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Op-Ed: There’s a way to decrease demand for commercial sex

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Last week, North Carolina became the third state in the country to make the purchase of sex a felony. Anti-human trafficking advocates across the state have been actively educating legislators since January 2023 about the need to change solicitation of prostitution from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on June 28, House Bill 971 is a valuable tool in the demand reduction arsenal. Demand reduction is a strategy to prevent sex trafficking by reducing the number of potential sex buyers.

Human trafficking is a business. And like any business, if there is a demand for a product (bodies to be used for sex), a supplier (trafficker) will make that product available, even if force, fraud and coercion are necessary.

Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, the United States has had a mechanism with which to charge the “supplier” or trafficker. It’s taken longer for many in the movement to realize that the real “cause” of sex trafficking is the buyer.

How can we reduce demand for commercial sex?

First, we must understand that sex buyers are not all the same – they are on a continuum. On one end are the sex buyers who have purchased sex once while they were on spring break because all the other guys did it. On the other end of the spectrum are sex buyers whose behavior is compulsive.

For the person who buys sex while on vacation, or when the opportunity presents itself, education may change their behavior. Many times, this sex buyer thinks the person “chose” to be a prostitute, really likes sex, and that he is actually “helping” her, because she needs the money.

Effective education sessions would include a survivor of the sex trade who debunks the myths of full consent and/or the idea that most people who sell sex do so because they enjoy it. They would share their actual experience, which will include stories of extreme abuse and violence by the traffickers and the sex buyers.

When they learn the circumstances that brought this person to prostitution, sex buyers often realize they don’t want to be “that guy” and decide not to purchase sex in the future.

For the compulsive sex buyer, however, no amount of education will change his behavior. Long term, intense counseling may help, if he is willing. If not, imprisonment may be the only way to stop the behavior.

For the many who lie in the middle of the sex-buying spectrum, multiple tools may be helpful. Certainly, they need to be educated. For many, the threat of a legal consequence may reduce their desire to purchase sex. The risk of arrest and public shame may deter them. That’s the logic behind the Demand Reduction Strategy to end human trafficking.

That’s the reason for the change in the solicitation of prostitution statute.

Because solicitation of prostitution has historically been a misdemeanor, law enforcement has lacked incentive to pursue that charge. As I have discussed the issue of charging sex buyers with law enforcement agencies across the state, many of them have the same position: The reverse sting operations necessary to arrest sex buyers are extremely expensive – requiring many hours of planning and training and extra layers of personnel for safety of the officers involved. And if the operation is completely successful, the result is a handful of misdemeanors that will often be reduced or dismissed. Some law enforcement agencies pursue these operations in spite of those circumstances, believing that the potential reduction in demand is worth the effort, despite the cost.

However, many believe the return on investment is not significant enough to plan those operations.

Now that solicitation is a felony, law enforcement officers have more incentive to plan operations to arrest the sex buyers.

When law enforcement personnel, district attorneys and judges have been educated about this change, we expect that the number of charges for the purchase of sex will increase dramatically.

And we expect that if the criminal justice delivers the appropriate consequences, demand for commercial sex will decrease in North Carolina. Less commercial sex equals fewer sex trafficking victims. And that’s how demand reduction strategies work.

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