Illustration by Scott Murry
Reducing the demand for sex sounds like an absurd focus of policy. Yet it’s the foundation of Boston’s latest effort to address prostitution with the intent of halting violence against women. The program is part of a new 10-city initiative largely fueled by Demand Abolition, a group that controversially combines advocacy for victims of human trafficking with an agenda to end prostitution by shaming and fining those who purchase sex illegally.
Rather than follow Barney Frank and other Massachusetts lawmakers who have urged legalization and regulation of the sex-for-hire industry, Boston is joining the burgeoning international abolitionist agenda. With the city having effectively gentrified the Combat Zone, officials hope to reduce demand for prostitution by 20 percent over the next two years.
Boston was one of the first cities to receive federal funds to address human trafficking in 2005, and with that Martha Coakley and the Massachusetts state legislature established the Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force. In its first report released last year, the commission set goals and issued recommendations. But while the task force focused on sex and labor trafficking, arrests since, according to records from the attorney general’s office, all relate to prostitution charges.
In the politics of sex, however, nothing is simple. Author Melinda Chateauvert has researched the American sex industry for years, and when I spoke to her about the new initiative in Boston challenged the notion “that all prostitution is forced, ergo all prostitution is human trafficking.” In her 2014 book, Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, Chateauvert writes, “It’s a job; it pays the bills. Some people like the work, some don’t, and many have mixed feelings. There are good and bad bosses. It’s a service industry with decent, indifferent and horrid customers.”
As for the effectiveness of the “end demand” approach … Elora Chowdhury, associate professor and chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at UMass Boston, says, “We have a long and rich history of feminist scholarship and advocacy to learn from and inform our work to support women who are victimized within trafficking and prostitution industries. We need to be careful not to conflate the two and assume that women who are in sex work have no agency.”
BRING ME MEN
There have been legislative efforts in the past to decriminalize prostitution in Mass. Notably, until 1975, only a woman could be charged with prostitution. The following year, then-state Rep. Barney Frank introduced a bill to the legislature to legalize sex-for-hire in Boston’s Combat Zone, with no success.
Image of Combat Zone (1974) via Spencer Grant Collection | Boston Public Library
Today, the sale and purchase of sex is still illegal in Boston. With this latest twist in protocol, the criminal in said scenario will be deemed the buyer and client.The plan: to “end demand” for prostitution as a means to protect women from violence wrought by men. And this is where things get tricky.
The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is common. It’s also troubling. Amy Ferrell, an associate professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, says, “Not all prostitution is human trafficking.” Ferrell has worked collecting data for the aforementioned Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force in Boston, a collaborative effort between the state and civil society organizations to address human trafficking. She continues: “There are people who disagree about this, but legally at the federal level you have to prove force, fraud and coercion, [while] at the state level a lot of prostitution becomes trafficking because of the way the state law is written.”
On the “end demand” side—a cousin to the abstinence in schools movement—the purchase of sex is an extension of violence against women, ergo gender inequality. Former US ambassador Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition, a program with fingerprints all over Boston’s new initiative, told the Boston Globe in June, “It is about men feeling entitled to treat a female, a girl or a woman, as they wish.” In bringing that message to metropolises nationwide, promoting an “end demand” approach in the name of women’s rights and security, Swanee and the abolitionist agenda have incited passionate detractors.
Demand Abolition is a program of the Cambridge-based Hunt Alternatives Fund, co-founded by Hunt and her sister Helen, daughters of the oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. The privately funded operationis “committed to eradicating the illegal commercial sex industry in the US—and, by extension, the world—by combating the demand for purchased sex.” This year Demand Abolition began launching programs in 10 American cities including Boston, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco.
Sex workers and groups that support them reject the claims of Demand Abolition, as do international human rights organizations. Audacia Ray of the Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led, Brooklyn-Based organization that amplifies the voices of people in the sex trades, says abolition efforts complicate public perception. She tells DigBoston: “That kind of narrative is really problematic because it only looks at the big badness of sex and money and it doesn’t examine economic justice.” Ray also says there is a need to address “the real economic reasons why people end up in sex work regardless of whether they are there by choice, circumstance, or coercion.”
THE COLOR OF CRIMINALIZATION
According to a spokesperson for the City of Boston, the Hub “takes a multi-pronged approach to ending the exploitation and prostitution of women on Boston’s streets, addressing the needs of victims as well as prosecuting cases.” It’s a multilateral approach; the same media liaison for Mayor Marty Walsh tells DigBoston: “Public health officials, survivors harmed by the illegal sex trade, the community, business members, and a multitude of other stakeholder groups will work together to coordinate demand based interventions that can be implemented to end the exploitation and prostitution of women.”
