Commentary Race

Racial Injustice: The Case for Prosecuting Buyers as Sex Traffickers

Yasmin Vafa

Those of us fighting trafficking as part of a broader human rights movement must recognize that failing to advocate for the use of these laws to punish both buyers and sellers serves to perpetuate very serious racial disparities in who we are deeming culpable and who we are criminalizing for trafficking.

Recently the U.S. House of Representatives took historic action on behalf of trafficked and exploited youth by passing five anti-trafficking bills aimed at protecting victims and bringing their exploiters to justice. Until now, most federal efforts to end sex trafficking have aimed at penalizing pimps. But now, one of the new bills, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, represents significant progress in the movement to end sex trafficking, in that it finally seeks to end the culture of impunity for those who purchase sex, and particularly, sex with minors. The bill targets the demand side of sex trafficking in three key ways:

1) calling on law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute buyers, and not just pimps;

2) directing the federal anti-trafficking task forces throughout the country to bolster state and local law enforcement efforts to go after buyers of who purchase sex with minors; and

3) clarifying that purchasers—not just pimps—can be tried and prosecuted as traffickers under existing federal anti-trafficking laws.

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Needless to say, we were thrilled when the bill passed unanimously in the House on a 409-0 vote. The act is now being considered in the Senate.

For years, we have witnessed law enforcement and the federal government focusing their anti-trafficking efforts almost exclusively on pimps and other exploiters who profit from selling minors, despite the fact that demand reduction is a proven primary prevention strategy. It is high time that we recognize the importance of addressing not only the supply, but also the demand side of sex trafficking that is fueling the market. The glaring need to stop purchasers becomes painfully clear when listening to survivor accounts of their violent and degrading experiences with buyers and when recognizing that the vast majority of these men escape with no punishment, or at most, misdemeanor solicitation charges, even when purchasing sex with minors.

Though at first blush it may seem that only pimps can legally constitute traffickers, there are strong legal, moral, and racial considerations for why both purchasers and suppliers ought to be viewed and treated as traffickers under the law. First, as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act strives to make clear, the relevant statute (section 1591 of title 18, United States Code) was always meant to encompass buyers. In fact, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that “[t]he unambiguous text of § 1591 makes no distinction between suppliers and purchasers of commercial sex acts with children.” Yet far too few prosecutors are pursuing buyers in this manner. To remedy this omission, the act removes all doubt as to section 1591’s applicability to purchasers, thereby alerting U.S. attorneys that they can and ought to use section 1591 to prosecute buyers in appropriate cases.

Second, failing to prosecute buyers under federal anti-trafficking statutes suggests that buyers are somehow less culpable. Though some may argue that there is a significant distinction between the role of the buyer and the pimp, both actors clearly contribute to the exploding market for sex with underage victims, and neither should therefore escape the consequences of their actions. By definition, buyers are responsible for sustaining the market for sex with minors. And pimps and buyers alike exercise control, ownership, and violence toward victims—the former lures, manipulates, and markets victims for sex, while the latter purchases their bodies as a commodity, often to engage in violent fantasies. These politely dubbed “johns” even rate the girls they pay for on online forums known as “john boards” and exchange tips on how to evade law enforcement.

There is a very real and entrenched culture of impunity for men who buy sex in this country. And particularly when looking at minors who are bought and sold, it is clear that when the rape of these girls is commoditized and paid for, that it is no longer deemed rape or child sexual abuse, but instead is written off as juvenile prostitution. As a result, it is the victims who are criminalized, and their purchasers—who in any other situation would be considered perpetrators of sexual assault, statutory rape, or worse—escape with little to no consequence.

Some may theorize that perhaps these men do not know they have purchased a minor, but from speaking to survivors, we know this to be false. Take Tami’s story. Tami is a survivor I met through the organization Saving Innocence in Los Angeles. At 15 years old, Tami decided to tell each of her purchasers she was underage and desperate for help. For six months she pleaded with each and every man who paid to rape her to help her. Not one of them did—not surprising when you consider that buyers often pay more to have sex with minors. What’s more, according to a 2011 study, two-thirds of men recognize that most prostituted individuals are often “lured, tricked, or trafficked.” Therefore, the notion that these individuals are clueless about their actions is simply not the case.

Finally, we must consider using federal anti-trafficking laws to prosecute buyers from a racial justice perspective. Members of the anti-trafficking community in the United States often characterize themselves as “abolitionists” fighting against modern-day slavery. Many even evoke the imagery and icons associated with the African-American slavery narrative. Those of us fighting trafficking as part of a broader human rights movement must recognize that failing to advocate for the use of these laws to punish both buyers and sellers serves to perpetuate very serious racial disparities in who we are deeming culpable and who we are criminalizing for trafficking. Pimps tend to be Black and brown men—men who are often undereducated and from impoverished communities that we routinely criminalize anyway. But the buyers, by contrast, tend to be white, middle- to upper-middle-class, educated men. A terrible irony therefore arises whereby “abolitionists” are advocating for the continued incarceration of Black and brown men for trafficking, while the typically white buyers escape with lesser consequences for their role in perpetuating this crime.

We must be mindful that in failing to take this equitable approach to applying our trafficking laws, we are signaling that the buyer is not as culpable for trafficking, despite the exploitation of young victims and exercise of violence, ownership, and degradation of their bodies. And if the analogy to African-American slavery were to hold, we would essentially be deeming the slave traders more culpable than the slave owners themselves. This cannot be the intent.

The facts remain clear: Until we as a movement take conscious steps to condemn both the supply and demand for commercial sex, we are failing to address this crime from all relevant angles. Further, we are risking discrediting ourselves as human rights advocates—and certainly as modern-day “abolitionists”—for our role in perpetuating serious and harmful racial inequities in our fight to end human trafficking.

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