maine is the first state to listen to survivors and to understand that we too are deserving of justice and a life free from violence. Not just us, but the generations to come.”
Author: Taina Bien-Aimé is Executive Director, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)