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The Podium

Targeting the ‘johns’

Buy a body: get caught, but get off. That’s been the norm, but not anymore. As sports fans were getting ready for the big game, law enforcement across the nation was tackling the dark side of the Super Bowl: human trafficking. Boston Police Department participated in a multi-day operation targeting sex buyers — so called “johns.” The stings were part of the fifth National Day of Johns Arrests: an effort spearheaded by Cook County (Illinois) Sherriff’s Office that brought together more than 20 other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies around the country to arrest in total 1,147 sex buyers — including 55 men in Boston.

While women’s bodies were being used to peddle products in Super Bowl commercials, they were also actual “products” being bought by countless johns.

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Prostitution is the end point of all sex trafficking — sex buyers perpetuate a violent, exploitive industry that fuels organized crime. If no one were buying sex, pimps wouldn’t be supplying backpage.com, hotels, and back alleys with victims. Sex trafficking is happening in our country, in our own backyard. The most proactive police forces (including our own) are holding buyers accountable and sending the message: We will not tolerate the purchase of our girls.

Buyers better beware.

In a press release about the Boston operation, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley stated “Anyone who considers buying sex — especially from an underage girl or boy — should remember the physical and emotional damage that are part and parcel of commercial sexual exploitation. If that’s not enough, they should also remember that the person on the other end of that email or text message could very well be a Boston Police Officer.” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Senator Mark Montigny, and Representative Flaherty clearly understood the inextricable link between prostitution and sex trafficking, as evidenced by the strong anti-demand provisions in the human trafficking legislation they championed (in effect since last February) that set a minimum fine of $1,000 (and up to $5,000) for buying sex from an adult.

Community members throughout our city are finding inspiration for eradicating demand from other locales. Neighborhood watch programs, prevention school curricula, and public awareness campaigns have been launched around the US, sending the message through billboards and PSAs “Dear John, It’s Over.” Buyers themselves have told us what would make them stop. In a Boston study comparing 100 sex buyers to 100 men who don’t buy sex, 88 percent of the buyers said if a letter were sent home, they’d be deterred. 82 percent said they’d think twice if they knew their picture or name were printed in a local newspaper.But with these and most other tactics, including transformative “john schools,” community service programs, and jail time, the buyer needs first to be arrested.

Holding buyers accountable is only one important part of a comprehensive approach. We must also prosecute traffickers and empower survivors through social services, job training, trauma counseling and education. Our society must recognize commercial sexual exploitation as a devastating human rights violation. Sadly, all too often we still hear truisms such as “victimless crime” between “consenting adults,” and “boys will be boys.” This trivialization is pervasive. It’s on movie screens, TV, radio, and even on the t-shirts of our teens. It’s become part of the fabric of our country. We need a cultural shift.

Our nation’s collective understanding of illegal commercial sex is distorted. Few know the age women enter prostitution. Not 25. Not 18. In fact, they aren’t “women” at all; 15 is the average, with some as young as 6. These girls are exploited, including raped — often more than ten times a day. Many come from foster care, and almost all have a history of sexual abuse. Survivors tell us and research corroborates that up to 90 percent of those “in the life” would leave if they felt they had a choice.

Do some women freely choose to sell sex? Maybe. But they’re the well-publicized exception, and we don’t build our policies and laws on the experiences of the minority when the damage to the majority is so great. For good reason, purchasing a human being is illegal, and it needs to be treated as such. We must stop understating the seriousness with loaded euphemisms and start arresting sex buyers for the crimes they commit.

Buying sex and getting away with it? Not anymore. Thank you to the Boston Police Department and the many leaders in our state and city governments for holding buyers accountable.

Ayanna Pressley is a Boston City Councilor. Lina Nealon is director of policy and outreach at Demand Abolition.
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