Since 1911, men who buy sex from prostitutes or prostituted people have been referred to as “johns”. The use of the term, similar to that of “John Doe,” offers anonymity. This anonymity has allowed some of our most trusted and upstanding members of our society to engage in this horrific crime in the shadows. With a former state senator and presidential campaign chair pleading guilty to child sex trafficking, we must begin to expose those who remain invisible but fuel the demand for sex trafficking.
Among the 277 men arrested recently during a week-long sex trafficking sting in Florida were a lawyer, surgeon, pediatrician, teacher, and law enforcement officers. While shocking, the involvement of trusted members of our society in prostitution and sex trafficking speaks volumes about the “demand.”
According to Unicef USA, human trafficking is second only to the drug trade in terms of profitability.
Until we deal with the demand behind the illegal sex trade industry, we will not be able to stem the problem. As a sex trafficking researcher, I have studied more than 1300 online posts searching for indicators of sex trafficking, and I have conducted a critical discourse analysis of more than 500 posts of men discussing their sex-buying experiences on a popular online forum. The forum provides a safe place for men to share and normalize their illegal, sexually exploitative behavior. These experiences included discussions about taking advantage of women who were physically disabled, under the influence of drugs, and newly divorced and needing money to take care of her kids.
Buying sex is a behavior that existed long before online forums. It’s found in the sexual norms embedded in our society.
But the activities on the site that I studied went beyond societal norms. Women were not only objectified, they were disembodied. The men described women as body parts, bra sizes, and ethnicities. For example, one post mentions “young AA girls of various shapes and sizes.” Another post refers to “Great tits. Small figure…” They also talked about not believing the women were consenting adults. For instance, one post states “29 yrs old. Yeah right. And I’m 6 yrs old…. I think I was one of her first dances when she started there. She was 16 and had fake I’d [sic]. Lots of miles on that one!” Discussing buying sex from potential minors is dangerous. Even if men are discussing their sexual exploits with adult, consenting women, the expressed desire for “women” with youthful appearances puts our youth at risk. I suspect traffickers use this information (demand) to inform their supply.
It would be easy to dismiss this forum as a community of deviants.
But before you do, remember the makeup of the group arrested last month in Florida and the upcoming plea deal in Oklahoma. The Monto & Milrod (2013) study of “Internet hobbyists” found that registered members of online prostitution forums were older (50-59 years old), white (85 percent), married and have a college degree. The site that I studied had a membership of more than 400,000 and over 59 million unique visitors.
The underground commercial sex industry has been estimated to be a $40 million to $290 million industry in just eight US cities. Similar to the war that The Truth has waged against “Big Tobacco,” we need to wage a war against “Big Sex” by mounting countermeasures against those who are contributing to the demand that drives commercial sexual exploitation. Additionally, the repercussions for getting caught purchasing sex need to be severe enough to deter buyers from taking the risk.
Recently, Cyntoia Brown has become a cause célèbre because she is serving a severe life sentence for killing a “john” while she was being trafficked for sex at the age of 16.
Meanwhile, the penalties for buying sex from a minor vary considerably by state along with some state prosecutors having to prove the buyer knew the minor was under the age of 18. State and federal prostitution laws are even less harsh.
These forums provide a sense of community where men can discuss their penchant for buying sex without shame. They also serve to inculcate other men into their secret society. Normalizing buying sex and socializing other men to believe they are entitled to buy sex could worsen the sexual violence women are already experiencing in epic proportions. Although reported rates of sexual assault have decreased over the years, other sexual crimes such as sex trafficking and sextortion are on the rise. Tech-savvy kids can easily access this online community to find men cavalierly discussing buying sex. In discourse analysis, words are believed to have the power to influence beliefs and actions.
The oversexualization of our youth already pervades our society in music, print media, and on TV. I believe it’s dangerous to sit back and watch what currently may be a small proportion of society grow into one that believes all people are for sale or a commodity that can be purchased or taken.
–Dr. Dawn Bounds
Dr. Dawn Bounds is a practitioner-researcher and Assistant Professor in Community, Systems, & Mental Health Nursing at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.