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opinion | Donna Gavin

‘Pretty Woman’ normalizes something that destroys lives

Julia Roberts starred in the 1990 film “Pretty Woman.”Disney Enterprises via ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

Across the country, followers of pop culture are marking the 25th anniversary on Monday of the movie “Pretty Woman,” and recalling the unlikely romance between a businessman played by Richard Gere and his hired escort, played by Julia Roberts. Television networks are airing the movie, one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time. The movie’s Los Angeles hotel is commemorating the film with a “Pretty Woman for a day” experience, complete with a Rodeo Drive shopping spree.

Let me assure you that the tale that unfolds in “Pretty Woman” is fiction. As the head of the Boston Police Anti-Human Trafficking Unit for the past five years, I know that the experiences of young women in our own neighborhoods and across the country who are involved in prostitution couldn’t be more different.


Without a solid education and family support, and with limited options, it’s easy for young girls and women to get lured into the sex trade. In Boston and other cities across the country, the vast majority of prostituted women are involved in pimp-controlled prostitution and sex-trafficking.

These pimps have criminal histories that include rapes, violent assaults, and firearm and drug convictions. They have moved their criminal business into the sex trade. Bad guys know that selling vulnerable young women as commodities is very lucrative because of high demand. Selling these young women brings less risk than carrying around firearms and drugs for sale.

Women in prostitution experience violence at rates much higher than the rest of society. Prostituted women are 40 times more likely to be the victims of homicide than women who are not. Seventy-three percent of the women in prostitution experience physical assault.

While the Julia Roberts character is concerned about making her rent in the opening scene of the movie, three-fourths of women in prostitution have been or are homeless. In addition to violence and homelessness, and often as a result of prostitution, many young women also suffer from addiction, disease, and emotional trauma.


Prostitution is not a fairy tale. “Pretty Woman” normalizes something that destroys lives. It glamorizes prostitution and creates an illusion that prostitution is a voluntary, desirable occupation. The film suggests that prostituted people are knowledgeable and have other options they might have chosen. The reality is that prostitution and sex trafficking make up a harmful, pervasive, illegal, and violent criminal industry involving pimps and traffickers who are tied to gangs, drugs, and street violence.

Take, for example, Jaclyn, a 20-year-old woman from a town just north of Boston. At a young age Jaclyn found herself caught up with violent traffickers. Through our work at the Boston Police Department we were able to help her get away from the dangerous situation. Jaclyn identified several other victims as well helping us to arrest her pimp and his co-conspirator. As a result, several buyers were identified, subpoenaed, and compelled to testify before a grand jury. Ultimately, we were able to piece together a case that interrupted many layers of violence and other related crimes. Better yet, Jaclyn was able to get away from a life of violence and exploitation. With ongoing support from our non-law enforcement partners, she is now in college studying to become a teacher.

In my work, I see firsthand, from cases like these, how the men who choose to buy sex fuel this criminal enterprise and pour money into the hands of the pimps and traffickers who prey upon young women. The men who buy sex often have the resources and good sense to make a different choice. This is why sex buyers are the key to ending the violence and exploitation associated with sex trafficking.


Now is the time to act. We need men and women to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. We need to attack this harmful sex industry from all sides by targeting the pimps and the traffickers, providing services and exit strategies for those being prostituted, and educating and dissuading would be buyers. We need to dissuade buyers from fueling this industry and hold them accountable when they do.

How will I commemorate the anniversary of “Pretty Woman”? I will be working with the new Cities Engaged Against Sexual Exploitation (“CEASE”) Boston Team announced by Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Evans last week. CEASE Boston connects local survivors of prostitution, criminal justice professionals, policy makers, business leaders, and concerned citizens with the shared goal of reducing illegal sex-buying by 20 percent in our communities. Together we’re working to stop the violence, harm, and exploitation caused by those who buy others’ bodies for sex.

Donna Gavin leads the Boston Police Anti-Human Trafficking Unit.


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