Last night, I attended a panel discussion on the rampant human trafficking and sex exploitation that is taking place in Florida.  Indeed, our fair state leads the nation in sex trafficking, due largely to the high demand from tourists and visitors.  While the panel discussed at great length the resources available to the trafficked humans, and also discussed the resources expended to catch and prosecute the traffickers, little, if anything, was said about the buyers.  A woman stood up and gave a testimony about how she was trafficked and exploited, and recounted the heartbreaking details of how she was kept in a room, naked, and how men were ushered into the room, one after the other, to have sex with her.  By her estimate, she often had sex with as many as 35 men a day, and was left exhausted and in pain.  What went through my mind was “WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WAS WRONG WITH THOSE MEN?!!!”

It struck me then that our laws pertaining to johns and buyers of sex are wholly inadequate to address this kind of morally bankrupt behavior.  Any person with half a brain would know in those circumstances that the sex worker was being coerced and was not acting on her own free will.  In my view, the circumstances escalated the crime from mere solicitation to something far more sinister.  The ONLY reason this young woman was put in circumstances like that, and repeatedly raped — which is what it really was — is because there was a DEMAND for it.  Somebody was willing to pay to rape her and someone was eager to make a profit off of it.

Not all purchased sex work is exploitative, but much of it is, and we must take steps to address the demand side, as well as the supply (traffickers) side of the equation.  Today, most states treat solicitation as a misdemeanor and most johns are never prosecuted at all, let alone given any significant jail time. I propose that those who purchase sex from people who are underage, drunk or drugged, coerced or forcibly detained, be treated as felony offenders and subject to SIGNIFICANT prison sentences, fines and permanent registration as sex offenders.  Rather than letting these offenders claim ignorance of the details, we should apply a “knew or should have known” legal standard.  In other words, if a perp would be able tell by circumstances (i.e., paid a pimp, was aware that threats of violence were used to procure compliance, sees that the worker is inebriated, goes to a locked room for the sex etc…) that the sex was not of the worker’s full free will, then that john would be subject to greater penalty.   If a potential buyer of sex cannot tell if any of the escalating factors apply, they should ACT WITH CAUTION AND REFRAIN!!  In other words, “If you can’t tell, DON’T DO IT!”

This change is needed for three reasons:  (1) We must make manifestly clear as a community that the exploitation of people is the worst kind of affront to human rights; (2) We must deter AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE the inclination to use humans in such a manner, (3) we must remove from our midst those who would abuse others in such a fashion.

Policy changes in this arena are always controversial. This proposal does not seek to stigmatize or criminalize the sex workers who have been coerced or cajoled into their circumstances.  And while some sex workers would simply prefer policy that makes their work easier or safer, as a society, we cannot afford to push policy that permits or excuses the exploitation of humans.