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Opinion | Swanee Hunt

Robert Kraft case helps shift focus from bought to buyers

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After Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution, it’s not a case about where he goes from here. It’s about where we go.

Kraft has been an important leader in Boston, contributing to the strength of our community for decades. He’s smart, and he knows the odds of winning and losing.

He is also an unlucky man. It was a safe bet that the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots thought he wouldn’t get caught in a brothel. Typically, police pick up 10 girls (many underage) for every john they arrest. The ones being bought are the ones who are usually prosecuted; the men who are buying are almost never held accountable.


The ire swirling around the Kraft story portends the future. He is now facing charges for allegedly buying women, twice in two days, at a south Florida massage parlor. Kraft has denied breaking the law.

Recent charges against hundreds of Florida johns signal that attitudes are shifting. At local, state, and federal levels, survivors are working on new strategies with law enforcement teams who used to arrest them. (Marian Hatcher’s National Johns Suppression Initiative has resulted in 9,125 arrests of johns.) On Feb. 13, I sat beside Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as he prepared remarks to scores of officials and advocates for pimped girls. Addressing the crowd was Cherie Jimenez, a sex trade survivor who is an adviser to the mayor.

It’s no coincidence that the sheriff who announced the charges in Florida, William D. Snyder of Martin County, said he would not be charging the women brought from China, each forced to have sex with about 1,000 men a year. Whose dollars keep the 9,000-plus illicit US massage brothels in business? (Most trafficking in America is by Americans buying Americans.) His words were terse: “The monsters are the men.”


A new study by Demand Abolition of more than 8,200 men focused on whether they buy sex and what would make them change. Eighty percent reported that they never bought; but the 1 in 5 who have are millions of American men. That includes not only men cruising “the track,” but also high-level civic leaders buying at least monthly. One-fourth of the buyers account for about three-fourths of the transactions. Many have incomes north of $100,000.

Here’s the key: Even men buying monthly, or much more often, are deterred by arrests. The problem is, 94 percent of those who’ve purchased sex say they’ve never been arrested. Bob Kraft’s wager made sense. Men buy sex with impunity.

So stay with it, Sheriff Snyder. The momentum is in your direction. An alliance of 12 cities has tested tactics to stop buyers. Several (including Boston) have organized “hackathons” with teams of software engineers who compete to find buyers deep in the dark web. In Portland, Ore., male volunteers have intercepted 134,170 attempts to buy girls and women described in decoy ads. And federal legislators have added to their trafficking bills elements focused on the buying.

In the past, such transgressions by prominent men were shrugged off. (Remember Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York?) This time the media are focusing on women in virtual captivity — contrasting their squalid conditions with wealthy South Florida communities where buyers relax and brothels flourish.


I hate to say it, but thank you, Robert Kraft, for this tsunami of attention, explaining that consent is impossible when supply-demand equals power-exploitation.

Looking forward, let’s forge a federal law that codifies this mind shift: Sex-buyers are accountable, not those trapped in the trade.

Swanee Hunt is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, cochair of Demand Abolition, and former US ambassador to Austria.