Racial Injustice: The Case for Prosecuting Buyers as Sex Traffickers


Recently the U.S. House of Representatives took historic action on behalf of trafficked and exploited youth by passing five anti-trafficking bills aimed at protecting victims and bringing their exploiters to justice. Until now, most federal efforts to end sex trafficking have aimed at penalizing pimps. But now, one of the new bills, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, represents significant progress in the movement to end sex trafficking, in that it finally seeks to end the culture of impunity for those who purchase sex, and particularly, sex with minors. The bill targets the demand side of sex trafficking in three key ways:

1) calling on law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute buyers, and not just pimps;

2) directing the federal anti-trafficking task forces throughout the country to bolster state and local law enforcement efforts to go after buyers of who purchase sex with minors; and

3) clarifying that purchasers—not just pimps—can be tried and prosecuted as traffickers under existing federal anti-trafficking laws.

Needless to say, we were thrilled when the bill passed unanimously in the House on a 409-0 vote. The act is now being considered in the Senate.

For years, we have witnessed law enforcement and the federal government focusing their anti-trafficking efforts almost exclusively on pimps and other exploiters who profit from selling minors, despite the fact that demand reduction is a proven primary prevention strategy. It is high time that we recognize the importance of addressing not only the supply, but also the demand side of sex trafficking that is fueling the market. The glaring need to stop purchasers becomes painfully clear when listening to survivor accounts of their violent and degrading experiences with buyers and when recognizing that the vast majority of these men escape with no punishment, or at most, misdemeanor solicitation charges, even when purchasing sex with minors.

Though at first blush it may seem that only pimps can legally constitute traffickers, there are strong legal, moral, and racial considerations for why both purchasers and suppliers ought to be viewed and treated as traffickers under the law. First, as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act strives to make clear, the relevant statute (section 1591 of title 18, United States Code) was always meant to encompass buyers. In fact, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that “[t]he unambiguous text of § 1591 makes no distinction between suppliers and purchasers of commercial sex acts with children.” Yet far too few prosecutors are pursuing buyers in this manner. To remedy this omission, the act removes all doubt as to section 1591’s applicability to purchasers, thereby alerting U.S. attorneys that they can and ought to use section 1591 to prosecute buyers in appropriate cases.

Second, failing to prosecute buyers under federal anti-trafficking statutes suggests that buyers are somehow less culpable. Though some may argue that there is a significant distinction between the role of the buyer and the pimp, both actors clearly contribute to the exploding market for sex with underage victims, and neither should therefore escape the consequences of their actions. By definition, buyers are responsible for sustaining the market for sex with minors. And pimps and buyers alike exercise control, ownership, and violence toward victims—the former lures, manipulates, and markets victims for sex, while the latter purchases their bodies as a commodity, often to engage in violent fantasies. These politely dubbed “johns” even rate the girls they pay for on online forums known as “john boards” and exchange tips on how to evade law enforcement.

There is a very real and entrenched culture of impunity for men who buy sex in this country. And particularly when looking at minors who are bought and sold, it is clear that when the rape of these girls is commoditized and paid for, that it is no longer deemed rape or child sexual abuse, but instead is written off as juvenile prostitution. As a result, it is the victims who are criminalized, and their purchasers—who in any other situation would be considered perpetrators of sexual assault, statutory rape, or worse—escape with little to no consequence.

Some may theorize that perhaps these men do not know they have purchased a minor, but from speaking to survivors, we know this to be false. Take Tami’s story. Tami is a survivor I met through the organization Saving Innocence in Los Angeles. At 15 years old, Tami decided to tell each of her purchasers she was underage and desperate for help. For six months she pleaded with each and every man who paid to rape her to help her. Not one of them did—not surprising when you consider that buyers often pay more to have sex with minors. What’s more, according to a 2011 study, two-thirds of men recognize that most prostituted individuals are often “lured, tricked, or trafficked.” Therefore, the notion that these individuals are clueless about their actions is simply not the case.

Finally, we must consider using federal anti-trafficking laws to prosecute buyers from a racial justice perspective. Members of the anti-trafficking community in the United States often characterize themselves as “abolitionists” fighting against modern-day slavery. Many even evoke the imagery and icons associated with the African-American slavery narrative. Those of us fighting trafficking as part of a broader human rights movement must recognize that failing to advocate for the use of these laws to punish both buyers and sellers serves to perpetuate very serious racial disparities in who we are deeming culpable and who we are criminalizing for trafficking. Pimps tend to be Black and brown men—men who are often undereducated and from impoverished communities that we routinely criminalize anyway. But the buyers, by contrast, tend to be white, middle- to upper-middle-class, educated men. A terrible irony therefore arises whereby “abolitionists” are advocating for the continued incarceration of Black and brown men for trafficking, while the typically white buyers escape with lesser consequences for their role in perpetuating this crime.

