The NCAA has taken a useful step against sexual violence on campus by requiring coaches and athletes to complete a course each year on its prevention. But there’s a glaring omission: the new policy makes no mention of prostitution, a notorious form of sexual abuse.
The lack of straight talk by the NCAA is symptomatic of a “boys will be boys” attitude toward buying sex. This matters because campuses are often the first place where young men are exposed to prostitution.
Yet colleges usually fall far short of viewing sex-buying as a serious matter of sexual exploitation, judging from the recent public cases of Ole Miss football head coach Hugh Freeze, Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, and Baylor football head coach Art Briles.
News outlets covering these stories tend to use euphemisms that protect the reputations of university programs, such as “he used escorts,” when we’re talking about securing sexual access to a (typically young) woman in exchange for money or something else of value. That is sex-buying, the behavior that allows the prostitution industry to exist.
Why does sex-buying even matter? Because a busy prostitution industry makes sex trafficking — which involves force or coercion to compel a paid sex act or paid sex with a minor — harder to detect and more likely to occur. And because prostitution itself is hardly a victimless crime. Rigorous academic studies show that two-thirds or more of the women in prostitution want help getting out. Survivors of prostitution say that the sophisticated façade their buyers saw often belied fear, suffering, and anger.
We also need to talk about the effects of sex-buying on men who engage in this behavior, including the feelings of regret most eventually exhibit. In our recent national survey, 64 percent of sex buyers in the United States said they want to stop. Sex-buying harms families, too, by breaking up marriages and leaving children to cope with the aftermath of a parent’s harmful choices. Nearly half of buyers are married, many with kids in the home.
Sex-buying behavior is not inevitable on university campuses and in athletics programs, but ending it means discussing the problem openly and honestly. Over half of buyers first paid for sex while college age. The NCAA seems to tacitly acknowledge the issue — but only tacitly. Its “sexual violence prevention toolkit,” issued last October, calls for every campus “to overcome barriers of sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and power- or dominance-based relationships that frequently are at the core of sexual violence.” It’s hard to imagine any relationship more “power-based” than a man buying sex from a woman or girl.
And there is really no better time or place to have the discussion than in university athletic programs. That needs to start now. Just as we’ve seen changes in attitude and behavior toward domestic violence, we can widen our understanding of sexual violence to include buying sex.
Alex Trouteaud, Ph.D., is director of policy and research for Demand Abolition, a Cambridge-based non-profit working to end forced prostitution.