Purchasing sex is now a well-accepted pastime in the United States. It’s not uncommon for men to visit strip clubs for a bachelor party or speak openly about consumption of pornography. Commercially depicted sexualization is so normal that in one study investigating the effects on men who view pornography, social scientists were unable to find a negative control group, meaning that the researchers were unable to find men who never consumed pornography to interview as a baseline for research results (Lajeunesse – 2009). Demand for commercial sex is now an unquestioned component of American culture and interference with an individual’s sexual preferences in this area is viewed as a violation of autonomy.
These societal norms do not exist in a vacuum and without consequences; they extend into law enforcement and judicial perspectives as well. In a culture where everything can be bought and sold, why does demand enforcement matter?
1. Buyers must be exposed.
Men are able to purchase sex with children because no one is watching them or holding them accountable. Right now, buyers have little to fear. The game changes when law enforcement and prosecutors apply strong laws with substantial penalties against buyers. A $10,000 fine for soliciting a minor for prostitution means the married buyer has to explain to his wife why their savings account is depleted. Asset seizure of the buyer’s vehicle will result in questions from the buyer’s employer when the buyer struggles to arrive to work on time the next week. The buyer’s registration on the sex offender registry means he has to explain to his family why they can’t live within 1000 feet of a school zone. When buyers are incapable of hiding their crimes, enforcement rises to a deterrent level and men stop buying out of fear of being caught.
2. If no one is buying, then traffickers won’t sell children for sex.
Human trafficking is an economic crime and is the destructive, profit-maximizing form of prostitution. Psychological factors influencing motives of traffickers are varied, but money is at the top. When a trafficker sells a child for sex, the trafficker receives all the proceeds from the exchange. The buyer’s participation in a human trafficking offense supplies the trafficker with money and encourages the trafficker to maintain control over victims through manipulation, force, and violence in order to keep selling that child victim. Enforcing laws against buying sex with minors dismantles trafficking enterprises by eroding the trafficker’s financial gain.
3. Stop the victim blaming.
Imagine that you’re a 16 year old girl from a broken home in a poor neighborhood and you meet a man who claims to love you, promises you freedom, and lavishes you with gifts. Before you know it, he flips the switch. He may be abusive and force you to walk the street or advertise on the internet for sex acts with strangers. Or he may manipulate you into believing he needs you to sell sex acts in order to support him so he can continue to love you. After months of this, you’re alone in a hotel room with yet another man who is renting you for a half hour from your trafficker and you’re interrupted by the forceful knock of the local VICE unit on your hotel room door. Your nightmare is over, right?
Wrong. The buyer claims he didn’t know you are 16 and is sent home to his wife and kids instead of jail. But you’re charged with prostitution, facing punishment. When laws against buying sex with minors are enforced, law enforcement see the true criminals and the child victims are steered away from punishment and toward healing.
4. Buying sex with children is a crime of human trafficking.
Demand enforcement makes sense from an economic and criminal justice perspective. Traffickers know that a thriving market exists for sex with children so they operate as procurers of the supply – child victims. Unlike commercial goods which have a 1:1 ratio of sale to consumption, trafficking victims can be sold repeatedly to thousands of buyers. The buyers, or the demand, are the driving force behind sex trafficking and should be punished accordingly. Enforcement of demand laws like those which criminalize purchasing sex with a child directly supports the underlying policy goal of identifying buyers as the fuel behind the sex trade.
5. When there’s no demand, sex trafficking vanishes.
Men who buy sex with children spend their money in conventional ways just like everyone else. Their purchasing decisions include things like rent, gasoline, and groceries. However, these goods are different from commercial sex in that they are inelastic– the person will continue to buy these goods or make payments on them even if the price of the good increases significantly. In other words, the person’s buying habits remain the same even though these goods are now much more expensive.
However, a buyer’s purchasing habits will change or stop altogether when the price of an elastic commodity becomes too expensive. The question becomes, how do we make it so expensive for the buyer to purchase sex with a child that the cost makes an impact on his purchasing decision? Enforcing strong demand laws and aggressively prosecuting buyer offenses will produce a chilling effect on the market for commercial sex. Basic economics teaches us that when demand (buyers) for a commodity decreases, the supply (victims) also decreases. When demand drops to zero, sex trafficking vanishes.