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The Boston Globe

Metro

Adrian Walker

Putting Johns in the dock

As far as Audrey Porter is concerned, men who patronize prostitutes have been getting a free ride for far too long, and she won’t have an ounce of sympathy when they begin to get what they deserve.

You’d probably feel the same way if you, like Porter, had been lured into “the life’’ as an impressionable teenager, if your resume included turning tricks and stripping in the old Combat Zone and if you had spent most of the last decade counseling women trying to find a way out.

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So when she picked up a local newspaper yesterday - not the one you are currently reading - and saw a report saying some “online hookers’’ are afraid that the tough new law going into effect tomorrow will be chilling for business, Porter was outraged.

“I’ve been raped, beaten, and robbed, all kinds of stuff,’’ Porter told me yesterday. “We are talking about children who cannot even consent to sex, and you’re telling me, ‘Let the johns go?’ My fight is for the babies. Damn right the johns need to be locked up.’’

Porter said she suspected that the woman quoted in the story was far removed from the deeply damaged women she works with. “It’s like one ‘happy hooker’ is speaking for all of us who are still traumatized,’’ she said. “And there are thousands of us.’’

The spark of the controversy is the human trafficking law sponsored by state Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford and Representative Eugene O’Flaherty of Chelsea. It would increase maximum sentences from one year to 2 1/2 and also up maximum fines for procurers. Prosecutors hope the law will help address the basic obstacle to curbing prostitution: the seemingly endless supply of customers.

Porter is associate director of My Life My Choice, an organization whose activities include shepherding women and girls out of prostitution. The group also provides a host of other services, including training for service providers and law enforcement officers to help them better recognize trafficking when they see it.

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The new law reflects a longstanding belief that existing penalties are too harsh on prostitutes and too lenient toward their customers, as if boys can only be expected to behave like boys.

The term “human trafficking’’ might conjure up images of something more exotic than the seedy business this law is aimed at. But recruitment is often as banal as picking up a young woman in a bus station in Dudley Square, as counselor Tanee Hobson can tell you.

She was a teenager who had spent most of her life in state custody when she met the grown man who would change her life, much for the worse. “I was 14, and I met a guy who I thought was my boyfriend,’’ she said. “Turns out he was a pimp.’’

He manipulated her into working for him, and it took her four years to cast him and his predatory business aside. That was when she met the group of survivors she refers to as her “little family’’.

“I have to say they are remarkable,’’ Hobson, 22, said. “When they told me their stories, it gave me hope. It takes a person of courage to tell their traumatic story.’’

No one pretends that this law, or any other, will be the end of trafficking in women in Massachusetts. Just this week, Lynn police said they broke up a prostitution ring that transported women from New York City to the North Shore. A recent immigrant from Mexico told police she had serviced 70 clients in a handful of days. A couple suspected of running the ring were arrested.

Prostitution is a subterranean criminal enterprise that often operates in plain sight, and a supposedly victimless crime that victimizes many. The lucky ones escape to tell their stories.

“We need to start holding these guys accountable for enslaving women,’’ Porter said. “I think it will help tremendously.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

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