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Targeting johns, not prostitutes

Back in September, Boston mayoral candidate Martin Walsh called a press conference in Dewey Square to outline a thoughtful strategy to combat the commercial sex trade in Boston. Not a single reporter showed up other than one who accidentally happened by. But now that he has the title of mayor, Walsh can expect a wider audience.

On Tuesday, Walsh is convening a summit on human trafficking for law enforcement, activists, and educators. The meeting coincides with a widespread shift in thinking about how the principle of supply and demand applies to prostitution. Rather than prosecute prostitutes, the new approach calls for greater targeting of the "johns" who purchase sex acts. Today, Boston Police are more likely to steer a prostitute to a job training counselor than a judge. And despite a dismal start in enforcing a 2012 law aimed at curbing demand, Suffolk prosecutors are starting to make cases against johns who are named, shamed in the local press, and slapped with $1,000 fines for attempting to buy sex.


Concentrating on demand makes good sense. The image of the happy hooker exercising her free will in a free market economy is nonsense. The women and girls who sell their bodies in Boston are likely to be under the control of pimps who use threats and violence to keep them working when guile and blandishments fail. Men who buy sex — whether from the street or Internet — are deluding themselves if they see prostitution as a simple commercial transaction between willing partners. Each transaction adds to the abuse of women, many of whom were pushed into "the life" in their early teens. There is no way to dress up this crime.

Forget the image of the john as the guy next door who is working through a period of loneliness or a rough patch in his relationship. It's more accurate to compare johns with reckless drivers who weave in and out of traffic, unconcerned about the safety of others. When police delve into the backgrounds of such drivers, they often find criminal histories. The same appears to hold true with johns.

Demand Abolition, a Cambridge-based group working to eradicate the illegal, commercial sex industry, commissioned a Boston area survey in 2011 showing sharp differences between men who buy sex and those who don't. Sex buyers were more likely to have been convicted of a felony and outstripped nonbuyers when it came to possessing weapons, committing assault, and abusing substances. The abolition group recently teamed up with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Boston Police Department on a strategy to reduce demand for prostitution by 20 percent over the next two years.


Human trafficking includes any form of commercial sex with minors and any coerced prostitution with adults. Yet the term often conjures images of women and girls who are smuggled across borders. In Boston, that is a relatively minor problem. Cherie Jiminez, who counsels prostitutes at the nonprofit EVA center in Boston, found only 25 foreign nationals among the 256 women served by the center from 2006-2013. Of the remaining 231, almost three quarters of them grew up in low-income neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester.

In February, Suffolk prosecutors made their first big case against two Boston pimps under a tough new law on trafficking a person for sexual servitude. The young women were not new arrivals from some exotic location. They were lured away from local rehabilitation clinics with the promise of free drugs.

If johns don't care about the fate of such women, they do care about their own reputations. The Demand Abolition survey found that johns feared publicity more than fines or jail time. First-time offenders deserve a chance to go to so-called john school to smarten up. On a subsequent offense for buying sex, they belong on the state's sex offender registry. If that were ever to happen, prostitution in Massachusetts would go the way of the dodo bird.


Johns, for the most part, aren't driven by some irresistible compulsion. Basically, they want sexual gratification without any sense of responsibility or back talk. Most of them will stop if the price of getting caught is too high. And unlike most prostitutes, johns still have a lot to lose, including spouses and standing in the community.

Walsh is a gentleman. He gets this. The summit is an opportunity for him to show how far he is willing to go to reduce the demand for prostitution in Boston.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.