Description via Boston City TV: Mayor Walsh gives remarks at the Human Trafficking Summit, which was put on by the Mayor’s Office and Demand Abolition, a part of Hunt Alternatives
Among the key municipal operatives implementing new measures, senior Walsh advisor Dan Mulhern brings experience from his work directing the Public Safety Initiative in the Suffolk County District Attorney office’s gang unit. Mulhern understands violence against women is a complex problem and has encountered this in his work on firearm, gun violence, and human trafficking cases.
But there is potential for the new initiative to carry unintended consequences and harm for both buyers and sellers. For starters, the methods that police will use to track and measure the demand for prostitution raise several questions. Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty programat the ACLU Boston, says methods used to nab Johns in the Hub involve staking out brothels through a process known as data scraping. In an interview with DigBoston, Crockford describes such operations as “extremely troubling,” and says “police are spending precious resources executing an online surveillance dragnet to identify groups of people who want to solicit sex.”
Crockford continues, “It’s encouraging to see the BPD move away from a model that targets sex workers for arrest,” but argues, “The attempt to stop the demand for sex work through intensive surveillance and arrests is misguided.” Under current policies, or lack thereof, it’s unclear how authorities will handle data. Crockford asks: “Are officers collating this data in intelligence files? If you visit a certain website, will you be placed in a database or marked as a sex offender? If you’re pulled over by an officer, will he or she see that you’ve been placed in said database?”
On another front, there has been pushback against efforts to handle those who purchase sex with fines, John schools, and education campaigns. Ray argues such policies are “essentially attacking poor families from a different angle. The men who get arrested are typically working class people who are soliciting street workers. So instead of arresting poor women who are selling sex and interrupting their families, it’s arresting poor men and interrupting their families.”
The back and forth ensues—especially with so few reliable statistics to guide policy. To date, though, there have been few successful cases built against Johns in Massachusetts. The best proof in that regard comes from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which in 2013 noted that “none of the state’s 11 district attorney’s offices could cite a single case in which a defendant has faced even the minimum fine of $1,000.”
If a report released this month by the Red Umbrella Project about the effects of New York’s human trafficking intervention courts is any indication, the racial dimension to criminalization is real. Among other striking results, researchers found: “In Brooklyn, 19% of defendants were facing the charge of loitering for the purposes of prostitution—of those defendants 94% were Black.” The report further notes that in other charges where defendants are viewed to be victims of exploitation, there are often calls for them to be arrested anyway.
WHAT’S DEMAND GOT TO DO WITH IT
There’s a difference between how “end demand” (or what is sometimes called the “Nordic Model”) is promoted here, and how such programs are usually instituted abroad—and it’s all because prostitution will remain illegal in Boston. Lina Nealon, founding director of Demand Abolition, actually supports a model that “decriminalizes the sellers, provides extensive social services for those who want to exit, holds buyers accountable, and [has] gender equity classes starting in kindergarten.” As for the chances of bringing that kind of plan here … “The City of Boston,” says Mulhern, “has had no discussion of legalizing prostitution.”
The resulting mentality: Whether sex workers consider themselves victims or not, they will be treated as such.To this point Nealon explains, “While we support efforts to reduce the harm of individuals in prostitution, Demand Abolition’s ultimate goal is harm elimination by ending prostitution.”
Along the same lines, Boston Police Department Police Sergeant Detective Donna Gavin, part of the Human Trafficking Unit, in an interview with DigBoston describes those arrested for prostitution as “vulnerable” and “prey” for “dangerous pimps.” As such, she stresses the importance of providing “services as opposed to jail sentences,” and exit strategies from the sex trade. “The vast majority of the women that we come in contact with do this because they don’t have viable options,” Gavin says. “They are coerced … We look at this as a very harmful industry.”
Gavin compares the illegal sale of sex in Boston to “a drug case: supply, demand, distribution.” On the other hand, she concedes, “It’s a very complicated type of crime.” Others agree, though in many cases they’ve drawn different conclusions. Joseph Amon, director of health and human rights at Human Rights Watch in NYC explains, “You have to figure out a way to prosecute trafficking and protect these women.” In brief: A focus on criminalization like this may yield short-term gains, but ugly consequences in the long term.
