For work last week, I went to lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Center on sex trafficking. The panelists included Ambassador Swanee Hunt, who is one of the best speakers I’ve ever listened to on women’s issues. The discussion was focused on eliminating demand, particularly focusing on punishing the “johns” who visit prostitutes rather than punishing the prostitutes themselves. A few very interesting points were brought up that have stuck with me:
1. Boys in our society are acculturated to judge a woman by how she looks. This can begin at home a very young age when they hear their father criticize their mother or even their mother or sisters criticize themselves based on their appearance. It’s a simple statement that we think is harmless, but then these boys grow into men who value women for their appearance and their bodies, thus objectifying them as objects which they can buy and sell without treating as human beings.
2. Prostitution is rarely about sex; it’s about power and violence. Men who visit prostitutes usually have steady sex partners as well; they use a prostitute because they do not have to treat her as a human being but rather as an object that can be abused and used to live out the man’s most salacious fantasies. Because the men are paying, they feel like they can do whatever they want to them without repercussions.
3. The average age to begin prostitution work in the US is 12. A good percentage of these girls were sexually abused, many from foster homes, and quite a few are runaways. Prostitution is choice of desperation, not a meaningful choice a woman makes as a career choice, contrary to popular belief. Congresswoman Smith read for us a case of a 12-year-old girl who was solicited for sex by a 48-yr-old man. Since money was exchanged ($40), the girl was automatically the perpetrator while the man was let off the hook. Once money enters the equation, the dynamics of criminal investigation and prosecution change. If it had been in any other circumstance, if the man was simply having sex with the girl, be it consensual or not, would be statutory rape and he would be going to jail. Instead, the 12-yr-old prostituted girl was arrested. There is absolutely no deterrent for johns in the United States. In most states, it is not a criminal act to solicit sex but it is a criminal act to the girl or woman offering it.
4. Entertainment, especially the Hip Hop/rap industry, could have a huge impact on how women are viewed in our society. They need to make it clear that a “pimp” is not a hero, but a violent exploiter.
5. Porn on the internet. Free speech vs. damaging to society. When 9-yr-olds can visit internet sites easily and men can access salacious material without impunity, the attitudes about women being objects prevails. Should we restrict access to porn? Make it illegal? When are we overstepping the boundaries of free speech?
These were a few issues that were brought up that left me thinking. The entire focus of the lecture was about combatting trafficking by eliminating the demand; we can pass laws (like the TVPA) and create agencies (TIP, for example) and spend lots of government money regulating countries and policing trafficking around the world but until we learn how to address the problem of demand, trafficking will still be lucrative and will still prevail.