Boston's New Approach To Fighting Prostitution: Targeting Customers

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Boston's joining a number of other cities and countries -- including Sweden, Norway, Denver and San Francisco -- that are shifting away from actively prosecuting women in the sex trade. (Baptiste Pons/Flickr)
Boston's joining a number of other cities and countries -- including Sweden, Norway, Denver and San Francisco -- that are shifting away from actively prosecuting women in the sex trade. (Baptiste Pons/Flickr)

Boston is taking a new approach to fighting prostitution: going after the people who pay for sex rather than the women who sell it.

The idea is that if you can reduce the demand for paid sex, you can reduce prostitution -- and, with it, human trafficking.

Boston's joining a number of other cities and countries, including Sweden, Norway, Denver and San Francisco, that are shifting away from actively prosecuting women in the sex trade. Instead, they're going after customers. A key part of this approach involves providing more services to women to help them transition out of the sex trade.

Correction: In the audio version of this story, Lina Nealon stated that a sex buyer education program in San Francisco generated over $1 billion for services to victims. It was in fact $1 million over 10 years for services to victims, $1 million to police, and $1 million to the district attorney’s office.


Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston. He tweets at @marty_walsh.

Lina Nealon, director of policy and outreach for Cambridge-based Demand Abolition, which tweets at @DemandAbolition.

Cherie Jimenez, director of the E.V.A. Center, Boston's exit program for women looking to leave the sex trade. She is also a survivor of the sex industry.

Dr. Kate Shannon, director of the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative in Vancouver, associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, and senior author of a study about the effects of criminalizing those who buy sex.


Why targeting customers is the right idea:
Mayor Marty Walsh: "There are some studies out there that show that. Also, what's happening here is women are often becoming criminalized and people are letting the Johns get away. It's partly because Johns might be high-profile or might be well-known in their communities. The women, in a lot of cases, have issues with domestic violence in their home — they're escaping — or substance abuse. It's a different approach. We spoke about it during the campaign, and now that I'm mayor of the city of Boston I've been able to work with the partners that we have in the domestic violence unit and the sexual trade unit in the city of Boston."

On shifting anti-prostitution efforts away from criminalizing women:
Cherie Jimenez: "You can't drive this industry any further underground than it already is. The game has changed here, and so many vulnerable young women get into this. So what we really want to do, ultimately, is shut this industry down. And the best way to do it is through focusing on demand, shifting it away from women. Historically, women have been stigmatized and criminalized, where men have never been accountable. And we have to understand that prostitution exists because inequality exists. So too many women are in poverty, too many men believe they have the right to sexual access. So we're shifting and, globally, this is all over the world. But we are starting to see this shift. Because of technology, things have changed. And it's an out-of-control industry and it's a violent industry."

On prostitution as a "victimless" crime:
Lina Nealon: "It's really important for the listeners to understand and — I think we're seeing this shift in society — to understanding that prostitution is anything but victimless. It is inherently violent, not only to the women and girls — the children — who are being purchased. It's destructive to communities, the legitimate businesses, even to the buyers themselves. And Ms. Jimenez can speak to this in more depth, as she's lived it. But women in prostitution are often coming from very vulnerable situations of sexual violence at home. They're trying to escape something and are often lured into prostitution feeling that it's the only choice that they do have. The sex industry is a market like any other. Pimps and traffickers are businessmen, and if there were no buyers there would be no business. And that's why we're seeing both internationally and throughout the United States that law enforcement and activists are understanding that going after the demand is a pragmatic way to dry up the industry."

On the risk of going after prostitution customers:
Dr. Kate Shannon: "Similar to the previous criminalization model we had in Canada, where we criminalized clients but not sex workers, we saw the same rates of violence and we saw the same risks in terms of health and safety to sex workers as in the previous criminalized model. So I think that Vancouver actually provides a really important example to cities like Boston that are considering following a similar approach in terms of enforcement and criminalization. In the Vancouver context, after several decades of missing and murdered women, the long history of violence and really horrible health risks to sex workers, particularly the most marginalized working on the street, the Vancouver Police Department adopted guidelines in January 2013 that no longer targeted sex workers but focused their arrests and targeting on clients. It really provided us a critical example to look at the so-called Swedish or Nordic model of criminalizing the purchase of sex. And what we heard from sex workers — and we focused on those with marginalized aspects, with street-based sex work — was that even if they're no longer the targets, that they really are at increased risk for violence, abuse and poor health. So they're having to rush negotiations or forego screening clients. So jumping into vehicles without checking for critical safety protections, being displaced in really isolated industrial areas where there are increased risks for violence and a reduced ability to access police protection."


The Boston Globe: Program In Boston Targets Men Who Buy Sex

  • "Boston is instituting a program to reduce prostitution by targeting men who buy sex instead of the women who provide it, officials announced Tuesday."

WBUR: Boston Aims To Cut Prostitution By Targeting Customers

  • "Boston officials are aiming to cut prostitution by 20 percent in the next two years by targeting customers instead of prostitutes. The city is teaming up with Cambridge-based anti-human-trafficking group Demand Abolition to track people paying for sex."

This segment aired on June 9, 2014.


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