“When we take abolitionist approaches to anything like alcohol or drugs they don’t work,” Ray says. “There are very sketchy statistics from policing and sex work from all angles, and end demand strategies have not been shown to reduce instances of prostitution and they certainly are not keeping sex workers safer.”
Chateauvert underpins the anti-abolition platform: “Research done by sex workers has shown that further criminalizing clients has led to more violence and dangerous situations. Not only do potential clients become more afraid of arrests, those other people who assist and help or work with sex workers are also made more vulnerable.”
All things considered, when criminalized the sex work industry is driven further underground. Human Rights Watch has documented said negative consequences of criminalization on access to rights, to personal autonomy, and to privacy. Similarly, a 2012 World Health Report made several good practice recommendations to address the health issues of sex workers.Central to their fight against the industry stigma: the need to partner with sex worker-led organizations, and to work toward decriminalization.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Women aren’t the only ones involved in sex work. Trans individuals and men who have sex with men are also highly impacted by prostitution legislation, yet are absent from the current dialogue about violence and the industry in Boston. Jason Lydon of the Boston Black and Pink chapter, an advocacy group for incarcerated LGBTQ individuals, says, “This is an economic justice issue, this is a queer and trans issue, this is a racial justice issue.” Lydon’s organization assists people imprisoned on sex work charges, and says “Mayor Walsh is on the wrong side” of the crusade.
In his role, Walsh is on board with the play in progress. Early this year he told the Boston Globe, “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” and endorsed framing the city’s anti-violence initiative with a comprehensive approach to neighborhood safety.
Carl Sciortino, the executive director of Aids Action Committee of Massachusetts, seconds the call for a comprehensive approach, and highlights the role of public health experts. “While AIDS Action has not been directly involved in the city’s initiative, I think this opens the door to an important conversation,” Sciortino, a former state senator, tells DigBoston. “Sex work is often connected with exploitation and violence against women, including transgender women, as well as some men, and our public health imperative is to intervene effectively, rather than just punishing those involved.”
In practice, community initiatives are shaped by voices who are present at the table. Mulhern says the Walsh administration is “shaping and individualizing it to what would be most helpful to the city of Boston.” For input, theprogram’s top advisorsays, “It will be driven by the residents and community partners from the city of Boston with the support of Demand Abolition.”
Specifically, the new program involves stakeholders from groups like My Life My Choice, as well as members of the faith-based community that offer support services for those looking to exit the sex trade. Nealon says, “One of the reasons we believe law enforcement attention on the buyers is important is that it unlocks fees and fines to increase service resources to those in and exiting prostitution.”
Contrarily, those in public health who support sex workers endorse what they call “harm reduction” models. For more than a decade, the prominent medical journal The Lancet has researched interventions for harms against sex workers including: HIV infection, drug use, criminalization, violence, disease, debt, and exploitation. Their conclusion: It’s optimal to place sex workers at the center of the response. For that to happen, Ray says activism needs to come from both the sex industry as well as allies within women’s rights organizations.
“Sex work is often done out of economic desperation,” says Sciortino. “Punishing and incarcerating sex workers is ineffective, and is not conducive to important public health work that only happens when sex workers are able to access medical and social service agencies without fear of arrest. If a sex worker is being exploited or abused, they need to be able to report the crimes committed against them and seek services.”
Meanwhile, despite papers in The Lancet and elsewhere calling for the decriminalization of sex work, the conflation of the violence of human trafficking and politics of prostitution has derailed the conversation. Americans by and large remain confused about the sale and purchase of sex. And if you believe the various advocacy groups that are weary of “end demand” programs, the influential Demand Abolition agenda is similarly baffling.
Amon of Human Rights Watch compares abolition tactics to the failed War on Drugs: “Everyone wants to end drug use, but when you approach it from the perspective of, ‘We’re gonna stand outside the needle exchange site and arrest people going in to exchange needles,’ you’re going to basically have more harm than help.”
In the Red Umbrella Project study, researchers concluded: “The sex trade is an often a sexist, racist, transphobic industry—but the policing of people in the sex trades is all of these things too.” Furthermore, “Women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with addictions, people will disabilities, and people who live at the intersections of these identities are the most susceptible to labor exploitation.” Those realities considered, Chowdhury advocates a feminist solution.
“We need diverse voices to inform the initiative including sex workers,” she says. “Buyers as well as law enforcement agents, and advocates and practitioners working on behalf of women.”