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To Fight Sex Trafficking We Must Go After The Johns and Pimps

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Meghan Murphy - published on 12/17/14

Truly criminalizing the victimizers would be a good first step to abolishing prostitution

Remember Eliot Spitzer? Back in 2008, the then-Governor of New York resigned after word got out that he had bought sex from prostituted women. Ashley Dupré, the woman Spitzer paid for sex, was moved between states a number of times by her escort agency, as were many of the other women working for The Emperor’s Club. This was framed by her pimps as “travel dates.” But the reality is that Spitzer and the Emperor’s Club had broken the law by transporting a woman across state lines for the purposes of prostitution, which constitutes trafficking.

And yet, Spitzer wasn’t charged. Seems the Department of Justice bought it, failing to find any reason to charge him.
While some states are developing more aggressive legislation when it comes to the issue of sex trafficking, it’s clear that these crimes have not been taken seriously enough by the government or by society at large. In the case of Spitzer, as well as in the case of most men whose use of prostitutes is made public, buying sex is seen as a kind of seedy joke — titillating more than anything else. “Boys will be boys” is a common attitude.

Where Culture Meets Law
Part of the problem: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is generally only enforced when it comes to prostituted children. Suddenly, when a woman turns 18, she’s on her own, viewed as an adult making fully empowered choices, says Melissa Farley, a psychologist and founder of Prostitution Research and Education.

Our desire to separate trafficking from prostitution, and girls from women, is part of what supports society’s acceptance of the sex industry. Many believe women become prostitutes simply because they made bad choices and erase (or are ignorant of) all the factors leading up to this supposed choice — sexual abuse, neglect, addiction, incest, poverty, racism, and, of course, gender inequality and a culture that turns women and girls into sexualized objects. Dupré herself had a history of drug abuse, mental illness and sexual assault that led her to enter the sex industry.

That the law is not upheld when it comes to women who are over 18 “reflects the fact that sexism is alive and well in the U.S. justice system, and there is not a desire to stop or abolish prostitution,” Farley says.

Where to Look for a Model
Other countries around the world have begun to actively work towards abolishing the sex trade entirely. Sweden adopted a model in 1999 that criminalized pimps and johns, decriminalizing those who sell sex. This has resulted in a notable drop in the number of buyers — while one in eight men used to pay for sex in Sweden, it’s now been reduced to one in 13. Since then, Norway and Iceland have also implemented what’s referred to as “the Nordic model” and France, Northern Ireland, and Canada have recently passed bills supporting similar legislation.

Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, says education and training should be a priority as much as changes to the law. “It’s really about culture change as much as it is about legislation change,” she says.

Part of that cultural change requires seeing people in prostitution as victims, not criminals, but also understanding that trafficking isn’t something that always looks outwardly obvious.

Reading Between the Lines
Farshad Talebi is Deputy Prosecuting Attorney at the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office in Washington. He says that Washington has some of the most effective trafficking laws in the country and has sentenced men to up to 50 years in prison on trafficking charges. In September, Allixzander Harris, 24, was sentenced in Kitsap County Superior Court to 486 months in prison for eight counts related to sex trafficking. Harris had started a “relationship” with a 17-year-old girl and soon after began selling her and another 16-year-old as prostitutes online. He later “trained” a 27-year-old woman for prostitution by raping her repeatedly in a motel room, then selling her on sites like Backpage.com.

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Human Trafficking
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