The Economics of Sex Trafficking: Johns Arrests


I have increasingly come across reports of Johns arrests–the customers using the services of girls and women in the sex industry–in monthly newsletters on human trafficking. Anyone familiar with the problem of sex trafficking and the controversial issue of targeting the women, not the men soliciting them for services, as criminals would view an increase in Johns arrests as great milestones. This is certainly a trend in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done before the situation is properly addressed.

While global awareness of the exploitation of young girls and women in the sex industry has increased, at the local level, those offering services are still more likely to be arrested than those who purchase the services. A lot of attention has been given to laws which punish traffickers and offer assistance to victims, as highlighted in a recent analysis released by the Polaris Project. However, the issues surrounding buyers has still not received enough attention in the policy sphere.

Similar to other business transactions, sex trafficking follows the basic rules of supply and demand. As the demand for a product increases, so does the supply. O’Connell Davidson points out, however, that the relationship could go both ways, meaning that supply can also drive demand in the industry. Therefore, as the supply and access to women increases, so does demand. Furthermore, some researchers stress that not only has demand for sex services increased, but that globalization and the internet have allowed for easier access to cheaper services. As such, many men who would otherwise not be able to afford a prostitute are now clients. The majority of existing research, which in recent years has become more voluble, has focused on the nature of sex trafficking, the victims of the crime, and on the efforts to catch and bring the traffickers to justice. Paucity of research targets the demand for sex services and the mechanisms that sustain it; buyers, therefore, have generally remained under law enforcement’s radar until recent years.

Regardless of persistent glamorization of the so-called “pimp lifestyle” in modern news and media, most people, even with a dearth of knowledge on sex trafficking, would readily acknowledge that the methods traffickers use to control women serve as a proof that they are dangerous individuals. For example, the focus of the Bush Administration was to portray the traffickers and similar abusers of the innocent as “evil.” Even though research on the nature of traffickers, the reasons behind their actions, and factors that contribute to becoming a trafficker is not abundant, advocates and the general public readily agree that those are criminals deserving punishment. As a result, most efforts to fight the illegal sex trade have targeted traffickers as they are assumed to be the main drivers of the business. Certainly, traffickers could be dangerous and regularly torture the women they possess and as such, they should be punished, but they are not the only important players in the sex trade.

It has become evident that although treatment toward traffickers and pimps is varied and punishment not as severe as needed, even less of a proper courtesy has been extended to the people on the demand side of the equation. The buyers of the services are an important variable in the business of sex trafficking and their demand is what stimulates the growth and sustainability of the trade. Academics and researchers argue that the established international documents against the traffic of women into the sex industry have failed to acknowledge the strength of the demand and the need for harsher policies to target its reduction. Even though the fines for arrested pimps are ridiculously low, the consequences received by buyers are close to being non-existent. As a worldwide practice, Johns are generally released if caught and even if fined, the fine is purely symbolic. They are considered to be men acting as men and their use of a prostitute could even be viewed as a rite of passage. What is even more disturbing is that certain societies blame foreign women, and not the men who purchase and abuse them, as the sole reason for the degradation of morals in that society. The increased attempts in the U.S. to target buyers show a trend in the right direction, but only time will tell whether the approach is successful.

Should buyers be labeled as criminals and punished accordingly? The answer to this question is much more multifarious than it might seem at a first glance. That they deserve the appropriate consequence is without argument. However, describing them as a homogenous group of evil, emotionless sex addicts coming from the lowest rungs in society, who possess a complete lack of empathy and no morals is likely not appropriate and would probably not help exploited women. Certain cultural, social, and historical factors contribute to and sustain the increase in the demand for sex services and the resulting increase in the traffic of women to satisfy this demand. These factors and their origins must be thoroughly examined and evaluated for a comprehensive understanding of the trafficking process that contributes to modern-day slavery before any successful attempts to curtail the demand are made.

Therefore, further research on the factors contributing to the wide-spread demand for women in the sex industry and indirectly impacting the increased trafficking of women is paramount in the understanding and eventual eradication of existing exploitation in the sex industry. I believe that an understanding of the demand side of this equation is just as important as the understanding of the actors on the supply end. International and domestic organizations are gradually becoming interested in and acknowledge the importance of research on male demand and the factors that impact it. For as long as there is a demand for a product, there will be persons supplying it. To successfully approach the issue, people need to look at both sides of the transaction: the traffickers as well as the consumers.

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