Much of the advocacy and public health response to commercial sex and exploitation is focused on the victims, the majority of whom are female.
But there is another way to address the issue, and that is to reduce demand by intervening with the pursuers of paid sex, a group almost entirely made up of men.
“You can have a victim who is sexually exploited without having a trafficker, but you can’t have a victim who’s sexually exploited without a buyer,” said Robyn Levinson, the program coordinator for Alameda County’s H.E.A.T Watch, a five-point program designed to combat human trafficking.
“At the end of the day,” Levinson said, “the individuals who continue to perpetuate sexual exploitation are buyers, and as long as there are buyers, there will be a supply to feed that demand.”
Alameda County is just one of many cities and municipalities across the nation placing an increased emphasis on curbing commercial sex demand. One consistent theme in demand reduction across these communities is the use of male-dominant initiatives to confront potential buyers.
“To really reach that population, we need to engage men to deal with men,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. “To confront their behavior, to hold them accountable and to mentor younger men who might not be aware of how exploitive sex buying is.”
Any Man Can Be A Buyer
When it comes to commercial sex buying, there isn’t a buyer archetype.
“Men are driven by the fact that they think what they’re doing is normal,” said Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research at Demand Abolition, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that’s working to abolish the illegal commercial sex industry in the United States by eliminating the demand for purchased sex.
Trouteaud has made a career out of trying to understand who sex buyers are, why they do what they do, whom they target and what’s being done to stop them. His findings show that appearances and perception play a minor role at best.
“What I like to tell people,” Trouteaud said, “is that if you just think about the type of men you see and encounter on a daily basis — someone in law enforcement or someone in a church or someone who teaches — they’re just as likely to be buying sex as the kind of guy you think of as a creepy loner or a career criminal.”
Last year, Demand Abolition surveyed 8,200 men* about their sex buying behaviors. Of the 553 respondents in the Oakland area, the majority of buyers earn more than $60,000 a year, and typically purchased sex for the first time when they were between 18 and 24 years old. Offending rates are just as high in rural communities as they are in the cities and suburbs.
Just under half of those buyers are married, and many have children.
Researchers, advocacy organizations and law enforcement departments are learning that normative influences, such as being exposed to prostitution at a young age by older family members or friends, pornography and the traditional lack of legal action against sex purchasing, accelerate sex buying behaviors in men. They also know what decelerates those behaviors: the perception of risk.
“The more guys understand the risks involved,” Trouteaud said, “the less likely they are to continue buying sex.”
Dr. Michael Shively is a senior associate at Abt Associates in Cambridge, Mass. He’s been working to understand human trafficking for the past 14 years and has interviewed dozens* of buyers who’ve been tried and convicted at the federal level.
Shively categorizes buyers into three groups: men who are clearly looking for sex with adults, pedophiles who are looking for sex with prepubescent children, and men who mistakenly purchase sex from a minor thinking she or he is 18 or older.
A 2009 study showed that relatively few buyers attempted to purchase sex with minors; however, when presented with the opportunity to purchase an underage victim online, nearly half were willing to go forward with the transaction, despite the fact that they knew they were buying sex with an adolescent.
“A lot of men who end up buying sex from someone who’s 15 or 16 weren’t necessarily looking for it — it was just someone who was young and attractive,” Shively said. “A person who’s going to buy sex from a 20- or 18-year-old is probably not too different than someone who’s trying to buy sex from someone who’s 16 or 17.”
Legally, there’s a big difference. States don’t need to prove whether or not a buyer knew the individual he purchased was a minor; the victim just has to have been under 18 in order for the act to be prosecuted as a sex trafficking crime.
In a Buyer’s Words
From the time Doug Bennett, a native of California’s Central Valley, was a teenager until he was in this mid-thirties, he struggled with addiction: to methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine.
He also regularly purchased sex from women.
Bennett, now 48, estimates that while he was in his early twenties, he bought 50 women for sex. All of them, he claims, were older than 18.
“I had that passed down to me generationally,” Bennett said. “If you grow up in Bakersfield, you know where the prostitutes are.”
Bennett was never arrested, even though he admits to having broken many laws. He says that at the time, purchasing sex from women felt normal.
“I knew it wasn’t accepted in society,” Bennett said, “but who I was then and with the amount of drugs I was on, I didn’t care what people thought of me. I had money and wanted to have sex with a stranger. We were both willing.”
Bennett sees things differently today.
The former buyer found his way to religion and broke free from his addictions. In 2009, he founded Magdalene Hope, a nonprofit that ministers to women involved in the commercial sex industry in places like Bakersfield, Las Vegas and Tijuana.
“I’m an advocate for these women now,” he said.
Magdalene Hope works with community organizations and churches to raise awareness of human trafficking. It also ministers to women who’ve been directly affected by human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Since it was founded nine years ago, Magdalene Hope’s team has connected with thousands of women.
