Some conversations are better had over a cup of Joe on a rainy day. That’s what I told the radio host when I emailed him earlier this month. He’s one of the most popular morning show hosts in America, but he’s just your everyday nice guy: humble, kind, and empathetic to his fellow man. He’s earned the respect of countless celebrities and the admiration of children, and bends the ear of millions of people each morning. (Literally, three million). When he says an artist is good, his listeners buy their records. When he says he’s raising money for cancer, his listeners donate. When he shows up at an event, tickets sell out. Bottom line: this dude has influence. I like him, and I like his style. So, I was pretty disappointed when I heard him relay his perspective on a situation that occurred in Spokane, WA.
Here are the basics: A male patron of Starbucks engaged in conversation with a female barista. He made a joke. She said he was funny. He thought she was flirting, slipped her a note asking her to dinner, and left. When he returned the next day, he was informed that he had been banned from that Starbucks location. The man felt he did nothing wrong, but was unjustly discriminated against due to his age.
My radio show host shared the story above, followed by his opinion, suggesting that the man was probably a good guy taking a risk in love, with innocent intentions. He argued that the girl “had flirted” with the guy, that she probably looked older, and that Starbucks made a bigger deal than necessary. He posed this question to his co-hosts on air: Did Starbucks overreact or not? In a matter of three minutes, with minimal facts at hand, they collectively agreed that Starbucks had overreacted and the man was a victim.
Here’s the rest of the story: He was 37, she was 16. He has a self-proclaimed mission to date the youngest women possible. He knows the legal age of consent in WA is 16, and that baristas must be at least 16 to work at Starbucks. He has an entire website devoted to “age-gap love” highlighting the benefits of very young women dating older men.
Despite not knowing all the facts, my radio host created a new narrative born of empathy and by projecting his own personal values on a stranger. He diluted the seriousness of the situation and dismissed any perception of wrongdoing. Effectively, he did the opposite of what he should have done, and in so doing provided a clear example of the cultural tolerance we’re fighting every day in the anti-trafficking movement.
We know that sex buyers are the driving force of the commercial sex trade. Yet, research by Shared Hope revealed a nationwide reticence to enforcing laws against sex buyers. The struggle facing these radio hosts in declaring someone a creep is the same struggle facing our community when it comes to addressing demand. We want criminals to fit a certain profile, so that we don’t identify with their traits. Therefore, if a sex buyer is successful, handsome, likeable, friendly, married and/or a parent, society may be inclined to downplay his behavior, to believe his excuses, to empathize with his plight. We may not arrest, charge, or prosecute his behavior. Our misguided perceptions about sex predators prevent us from seeing the reality.
Just like the Starbucks guy, your friendly neighborhood sex buyers know the laws:
“By the way, guys…it’s a good idea to be extra careful around the South Kukui area. Much of that area is within 750 feet of a school, which can be used to increase the potential punishments for soliciting a decoy.”
–Redneck1, Honolulu (US Sex Guide)
Just like the Starbucks guy, your handsome neighborhood sex buyers want someone young:
“Her name was Monica. She’s about 5’3, skinny, braces, A-cup, curly brunette with highlights. She looked very young. She said she was 18. I asked for ID but she doesn’t have one. I asked her birthday. There was no hesitation in her voice and I believe her… If you see her, you will enjoy.”
-Playboy69, Baltimore (US Sex Guide)
And, just like the Starbucks guy, your successful neighborhood sex buyers believe they’re doing nothing wrong:
“Looks like Savannah PD had a very productive day yesterday. They got 4 girls for prostitution and 4 guys for pandering. They even charged one guy with pimping. With shootings, robberies, and murders on an almost daily basis I am glad to see area law enforcement have their priorities straight. Get out there and bust consenting adults for harming absolutely no one!”
-PrinceAlbertco, Savannah (US Sex Guide)
These are the men who find communities online to share their sexual preferences, who create forums for discussion with like-minded guys that will encourage them to believe what they feel is: 1) normal, 2) acceptable, and 3) popular. It’s up to us to prove them wrong. So, when my kind and empathetic radio show host shared what appeared on the surface as a not-so-significant story, I felt compelled to tell him otherwise, and kindly show him why he was wrong.
The story wasn’t about commercial sex or age-gap love, it was about cultural tolerance. (Truth be told, Starbucks did what any dad would do for his kid, what any big brother or homegirl would do when a creep came around. They put the teen’s safety first, and had a cop on site to deliver their message. They handled it like a pro, and deserve to be recognized, not criticized.) In the end, I reminded him of this truth: Most of us don’t have a platform every day that reaches the masses. We’re just doing our part in our own little way with the few who will listen. Your voice matters… use it wisely, my friend.
To the reader, I say the same: Cultural change will take time and effort from us all. It will require uncomfortable conversations with friends and strangers, some of which are better had over a cup of Joe on a rainy day. In honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, it’s vital you know that your voice, your opinion, your influence matters.
By Elizabeth Scaife, Director of Training at Shared Hope International