Everyone knows sex sells. Sometimes it sells products. Sometimes, as the Mark Strong and Alexis Wright case in Kennebunk makes clear, it’s just the sex that’s being sold. So far, 59 people have pleaded guilty or no contest to paying Wright for her services as a prostitute.
But in other cases, people aren’t buying sex from a willing person who gets to keep the money.
Sex trafficking exists because of demand. People — mostly women and children — are forced into the commercial sex trade against their will because traffickers or pimps can profit from it.
Police will continue to fight the crime of sex trafficking. Maine government will continue to pass laws to address the problem as it evolves. Social service agencies will develop better ways to identify and help victims. These efforts are good and right.
But what about those who buy sex? “Johns” might not be aware that they aren’t just committing a misdemeanor crime but, instead, propping up what could be a larger sex trafficking ring. At the very least, they are contributing to a culture that makes sex trafficking possible.
Where there’s a demand, there’s a product. Unfortunately, the product is often a human being who has been coerced or threatened into selling sex.
The national Polaris Project recently released its annual ratings of state human trafficking laws. While Maine has improved, it still remains in the bottom half of states in terms of its legal efforts to combat the crime.
Thirty-two states achieved the organization’s highest rating, up from 21 last year. Maine, however, was placed in the Tier 2 category. While the group recognized Maine for passing legislation to expand the definition of human trafficking and rename “promotion of prostitution” to the more accurate “sex trafficking,” there is more to do.
Police need more training, for example. The Polaris Project urged the state to pass a law to allow trafficking victims to have prostitution convictions expunged from their record. And Maine can ensure counseling and other services are immediately available for victims, especially children.
Only a small number of people may be victims, but the associated problems run deep. Sex crimes, illicit drug use, burglary and assault affect everyone, whether directly or indirectly.
Often, however, the johns are left out of the conversation. A June 2012 report for the U.S. Department of Justice found that most efforts are focused on stemming the progression of the problem, or recovering from it, while little investment is made in preventing it in the first place.
When johns search for sex to buy — through online escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs, truck stops, motels — they could be aiding traffickers and pimps. Remove the trafficking operation, and it may soon be replaced because of demand. Reduce consumer demand, and kill the market.
Some specific programs and laws have been successful in stemming demand. In a particularly comprehensive operation in Jersey City, N.J., that relied on reverse stings — where police pretend to be prostitutes and solicit clients — observed and reported prostitution decreased 75 percent. Evaluations found the activity had not simply been displaced to other areas of the city.
A San Francisco “john school” reduced repeat offenses by more than 40 percent. The result has been sustained for a decade. On the opposite coast, St. Petersburg, Fla., conducted reverse stings and sent letters with information about sexually transmitted diseases to arrested johns. Prostitution-related calls decreased 24 percent in one year.
Sweden took a comprehensive, national approach in 1999 when it passed legislation that decriminalized the sale of sex but criminalized the purchase of it. By putting the criminal burden on the buyer — on the demand — the country reduced street prostitution 50 to 70 percent.
Not all prostitutes are trafficking victims, but the demand that drives prostitution also drives trafficking. As Maine police, social service professionals, advocates and lawmakers continue to address the problem, they shouldn’t forget the reason it exists in the first place.