How Feminist Philanthropy is Studying Who Buys Sex and Why

Swanee Hunt, Founder and Chair of Demand Abolition. (Photo Credit: Demand Abolition)

A new effort has formed to refocus issues of sex trafficking on the buyers of sex, not the victims. Demand Abolition, initiated by philanthropist Swanee Hunt, has the goal of fighting sex trafficking by eliminating the illegal sex industry in the US – and thereby the world. Among the tasks, Demand Abolition funded a research report “Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Sex Demand.” Conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Portland, over 8,000 men were surveyed. The report fills critical gaps in understanding of the illegal sex trade, why men buy sex, and what might be done short term and long term to alleviate this exploitative behavior.

A key finding of the research is that only 6.2% of the men surveyed paid for sex in the 12 months prior to the survey. As many as 25% of that group are repeat buyers, purchasing sex weekly or monthly. These high-frequency users account for 75% of the trade. According to the survey, they start early in life, encouraged by others in their social networks. About one in five (20%) of men not currently active sex buyers would become active if circumstances were more favorable – i.e. they were not threatened with arrest.

Only one key demographic factor influences these men. The high-frequency buyers are much more apt to earned over $100,000 annually. Based on the survey data, researchers estimate that $5.7 billion is spent on the the U.S. commercial sex market.

To counter the illicit sex trade, Demand Abolition makes seven policy recommendations. First and foremost is to shift arrests and adjudicating from prostitutes to arrests and adjudication of buyers. They suggest a short-term federal funding program to encourage state and local enforcement agencies to instigate reform. Fines from convicted buyers could be used to offset costs of survivor exit services and other programs to stop demand. They also recommend increasing penalties for repeat buyers, and using educational and public health campaigns to dispel the messages that normalize sex buying. The recommendations also encourage companies in the private sector to establish employer policies to prohibit sex buying. Last, Demand Abolition urges deterrence through a series of behavioral “nudges”.

Demand Abolition has assembled a notable Advisory Council to oversee its work. In addition to its founder, Swanee Hunt, President of Hunt Alternatives, it includes Jennifer Buffett, President of the Novo Foundation and Gayle Embrey, Executive Vice President of the Embrey Family Foundation.

The organization works with a large network of survivor leaders, criminal justice professionals, practitioners, researchers, policymakers, corporate leaders, philanthropists, and media. They created a 12 cities initiative, CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) as a model. A four-year multi-sector program, it has demonstrated that reducing demand and holding buyers accountable can be effective, scalable and efficient.

The role of commercial media in fostering a culture of normality about sex work and sex buying is is not discussed in depth in the Demand Abolition research report. There is a bit of data gathered about the internet (page 13 of the report) as “a robust information source,” but this area could use further investigation. More research on how internet media impacts men’s decisions about paying for sex would add significantly to this data. According to Gail Dines, porn industry expert researcher and President and CEO of Cultural Reframed, about one-third of all web downloads are porn related. Yes, pornography is not the same as paid sex. But it is a parallel form of sexual exploitation. The behavioral “nudges” to curb deterrence, the seventh identified policy point, could be significantly facilitated by changes to the hypersexualization of corporate entertainment and media.

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Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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