We must be mindful that in failing to take this equitable approach to applying our trafficking laws, we are signaling that the buyer is not as culpable for trafficking, despite the exploitation of young victims and exercise of violence, ownership, and degradation of their bodies. And if the analogy to African-American slavery were to hold, we would essentially be deeming the slave traders more culpable than the slave owners themselves. This cannot be the intent.

The facts remain clear: Until we as a movement take conscious steps to condemn both the supply and demand for commercial sex, we are failing to address this crime from all relevant angles. Further, we are risking discrediting ourselves as human rights advocates—and certainly as modern-day “abolitionists”—for our role in perpetuating serious and harmful racial inequities in our fight to end human trafficking.

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Follow Yasmin Vafa on twitter: @rights4girls; @yvafa

  • JamieHaman

    The House of Representative finally did something right! Did it without a ton of bad publicity, as with the failure to reasonably pass the Violence Against Women Act.
    Hope this sails through the Senate, and onto President Obama’s desk!

  • kromos

    To begin with, there is a distinction between prostitution and “human trafficking”. The overwhelming majority of prostitution activity which takes place in the world–even more so– in The United States, involves mutually consenting adults. If you want to criticize their behaviors for religious or sociopolitical reasons, that’s certainly your right. However, engaging in the distribution of disinformation in an attempt to ingrain your ideology into the lives of other people, smacks of cultural authoritarianism. This is simply a veiled attempt to initiate a Swedish-style model of radical feminist activism into US prostitution laws.

    Pretending to care about racism, when the author’s real concern is the imposition of her own POV regarding sex work, only increases the overall offensiveness of the article.

    While underage prostitution certainly exists, arrest records make it clear that these cases represent a small minority of prostitution transactions. Much worse is the fact that anti-prostitution activists cavalierly throw around the incendiary term “child prostitution”, a term which typically references the exploitation of pre-pubescent children, as opposed to the more accurate term “adolescent prostitution”. I’m not arguing that either is acceptable, but there are obvious dramatic differences between a seven year old and a seventeen year old.

    The women and men who choose to work in the sex industry have a right to make that choice. By creating a framework of both decriminalized and legalized prostitution, and by allowing the sex workers themselves to control the conditions and circumstances under which they work; we can make them safer, control the participation of minors, and remove the government form the sex lives of consenting and mentally competent adults.

  • Arekushieru

    Sorry, but abortion providers are not equivalent to buyers of sex. This kind of law is egregious to the extreme, but someone who helps women access their full rights is not equivalent to someone who is merely purchasing a service from someone else who just generally happens to be… a woman. Thanks.

  • belsha .

    You ask “why are men the ones that purchase sex the most often, whether the sex-worker is male or female?”

    The answer is so simple I wonder why so many don’t get it and look for absurd, idoleogically skewed answers.

    Men are much more interested in casual sex than women, who tend to be more interested in long term relationships. There are surveys about this, for example in the most recent one in France an attractive man/woman asked strangers in the street if they wanted to have sex with them right now. Out of 30 women, only one responded “yes”; out of 30 men, only one responded “no”, thus for every woman that wants to have casual sex with an attractive stranger there are 29 men that want the same thing.

    This is why many dating sites are free for women but men have to pay. This why swinger clubs only accept couples, give free entry to single women and refuse single men, otherwise there would only be men in there. This is why many women complain they are constantly hit on all day long, while no man complains about this. And this is why there are so few female clients of prostitutes and so few male heterosexual prostitutes. The odd one in thirty woman that wants casual sex easily can get it for free, even being quiet selective.

    If there were more female demand for prostitution, no doubt a quiet large number of men would be more than happy to work as prostitutes: who would refuse to get paid for what you struggle most of the time to do without pay, and some even pay for?

    • iamcuriousblue

      I beg to differ with you on the generalized idea of women’s total lack of interest in casual sex, albeit, noting there’s a difference between men and women, generally speaking, in terms of level of interest in casual sex is certainly to state the obvious. That could be for reasons of culture, biology, or most likely, some interaction between the two.

      It only takes a small difference in the relative excess in straight men seeking casual sex over straight women to create a sex work market that’s skewed toward male buyers and female sellers. And when you look at men who sell sexual services to other men (something a lot of anti-sex work types like to erase), that’s something that very much exists, in proportion to the number of MSM in the population. There’s even a not-insignificant subculture of “beach boys” (look it up, and no, not the band :) in several parts of the world, which are scenes where men sell companionship, romance, and sexual services to female sex tourists. It’s small relative to analogous men-seeking-women sex tourism, but it is a real thing. All of which points away from the claim that the disproportionate excess of female sellers and male buyers means that prostitution is self-evidently a product of men’s oppression of women.

