On Tuesday there was a summit in Boston at the Commonwealth Hotel—attended by Mayor Marty Walsh—to examine the role of sex-buyers in fueling human trafficking with an eye toward reducing prostitution by 20 percent in two years.
Boston often lands at the top of nationwide surveys, but this one has a dubious distinction. Boston ranks fourth of major U.S. cities for men over 18 trying to buy sex through online ads.
"We selected a random sample of 15 cities including the city where I’m from, which is Phoenix, as well as Boston," said Dominique Roe Sepowitz, who directs the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention at Arizona State University. "And what we found was the population of people attempting to purchase sex online was very, very large. And in Boston it was over 130,000 men over the age of 18 attempting to contact online ads. And why that’s important is how is your police department going to address that problem. How are we, as a society, going to change the behavior of 130,000 customers?"
And Boston police are paying attention. Boston Police Superintendent Willie Gross was among the various police officials represented at today’s human trafficking summit in Boston. The focus was the often overlooked and controversial aspect of the sex trade the demand of men looking to pay for sex. And BPD's response/
"Arresting them and making them attend class and educating them," Gross said. "If you’re out buying someone’s daughter, mother, niece—Hey, I’m going to put you in the paper: ‘He’s out here, he’s doing this.' We’re making an effort out here now, Mayor Walsh in creating this summit here, is educating out there that this is wrong. It’s not the right thing to do. And let’s get rid of that attitude that, ‘Oh hey, they’re just prostitutes. Who cares about them? We care about them. Not to be redundant but these are our sisters, our aunts, our mothers, our daughters. Look at the devastation that you’re causing."
That devastation was witnessed first hand by ex-prostitute-turned-activist on behalf of exploited women, Cherie Jimenez.
"What’s happening is sort of normalizing buying sex and commodifying," she said. "We’re in a market culture where everything is to buy and sell. ‘Oh, I have the money to do this, why not?’ Throw a party and have women come. But they’re not stigmatized. They’re not shamed for that. But now the time has come when we actually can say, ‘We’re going to shut this down.'"
Prostituted women who work the streets and the Internet have long complained that they’re the ones who pay the price when caught plying what many refer to as the world’s oldest trade. They complain—as this woman did when we interviewed her on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury—that johns are rarely punished or shamed.
"Instead of arresting the women you need to arrest those johns driving up and down the street," the woman said. "That’s what irks me. So you arrest women but you do nothing to the guys that’s buying the sex."
And that’s the social imbalance that Walsh says his administration is working to change.
"There’s been a lot of discussion around stigma and you got to be careful when you diver into this issue, because inevitably there’s going to be somebody arrested that’s going to be high-profile," he said. "Well, I want to be clear today if that person is high-profile, stop it. They will be on the front page of the paper and my comments will be patting the judges on the back to lock them up."
Walsh’s comments, said Swanee Hunt, was music to her ears. For years curbing the demand for sex from men has been her single focus. Hunt is a former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and the founder of Hunt Alternatives Fund, which organized the event. Many of the 200 attendees described it as watershed.
"This is a really coming together of a whole community," Hunt said. "We’ve got the courts. We’ve got the churches. We’ve got the survivors in particular, the women who’ve been victimized. They’re here advising us all."