Dear John: A New Strategy to Address the Sex Trade

Trafficking and prostitution will always exist in some form, even the most ardent abolitionist would not suggest otherwise. But we can't simply stand by and allow traffickers to continue profiting from within the darker recesses of the internet.
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John Attanasio allegedly entered a Dallas hotel room on February 1 expecting to pay $100 in exchange for sex.

His 'date' turned out to be an undercover officer. In lieu of paid sex, the former dean of Southern Methodist University's Law School spent the next hour being placed under arrest, the details of which quickly went viral.

Attanasio's arrest made national news and sent shockwaves through the legal community, yet clearly did not hit the radar of NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who was arrested later that day for solicitation and assault after a post-Super Bowl altercation with two Phoenix prostitutes. Within 24 hours, he was unemployed.

These arrests should capture our attention for reasons beyond Attanasio and Sapp's celebrated cultural statuses. They are Exhibits A and B for an evolving national movement to hold sex solicitors accountable for their roles in perpetuating a vicious and oppressive industry.

When a public policy fails to produce meaningful progress for several millennia, new direction is warranted. Few issues have fostered more failed policies than our society's approach to prostitution, which has long been to stigmatize the women and girls -- arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating them until they die in the streets. Meanwhile, the 'johns' -- men who solicit sex -- traditionally have rarely, if ever, received more than a slap on the wrist.

The past five years have ushered in a new and exciting trend in many communities across the country. Increasingly, prostitution is no longer seen as a victimless crime. Super Bowl Sunday marked the culmination of the National Day of Johns Arrests, during which nearly 40 law enforcement agencies from Seattle to Boston arrested over 600 alleged johns -- including John Attanasio -- for attempting to solicit undercover officers. The operation facilitated the arrests of over 20 alleged traffickers as well as the recovery of 68 victims -- including 14 children. This reflects a growing momentum to approach the trafficked with compassion and the johns with aggression.

Those who argue that paid sex simply represents a victimless act between two consenting adults are either fundamentally dishonest or hopelessly naïve. An overwhelming number of 'working girls' are victims of broken child welfare systems or have experienced some sort of serious trauma, including rape, molestation and domestic violence. Over 2/3 were forced onto the streets before the age of 16, with pimps and traffickers beating into them -- in both a physical and verbal sense -- the notion that their bodies are their only measures of self-worth. No girl grows up dreaming of selling sex to strange men.

These are victims, and they should be treated as such. Every time a john makes a 'date' through Backpage, he is exacerbating the trauma these women have already experienced and further diminishing any hope they have to lead stable and healthy lives.

Encouragingly, child sex trafficking has emerged as one of the rare issues capable of garnering bipartisan support. Over ten trafficking-related bills are currently making their way through the new Congress -- a sign of tangible progress. However, more can and should be done to broaden the scope of this legislative push.

First, Congress should follow the lead of mayors and police chiefs throughout the nation and work to end the demand for paid sex. In Cook County, we've raised fines for solicitation to well over $1,000, with many cities and counties adopting similar measures. We find that while most johns have little to no shame about their complicity in the deterioration of these women's lives, hitting them in their pocketbooks serves as an effective deterrent. Federal measures to enhance penalties for sex solicitation would send a strong message to would-be johns.

Second, these pending Congressional bills should address all trafficking victims, regardless of age. We all agree that child sex trafficking is abhorrent and juvenile victims should be prioritized. That said, adult victims need services as well and should not be forgotten. Remember that most began selling their bodies as children. Society must intervene before their lives spiral to the point of no return.

Finally, websites like Backpage have catalyzed the sex trafficking industry, providing a cloak of anonymity for pimps and a one stop-service for hundreds of thousands of johns. Yet Backpage hides behind federal law signed into effect decades before the full potential (and pitfalls) of the internet was anywhere close to being fully realized. Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have proposed legislation that would hold Backpage and its imitators responsible for their roles in promoting prostitution and destroying lives. This bill deserves immediate consideration and bi-partisan support.

Trafficking and prostitution will always exist in some form, even the most ardent abolitionist would not suggest otherwise. But we can't simply stand by and allow traffickers to continue profiting from within the darker recesses of the internet. We can turn back this rising tide, if we only care enough to try.

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