      • Arekushieru

        I also addressed at least something similar to the ‘beach boys’ thing in my preceding post to which you are replying to someone else’ reply to it. Guess you don’t have reading comprehension skills.

        So, yes, actually, this DOESN’T prove that it is anything OTHER than a self-evident product of men’s oppression of women.

    • Arekushieru

      Before you read this, though, I would suggest that you read my reply to iamcuriousblue at the very bottom, however. Because I think BOTH you and she/he are operating under VERY similar but VERY mistaken assumptions.

      Of course, though, you still don’t quite get it. As you prove with your example of men who are more likely to respond to a complete stranger’s invitation to sex AND your examples of women who don’t pay for sex. The very reason they do that? Is precisely because of the sexual objectification (and I do hope you’re aware that sexual objectification means more than sexual gratification…) of women. After all, do you think years of the LEARNED behaviour (which doesn’t even INCLUDE the thousands of years prior of SYSTEMIC oppression via, in one manner, some sort,) of sexual objectification of women can all of a sudden be separated from biology? I don’t, if we are to take oppression seriously, that is…. Also, women aren’t required to pay because they haven’t been socialized to seek men out as objects of sexual gratification (yes, which includes dating sites, since, even though women may be seeking romance, they are only initially seeing a bare necessity profile that would equate with purchasing someone’s services if they had to pay, and also swinger couples, but for more OBVIOUS reasons, I’m sure), therefore, when a business is seeking more customers, and operating under the mistaken impression that simply having more women buying ‘sex’ at a similar rate to their male counterparts makes things equal, of COURSE they’re going to offer women free or otherwise discounted rates .

  • iamcuriousblue

    Your second post of exactly the same thing? Is this your stock argument?

    Just one detail you’re missing here – sex worker activists have been overwhelmingly arguing that the criminalization of clients *does not put power in their hands*, but is rather merely a benign-sounding form of criminalization-by-other-means that in fact, puts power in the hands of the state and its law enforcement agents.

    • Arekushieru

      My second stock reply? Do you have reading comprehension skills? Apparently not, because you failed to understand THIS post. I was arguing AGAINST criminalization of clients. Now do go back and re-read more carefully, with this in mind, next time.

      • iamcuriousblue

        First, I’m responding to your posts *pre-re-editing* – you’ve changed them around somewhat between now and when I’ve read them. Second, apologies if I’m ascribing to you a position that you don’t actually hold – I missed the keyword of criminalizing purchasers of “child and adolescent prostitutes”, not sexual services in general.

        My disagreement with the “patriarchal socialization” argument stands, as does my argument that the majority female-seller/male-buyer dynamic means much of anything behind a somewhat different attitude between men and women about casual/anonymous sex, generally speaking.

  • kromos

    “It couldn’t be precisely because women are looked at as objects for sexual gratification whereas men are not, OR that men are perceived to be the ones who are entitled to the bodies of women, now could it? ”

    You’re right, it couldn’t be!–at least any more than men being perceived as an object of economic enrichment. You obviously conflate all prostitution activity, with something you refer to as “sex trafficking”.

    You conveniently ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of prostitutes work in this field by choice. You try to get around that fact by engaging in the juvenilization of adult women–arguing, in essence, that they are victims of their own intellectual or emotional inability to resist “patriarchal influences”.

    Your last paragraph makes it clear that you are in favor of the so-called “Swedish Model” of prostitution law–a law which has done nothing to reduce prostitution activity in Sweden. It has merely sent that activity underground, where it is far more dangerous and unpredictable for the sex workers, even as it has fueled an anti-male sexism in that country.

    There isn’t a legalized prostitution system in the world which allows for the exploitation of children or adolescents. I have no issue with strong penalties for customers who engage in prostitution acts with children, nor with laws which penalize customers for engaging in prostitution with someone they know to be a minor.

    However, when adults choose to engage in a transaction in which money is exchanged for sexual contact, it is none of my (or your) business. My concern is with the hyperbole engaged in by radical feminists and the religious right; who, ironically, are so often “in bed together” on issues related to the authoritarian control of other people’s consensual sexual behaviors.

  • sixtoedkitties

    Oh, that’s interesting that Ms. Vafa is here at RH Reality Check advocating yet more harmful policies affecting sex workers. Here she is at a “women’s power breakfast,” practically exulting in the disgusting display of wealth, high society fashion, false motives, and careerism at the expense of other women: http://inthecapital.streetwise.co/all-series/spotted-in-style-yasmin-vafa-at-politicos-womenrule-breakfast/

    • sixtoedkitties

      The real idea here, of course, is expanding the law enforcement and prosecutorial powers of the federal government. While this is exactly the sort of thing that led to the modern surveillance state, it’s no particularly surprising that it’s popular among the “high society” sort in D.C.