“Sex traffickers are motivated by one thing,” Dr. Shively said. “They are trying to make money. It’s a market, a business, and the commodity is people. You only generate the supply—the people—if there is demand, and without demand, there is no motivation whatsoever to come up with that supply.”

FightTheNewDrug.org April 9, 2021

When we hear the term “human trafficking” we often think of movement: a young woman kidnapped, smuggled across borders, and forced into sexual slavery. This is one sex trafficking scenario, but it is a myth that this is the only way or even the most common way.

Sex trafficking is a domestic problem too. It can happen anywhere, and it does.

In the commercial sex industry, the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking is a variety of factors, but namely consent. In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines sex trafficking as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

It was sex trafficking when women were lured by GirlsDoPorn under the guise of a modeling job but actually forced to perform in porn. It is sex trafficking when a teenager is sold online by her new “boyfriend” for live performances. It is sex trafficking when an already-established porn performer is coerced into doing sex acts on camera they don’t want to do. These are just a couple of the many examples and scenarios beyond the Hollywood plotline we imagine.

Just as much as there are misconceptions about how sex trafficking happens, there is a long-standing myth that we can’t fix the problem. This is an assumption one researcher, Dr. Michael Shively, Senior Advisor on Research and Data Analysis at the U.S. based National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), refuses to accept.

We recently spoke with Dr. Shively to myth-bust persisting ideas about trafficking and to better understand how we can stop the demand.

Economics 101: supply and demand

As the saying goes, prostitution is one of the “oldest professions.” It has stood the test of time, implying that commercialized sex is inevitable, but the problem with the status quo is, as Dr. Shively said, “Anywhere there is commercial sex, there is trafficking.”

This is not to say that all commercial sex involves trafficking 100% of the time, but that where sex is sold, coercion follows.

Commercial sex is a market, and basic economic principles tell us that where there is demand, supply will follow. In other words, because people are willing to buy sex, traffickers see an opportunity to make money and supply victims—women, girls, boys, and even men—for a price.

“Sex traffickers are motivated by one thing,” Dr. Shively said. “They are trying to make money. It’s a market, a business, and the commodity is people. You only generate the supply—the people—if there is demand, and without demand, there is no motivation whatsoever to come up with that supply.”

Today, a lot of the efforts to fight sex trafficking focus on rescuing victims and bringing traffickers to justice. This is important work that needs to continue. These efforts suppress trafficking, but unfortunately, only temporarily. Another trafficker will come along and fill that space because there is still money to be made and buyers are willing to pay. According to Shively, the latter is the key to fighting demand.

“For the vast majority of human history, the thing that has been ignored or underemphasized more than any other aspect is the buyers,” he said.

No buyers, no business

While sex traffickers are predominately motivated by money, buyer motivations are all over the map. There are dozens of reasons men, the most predominant buyers, give when surveyed about why they purchased sex which can be grouped into common threads

Some wish they were in a relationship; others are the opposite and don’t want a relationship at all, just sex. Some are thrill-seeking, others have particular interests, fetishes or want the experience of having sex with different types of people.

A large portion of sex buyers are men who may not be particularly sensitive or aware of the consequences of their actions. They are looking to get a need met and do not intend to cause harm, while also believing the women they are buying sex from are in the industry voluntarily.

In recent years, there have been more efforts to educate buyers and influence their behaviors away from purchasing sex.

One example is the First Offender Prostitution Program implemented in San Francisco. It was a one-day education program, sometimes colloquially known as a “john school,” for first time arrested sex buyers who had the option to pay to attend the program or be prosecuted. In 2008, Shively conducted a study looking at the effectiveness of the program. He and his research team analyzed the rates of recidivism throughout the entire state of California by looking for a second arrest for sex buying in the ten years before the education program and ten years after.

Shively didn’t expect the program to create lasting change. It is hard to change behaviors in the first place, and buyers express different motivations, so how could one program with a general message about the realities of commercial sex and trafficking make a difference? When Shively saw the numbers, he was shocked.

The results revealed the regular rearrest rate was 8.8%, but that rate dropped to 4.5% the year the education program began, and it remained low. In other words, reoffending rates dropped by 40%. The program seemed to be successful in changing buyer behaviors.

“We have been trained to call it the oldest profession, to think of it as something natural. Sex is absolutely natural, but we aren’t talking about that. We are talking about turning sex into commerce,” Dr. Shively said. “We don’t turn everything into commerce because we know bad things happen when you do. We don’t allow adoption to become a business where you can buy a kid. We don’t allow kidneys to become a commodity because we know it sets up profit motivations that are going to make bad things happen. When you commodify sex, you commodify access to women, girls, and also boys.”

Fighting sex trafficking needs a multi-faceted solution. Shively said we must continue to rescue victims and hold traffickers accountable, but we cannot ignore the buyers and cultural influences that encourage trafficking.

Pornified culture and the links to sex trafficking

The sale of sex is not inevitable, nor is it necessary to feed the sexual needs of buyers. Instead, it can be viewed as a product of a culture that encourages entitlement to another person’s body for pleasure.

If that sounds familiar, it is because this is one of the messages porn sells. Porn portrays women, especially, as available and always eager to engage in sex. There is a distinct lack of consent. Instead, videos generally show women acting like they enjoy rough or violent counters, extreme acts, and even domination.

A person with good intentions can view porn and come away believing that those acts are things people want to do constantly, without checking in or asking for consent first. Consumers may start to feel that they are right to want the things they have seen in porn because porn is a common (but deeply flawed) sex educator.

“The evidence is really coming fast and furious now,” Dr. Shively said. “Anyone with a gut feeling, moral code, or anything that would make them suspicious of pornography, well, you can prove it now. It’s absolutely becoming a public health concern. Addictions are being created. Adolescent and child brains are being rewired because of the content that is so accessible.”

Not everyone who consumes porn will believe it’s okay to buy sex. Yet we cannot ignore the research that shows porn consumption to be an escalating behavior and the stories of men who decided porn wasn’t enough and turned to purchase sex in reality to fulfill a fantasy.

Related: Meet The Researchers Developing Apps To Educate People About Sex Trafficking

Almost no issue gets reduced to zero even with constant advocacy work, but it is still worth the effort, right?

Homicides are still committed, and yet our society fights against that behavior. Cures for a variety of illnesses still elude doctors, but they continue to search for solutions. The same should be true for sex trafficking: it takes effort on all sides to make a difference. We can rescue victims, bring justice to traffickers, hold buyers to account, and finally, reject porn with its messages of sexual entitlement that fuel the demand for exploitation.