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Freedom for Victims and Buyers in the Sex Trade

February 22 marked Ontario’s Human Trafficking Awareness Day. That same day, the news broke about Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, being charged with solicitation of prostitution in Florida.

Kraft was charged in addition to 24 other men about whom we know very little.

Kraft was charged in addition to 24 other men about whom we know very little. I’m not quite sure what is more striking – that we are captivated by news of a prominent man purchasing sexual services, or that we are seemingly not as concerned that average people purchase sexual services every day.

I was reflecting on this with a colleague who mentioned that he had heard the news on talk radio and was struck by how “gleeful” individuals sounded at Kraft’s arrest. As an abolitionist, I advocate for policies that criminalize the actions of those who purchase sexual services while decriminalizing those who provide sexual services. However, I have concern for those who purchase sexual services. I would like to know more about them, their stories, what prompts them to purchase another human being for their own sexual gratification.

Statistics suggest that I do not have to look far to meet a “john.” 

And statistics suggest that I do not have to look far to meet a “john,” one who buys sexual services. “Johns” are teachers, school trustees, gang members, firefighters, fathers, sports coaches, church members, police officers, university students, trade workers, judges, husbands.

  • In Canada, the vast majority of people who pay for sexual services are men who are purchasing sexual services from women or girls.[1]
  • In the United States, about 15-20% of men will buy sex in their lifetime with varying rates of frequency (e.g. some have only purchased sexual services once while others participate more regularly like weekly or monthly). 6% of all men purchase sex at least once a year.[2]
  • Buyers pursue paid sexual services from a variety of venues including illicit massage parlors or brothels, arranging “dates” online, visiting strip clubs or adult entertainment establishments, and frequenting “tracks” (outdoor areas in a community well known for prostitution, e.g. street corners).[3]
  • Some buyers suspect they are purchasing sexual services from a trafficked victim (40% of respondents in a study conducted in Chicago[4]).
  • Buyers from all educational backgrounds and achievements are equally likely to pay for sex[5]
  • Those who purchase sex at a higher frequency tend to have higher incomes.
  • The rate of men who infrequently purchase sexual services are evenly distributed across age ranges. However, “high-frequency buyers” (those who purchase sexual services weekly or monthly) tend to be between 18-44 years of age.[6]
  • Those who purchase sexual services are far more likely to say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” that prostituted individuals “enjoy the act of prostitution,” and that prostituted persons “choose it as a profession” than those who do not purchase sexual services.[7]

Perhaps most strikingly, approximately 41% of all buyers polled by Demand Abolition said that they would like to stop buying sex. When former buyers were asked the reasons behind why they stopped purchasing sex, 72% said that they realized that paying for sex was inconsistent with their morals.

Approximately 41% of all buyers said that they would like to stop buying sex.

As one who holds an abolitionist perspective, I believe in advocating for policies that decriminalize those selling sexual services (since criminal records often create additional barriers in finding safe pathways out of exploitation) and criminalize those who purchase sexual services. In criminalizing the purchasing of sex, policy helps change the perception of the sex trade and identifies it as largely exploitative. I advocate for policies that promote dignity and flourishing for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

But criminalizing buyers and holding them accountable does not mean demonizing or villainizing them.

I advocate for policies that promote dignity and flourishing for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

Knowing what we do about the sex trade and those who purchase sexual services, how can we respond?

In Canada, many law enforcement agencies are committed to publicizing the names of those charged with purchasing sexual services. This is in line with practices of releasing names of those accused of other crimes like theft.

I am not convinced that merely releasing names will completely deter individuals from purchasing sex.

However, I am not convinced that merely releasing names and public shaming will completely deter individuals from purchasing sex. Instead, I would like to see more restoratives approaches to addressing why purchasing sexual services is detrimental – not just to johns, but to those exploited in the sex trade and the larger community.

Without minimizing the negative effects buyers have on the lives of prostituted and trafficked individuals, I believe Jesus loves johns and desires for their lives to be restored as well. I am surprised by the number of times I speak in churches and am approached by individuals who speak with such incredible contempt for johns, pimps and traffickers. Anger and a desire for justice, I understand. But I don’t believe Jesus calls for us to have contempt for johns.

I would like to see more cities implement John Schools.

I would like to see more cities implement John Schools, a diversion program sometimes offered as an alternative to criminal prosecution in which participants learn more about the realities of the sex trade. This diversion program exposes buyers to the voices and perspectives of survivors, public health professionals, spouses of other buyers, law enforcement, former buyers, and community members and helps them recognize the impact of their choices. (I encourage you to read Bert Adema’s thoughtful Do Justice article on John Schools.)

Some critiques of John Schools suggest that this one-day program is insufficient in addressing why men choose to purchase sexual services. What are the reasons driving their decisions? Pressure from peers, family, friends or colleagues to demonstrate manliness or masculinity? Views on the value and dignity of women and girls? Sadness? Loneliness?

This is where I see faith communities filling the gap.

This is where I see faith communities filling the gap.

Our faith communities are uniquely positioned to promote open, honest, and grace-filled conversations about the realities of not just the sex trade, but also other issues like pornography and gender equality. We can talk about masculinity, vulnerability, and accountability. We can create spaces that promote learning and understanding. Safe Church promotes a resource called “Circle of Grace” which is an abuse prevention resource that encourages a healthy view of sexuality and promotes respectful relationships that honour God.

Let us embrace a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual exploitation and restoring those who have been caught in its grips – survivors and perpetrators alike.  

[Photo by Brooklyn Bob on Unsplash]

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