Besides its various street outreach efforts, Magdalene Hope operates a restorative safe house for women exiting the commercial sex industry. It also opened up a coffee shop called Rescue Grounds Coffee Company in Bakersfield earlier this month to provide female trafficking survivors the ability to earn a living. All proceeds from the cafe go toward combating human trafficking and aiding trafficking victims and survivors.
For his work in the community, Bennett was nominated and awarded the Individual Humanitarian Award by the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
“When I was an addict,” Bennett said, “there wasn’t much hope for someone like me. I encourage people to not give up on their loved ones, because some people can find their way out and make a difference.”
Man to Man
In the fight to curb the demand that’s perpetuating the commercial sex trafficking industry, men, like Bennett, play an important role; and, Tom Perez is on the front line.
“I think when I began to realize how local sex-buying was, it became more personal,” said Perez, a former pastor and the father of three daughters.
Perez is the founder and executive director of the EPIK Project, an anti-trafficking nonprofit that uses male civilian volunteers to deter sex buyers from making purchases at the point of sale.
Founded in 2012, the Portland, Ore.-based organization works with local law enforcement agencies, baiting prospective buyers to respond to online ads via a phone call or text message. But instead of getting a woman on the phone, these buyers are connected with one of more than 200 male EPIK volunteers aiming to teach them about the realities of the commercial sex industry.
“We have a really strong and shocking opening line that takes about eight to 10 seconds to get out,” Perez explained. “‘Are you calling for Vicky? Well, she’s not here right now, and your phone number has been captured and may be available to law enforcement.’”
From there, EPIK’s volunteers typically spend the next one to three minutes working their way through a myth-busting call script that’s been iterated upon for years. Most calls only last a couple of minutes; however, some calls last for 10, 20 or even 40 minutes.
According to Perez, EPIK has intervened in 80,000 attempts by men intending to purchase a woman for sex in eight cities across the United States, including Oakland and Foster City in the Bay Area.
EPIK’s goal is to make these men think twice before purchasing sex again.
“If the guy still wants to talk,” Perez tells his volunteers, “then, by all means, talk, because if they’re talking to you, they’re not buying.”
EPIK’s volunteers go through a rigorous training process. They’re taught how to manage conversations, to sidestep aggression from combative buyers and to stick to the script, which was created with input from sex trafficking survivors and law enforcement agents.
The messages are simple: buying sex is illegal, it’s not a transaction made by consenting adults, it damages communities and there’s a good chance she’s a minor.
“Those are the important things we train our men to get out,” Perez said. “At the end, we always ask if we can text [the buyer] some anonymous resources.”
Bringing It Back to the Bay
However, men alone can’t be responsible for holding male sex buyers accountable. Communities too are doing their part to curb demand.
In Oakland, an online tool called Report John allows individuals to report the license plate numbers of cars pulling over on streets that are synonymous with sex buying.
The initiative grew out of a grassroots movement started by the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), an Oakland-based community-building nonprofit that works with youth in low-income neighborhoods.
Many of the nonprofit’s clients didn’t feel comfortable reporting sex buyers directly to the police; therefore, the center became an intermediary, forwarding reports of suspected sex buying to law enforcement officials.
In September of 2016, the Alameda County DA’s Office and the City of Oakland brought ReportJohn.org online. When a report is made, information is shared with the lieutenant of Oakland Police’s Vice/Child Exploitation Unit, where it’s cross-referenced to a database.
If there’s enough identifying information available, a visibility letter — referred to as a “Dear John” letter — is sent to the vehicle’s registered owner saying the vehicle was spotted in an area synonymous with prostitution.
“ … Prostitution is not a victimless crime and is associated with kidnapping, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of children …,” the letters read.
The effort is intended to deter buyers from purchasing sex again.
“It’s great because it still maintains the community tool in the sense that it’s completely anonymous,” said Sharan Dhanoa, the Director of Strategic Development for the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking. “It was really about expanding on this effort and making it a lot more feasible for community members to report the issue.”
Since the program’s inception, the number of reports and letters sent has increased by 200 percent. The online platform is available in five languages, and a similar version of the tool was recently deployed in San Jose and other parts of the country.
Another way Bay Area stakeholders are utilizing technology to fight demand is online, where buyers are operating out of sight from the surrounding communities.
In Alameda County, law enforcement officials use a decoy website advertising for-purchase sex.
According to Alameda County’s H.E.A.T Watch program, the site gets between 15,000 and 40,000 views a month, which translates into 3,000 to 5,000 clicks a month. The site collects prospective purchasers IP addresses, alerts them that what they’re doing is illegal and informs them the DA’s office is prosecuting sex buyers.
In certain instances, the decoy site connects the prospective buyer to an EPIK Project volunteer.
“We’re trying to shift the focus on the man,” Dhanoa said, “but we want to make sure that it’s not just another form of criminalization. We don’t just want to alienate the men who’ve purchased [sex].”
“That’s why the EPIK project is good — it’s not a shaming tactic,” she said. “They’re actually speaking to men.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the number of buyers surveyed by Demand Abolition was 11,600, and that the number of buyers interviewed by Dr. Shively’s team was thousands.