Fight Sex Trafficking – Out the Johns

Soi Cowboy, a red-light district in Bangkok

Soi Cowboy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Years ago, I was walking through a bustling red light district in Thailand. Crowded bars and the occasional elephant lined the fluorescent pink streets, and young girls stood in doorways promising sex shows involving a surprising array of implements.

Just then, a florid, middle-aged white guy wearing a teenage Asian girl on his arm walked by, parading down the street like landed gentry strolling in a rose garden.

“What a dick,” I thought. “He would never get away with that in Germany, but in Thailand he thinks he’s hot, like nobody knows he paid for it.”

Then I promptly did nothing. Because what can you do?

Though prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, it is a robust industry that, studies say, produces $4.3 billion per year. Not surprisingly, The UN considers Thailand, with its porous borders, a hotbed of human trafficking.

Prostitution and human trafficking are not necessarily the same thing, but they are definitely kissing cousins. Thank God counter-trafficking groups rescue people and pursue legislation in economically unstable regions where women lack even cursory legal status, but I wonder:

Who is prosecuting the dick with the underage girl on his arm?

Isn’t our “what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas” attitude equally liable for what is now the world’s third largest organized crime?

In 1999 the Swedish government passed a law acknowledging that a country cannot resolve its human trafficking problem without first addressing the demand for prostitution – not supply, demand.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Ten years later, the Swedes studied the law’s impact and found street prostitution had dropped by half with no evidence it had just moved indoors or online. In addition, fewer men said they purchased sexual services. Even the police agreed, the law worked and in 2010 Sweden was the only country in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking had not increased.

The success of Swedish law, now called the Nordic Model, lies not so much in penalizing men, but in outing them – removing the invisibility of the behavior. Countries where the customer fears the loss of his anonymity are unappealing to pimps and traffickers.

US law enforcement is exposing Johns too. In January, New York City police arrested 195 people, including johns, and seized 55 vehicles, as part of Operation Losing Proposition.  In May, Manhattan’s D.A. charged 14 men with soliciting prostitution after a crackdown on a sex trafficking ring, where pimps tattooed bar codes on womens’ necks. During the bust one of the men was overheard asking an investigator, “Does my wife have to find out about this?”

People love to call prostitution a victimless crime – a commodity transaction between adults. However, in our culture which flirts regularly with shamelessness, getting caught soliciting sex is still deeply shameful  (think Hugh Grant and George Michael).  It’s easy to rationalize selfish impulses until organizations like show up with data like this:

Prostitutes are 40 times more likely to die than non-prostitutes.

Sixty-eight percent of prostituted women meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture.

Studies show that 75 to 95% of all prostitutes were sexually abused as children.

 Kevin Ryan CEO of Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency serving runaway, homeless and trafficked youth in the Americas, says, “We need a 21st century abolitionist movement to end the trafficking of women and children, and it must include a robust front in the war against demand.”

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