A key factor in preventing sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation is often neglected or forgotten all together—the demand for paid sex (whether in person, virtual, or digital or film photography formats).
The Role of Supply and Demand in Markets
The concepts of supply and demand are fundamental building blocks in capitalist economies. Supply represents how much of a particular product the market can offer, and demand refers to how much of a product is desired by potential buyers (see here).
Sexual Exploitation and Supply
When these concepts are applied to forms of sexual exploitation such as prostitution, pornography, or sex trafficking into the sex trade, those who are bought and sold for in-person sex or whose sexually explicit images are bartered and/or commodified constitute the “supply.” This objectifies and diminishes the humanity of those being supplied (predominantly women and children, but also men) by rendering human beings into public sexual commodities.
Sexual Exploitation and Demand
In contrast, those who make up the “demand” are the individuals with the desire, along with the ability and willingness, to purchase people to use for sex (again, whether in person, virtual, or digital or film photography formats).
As the driving force fueling the markets for paid sex, they have been described as the “primary” level of demand. Without them making the decision to buy sex acts, sexual exploitation would end. No buyers, no business.
Those who comprise the demand are overwhelmingly male.
Importantly, sex trafficking exists because the male demand for people to buy for sexual use outstrips the supply of those available for purchase. Since few women and men wish to be bought in exchanges of sex for money, sex traffickers (i.e., distributors of people used for prostitution) step in to provide the supply. In order to secure people to sell in the prostitution marketplace, pimps engage in recruitment, transportation, harboring, provisioning and obtaining, and utilize means of force, fraud, and coercion. Thus, pimps are by definition, sex traffickers and any pimp-controlled person, whether a minor or an adult, is a victim of sex trafficking.
 Commercial sex acts are any sex acts on account of which anything of value is given or exchanged by any person. In addition to cash, things of value include housing, food, clothing, drugs, or other material goods.
 The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defined a “severe form of sex trafficking” as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning and obtaining, of a person for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, by means of force, fraud, or coercion.
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There are likely sex buyers in your community, and they tend to blend in with everyone else. Because buying sex is illegal in most of the country it is difficult to gather data on their identities, but there have been several useful studies that help shed light on this population.
According to one such study, “about 14% of men in the United States report having ever paid for sex.” A survey of sex buyers in Minnesota reported that sex buyers were found in a “wide variety of employment sectors, including businessmen, doctors, lawyers, dentists, judges, professors, police officers, correctional officers, pastors, executives, truck drivers, manual laborers, farmers, and sailors.” In this same survey, a law enforcement officer stated:
A good majority of them are going to be your middle-aged to older white males as a demographic on them. A little bit, I would say, higher up on the economic scale – they have a little extra money to spend. A good majority of them, I would say 80-90 percent are married with children.
Interviews with Chicago men who purchased sex revealed a more diverse ethnic range of sex buyers—40% African American, 36% European American, 14% Latino, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% identified as “other.” This suggests that the behavior of sex buying is not limited by race. The majority of men interviewed had a college education and a girlfriend or wife. While females have been known to purchase sex, it appears that they are in the extreme minority, and so sex buying from persons in prostitution is a predominantly male behavior.
Men who solicit and buy people for sex are often referred as “customers” or “clients.” These terms normalize and obscure the harm of their behavior.
The term “johns” is also a common term used to refer to those who purchase sex. It too is problematic for its anonymizing effect, as well as the way in which it normalizes the behavior by suggesting that men purchasing people for sex is as common as the name “John.”
As an alternative we use the term “sex buyers” because it more accurately describes the activity in which these individuals engage.
However, it has been argued that “sex buyers” are not actually purchasing sex, since “sex” connotes an intimate, mutually desired, and mutually pleasurable sexual exchange. The “sex” purchased in prostitution is certainly not intimate (it is an escape from intimacy), nor is it mutually desired (if it was, payment would not be necessary), and it hinges entirely on the sexual pleasure of the buyer, thus making it inherently impossible to engage in a healthy, paid sex act. Moreover, terms like “sex buyer,” by placing emphasis on sexual activity, obscure the humanity of those on whom buyers enact and enforce their sexual demands.
Unfortunately, we are not aware of alternative phrasing that adequately encapsulates the behavior and resulting harms that the term “sex buyers” attempts to describe, so in spite of its shortcoming we use the term sex buyers.
When there is a buyer, there is an incentive for so-called “third-parties” or “entrepreneurs”—pimps and sex traffickers—to provide a “product” (i.e. real men, women, and children) through sex trafficking.
A 2013 study of 150 countries from the London School of Economics found that wherever prostitution was legal, sex-trafficking tended to increase, not decrease. Why? Because once something is legal, there is increased demand for it.
And because prostitution is inherently dangerous and harmful, there are not many women or men who enter into it “willingly.” This means that sex traffickers push victims into the sex trade through force, fraud, or coercion in order to make a profit off of the high demand for commercial sex.
Further, it is essentially impossible for sex buyers to vet and know if the person they are purchasing for sex is a sex trafficking victim or not. Most sex trafficking victims are not held in dungeons with literal chains but are instead imprisoned through psychological coercion and threats. They may actively seek to engage with a potential sex buyer in order to meet quotas imposed on them by their sex trafficker/s.
Purchasing sex is ultimately an act of sexual entitlement—just like so many other forms of sexual exploitation. Reams of studies recognize the pervasive violence found in prostitution, across prostitution types and locations—whether one is a male or a female, whether one is prostituting in America or a third world country, indoors or outdoors, for drugs or to pay the rent, on a street corner, in a car, back alley, brothel, massage parlor, or strip club—both the threat of, as well as actual violence, permeate everyday existence in prostitution.
Sex buyers are the primary perpetrators of violence against prostituted women. One survivor of prostitution explained how purchasing sex eradicates empathy and boundaries during the encounter, stating:
“You know when you buy something and it doesn’t work properly, the first thing you will do is pick it up and shake it. The same principle applies to prostitution. If your mouth isn’t open wide enough or your throat isn’t deep enough. So you are always at risk of being raped or abused if the buyer feels he is not getting what he paid for.”
Further, many sex buyers purchase sexual access to women primarily to act out on violent fantasies. One social service provider reflected on conversations with women in prostitution, noting: “There’s a lot of men [sex buyers] that will tell you right up front- you’ll get an extra hundred dollars, but I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”
There are at least 12 tactics that have been used in several U.S. cities and counties to deter people from buying sex. These demand-reduction tactics include both street-level and web-based reverse stings that arrest sex buyers instead of prostituted people, “John schools,” “Dear John” letters, shaming, and vehicle seizures. To learn more about tactics to address demand, visit https://demand-forum.org/.
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