Is ending sexual exploitation possible?
Yes, but only by addressing the root cause: the sex buyer.
Without those who choose to buy other people for sex, there would be no prostitution and no sex trafficking. Yet sex buyers are often left unchecked and as a result inflict incalculable harm on individuals and society.
Here are evidence-based reasons why sex buyers must be stopped and recommendations on how to stop them.
- Sex buyers inflict grave physical and psychological harm on those they purchase for sex. Survivor experience and research reveal that sex buyers are responsible for serious psychological harm, as well as sexual assault, rape, and murder.
- Enforcing laws against sex buyers holds the right people accountable. Prostitution law enforcement practices traditionally have been biased against those sold in prostitution versus sex buyers. For instance, analysis of 53,240 total prostitution arrests between 1997-2010 in Harris County, Texas, revealed that 68% of arrestees were female while only 28% were male. Among those arrested for first-time prostitution offenses, women were more likely to receive jail sentences than men who disproportionately received probation and fines. Shifting law enforcement’s limited resources from arresting people in prostitution toward arresting sex buyers corrects this imbalance and holds those responsible for inflicting abuse and harm accountable.
- When sex buyers are penalized, consumer-level demand is constrained. This reduces the scale of the sex trade and curtails sex trafficking.
- Sex traffickers are difficult to deter due to market incentives created by sex buyers. The full spectrum of sex traffickers—including peers, family members, and those in positions of power (e.g., police, clergy, institutional caregivers)—are motivated by money, and every dollar in the global sex trade originates from sex buyers. Every victim was purchased by a sex buyer—typically multiple sex buyers per day. Further, “A very small portion of pimps and traffickers are ever arrested. . . . they [traffickers] are likely to be replaced as long as demand remains strong and there is profit to be made.”
- Sex buyer deterrence tactics are well documented and widely implemented. At least 15 types of distinct demand reduction tactics have been used in more than 2,400 U.S. cities and counties to identify, sanction, and deter people from buying sex.
- Demand reduction efforts work. When implemented rigorously and consistently, demand reduction efforts are effective at curbing prostitution.
- Demand reduction efforts are cost-effective. A US national assessment of demand reductions efforts noted that most anti-demand tactics are cost neutral and that some generate revenue through fees and fines.
- Stopping sex buying is primary prevention. Within criminology, “primary prevention” efforts are those directed at modifying the physical and social conditions which provide opportunity for, or precipitate, crime. Robust efforts aimed at curbing demand for paid sex such as maintaining, strengthening, and enforcing laws that deter sex buying creates a culture that prevents harm before it happens.
- Sex buyers are not representative of all men—buying sex is not inevitable. While many men have purchased sex, most have not. Of 8,201 adult males surveyed from across the US, only 6.2% bought sex within the past 12 months, while only 20.6% did so at least once in their lifetime. Among currently active sex buyers, 64% indicated “I would like to stop buying sex.”
How to Stop Sex Buying
Gender-based violence is endemic and decried by social movements and human rights organizations, so it makes sense that sex buyers and the gender-based harm they inflict must be stopped. Below are several recommendations aimed at achieving this vision. Recommendations A–G derive from the 2018 report Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand by Demand Abolition.
A. Shift law enforcement’s finite resources from arresting and adjudicating prostituted persons toward arresting and adjudicating sex buyers
B. Make available federal short-term funding programs to support state and local law enforcement agencies ready to make demand-reduction reforms
C. Implement mandatory minimum fines on adjudicated sex buyers to help offset costs of survivor exit services, effective long-term sex buyer education programs, and law enforcement operations
D. Create increasingly severe penalty structures for repeat buyers, while ensuring that sanctions are consistent with the nature of the offence and not unfairly punitive
E. Counter messages that normalize sex buying through interventions in education and public health sectors
F. Create and enforce employer policies prohibiting sex buying
G. Implement targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications on behavioral “nudges” such as:
- Targeted deterrence and prevention campaigns that focus on how much “safer” it is for men to engage in consensual relational sex compared to buying sex
- Scalable communications programs, especially those deployed digitally, that focus on nudging men away from exploitive sexual experiences that are highly correlated with sex buying
- Contributions from the health sector which can help reduce demand on multiple fronts
- Involvement of physicians and mental health counselors to communicate sex buying is a risky activity
H. Civil prosecutions against “sex tourists” and sex buyers
I. Prosecution of buyers as conspirators to sex trafficking
J. Prevent childhood exposure to pornography
K. Develop and refine existing demand reduction strategies to target the most active and privileged buyers
Please take 30 SECONDS to use the action below to email your local elected officials asking them to adopt policies that increase accountability for sex buyers. NCOSE can support officials with research, customized legislation, and training.