The top court in Maryland ruled this week that a teen who sent a sexually explicit cellphone video of herself to two friends violated state child pornography law.
The teen, referred to in court papers as SK, did not have to register as a sex offender but was ordered to undergo electronic monitoring and probation, which required drug tests and anger management classes as well as permission to leave the state.
The decision, which upheld a decision from a lower Maryland appeals court, means other minors who engage in sexting could face similar legal repercussions.
Amidst spreading criticism, one expert told the Guardian it was “a ridiculous reading of the statute” concerned.
The ruling, by a 6-1 majority among the judges on the Maryland court of appeals, said: “We refuse to read into the statute an exception for minors who distribute their own matter, and thus we believe SK’s adjudication as delinquent … must be upheld.”
This 35-page decision stemmed from an incident at a high school several years ago. The student identified as SK was 16 at the time and therefore “legally able to consent to engage in sexual conduct”.
According to the ruling, she and her two best friends swapped “silly photos and videos” in a cellphone-based group chat “in an effort to ‘one-up’ each other”.
“The trio hung out together and trusted one another to keep their group messages private,” the ruling said.
The other group members were identified as AT, a 16-year-old female, and KS, a 17-year-old male. During the 2016-17 school year, SK sent them a “one-minute video of herself performing [oral sex] on a male”.
After the trio fell out, the clip was shared with other students.
AT testified that KS “would always write on the board, like, saying she’s a slut or saying any type of thing” and also urged AT to accompany him to the school resource officer, a member of the sheriff’s department, to report the video. While KS claimed he “was worried about SK and wanted her to receive help”, the court papers said, AT thought his motives “were not so pure”.
“AT testified that KS was bragging around school about SK going to jail if he were to report the text message,” the papers said.
KS, who had a copy of the video in his email account, showed it to Officer Eugene Caballero. He was told to delete it.
Caballero then met SK, who was read her rights. According to Caballero’s police report, SK “cried during their meeting and was upset that the video was going around the school”. The student thought the meeting would stop the video circulating. Caballero did not tell her she was “considered a suspect for criminal activity”.
SK gave Caballero a written statement saying she was in the video and had shared it with her two friends.
Caballero’s report was sent to a state attorney. Prosecutors charged SK as a juvenile with filming a minor engaging in sexual conduct, distributing child pornography and displaying an obscene item to a minor. The juvenile court determined SK was involved in the last two counts.
She appealed, arguing that “the statute was intended to protect, not prosecute, minors victimized and exploited in the production of sexually explicit videos”.
The top court recognized that the issue was more complicated than in cases involving adults – but still ruled against SK.
“On the one hand, there is no question that the state has an overwhelming interest in preventing the spread of child pornography and has been given broad authority to eradicate the production and distribution of child pornography,” the opinion said.
“On the other hand, SK, albeit unwisely, engaged in the same behavior as many of her peers. Here, SK is prosecuted as a ‘child pornographer’ for sexting and, because she is a minor, her actions fell directly within the scope of the statute … As written, the statute in its plain meaning is all encompassing, making no distinction whether a minor or an adult is distributing the matter.”
The judges said they did “recognize that there may be compelling policy reasons for treating teenage sexting different from child pornography” and said legislation differentiating the two “ought to be considered by [Maryland’s] general assembly in the future”.
The dissenting judge said prosecuting SK conflicted with the intent of the state’s child pornography statute.
“She made a video depicting consensual sexual conduct,” Judge Michele D Hotten wrote. “The general assembly did not seek to subject minors who recorded themselves in non-exploitative sexual encounters to prosecution. Rather, the statute contemplates protecting children from the actions of others.”
The decision prompted criticism.
“If there is any victim here,” said Slate, “it is SK, who was allegedly the target of revenge porn by her erstwhile friend KS. Yet KS was never charged with distributing the video, nor were any of the students who passed it around.
“Only SK, humiliated and horrified, found herself charged as a child pornographer. The system failed her at every step, from the school resource officer who treated her like a criminal, to the prosecutor who inexplicably brought a criminal case against her, to the courts that affirmed the prosecutors’ ridiculous reading of the law.”
Rebecca Roiphe, a professor of law at New York Law School and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, agreed.
“This is a ridiculous reading of the statute,” she said in an email. “The law uses two different terms, ‘person’ to describe the perpetrator and ‘minor’ to describe the victim. The legislature clearly did not intend to criminalize the victim.
“If there were a law prohibiting a person from bringing an animal into the park, it would be absurd to say a man walking alone in the park violated the law because he brought himself.”
Roiphe added: “I think the case illustrates how troubling the enforcement of sex crimes can be and how important it is that prosecutors use their discretion wisely.”
Obviously, I agree that it is completely wrong for minors to be prosecuted in this way, and that this is an incorrect interpretation of the law, which is meant to protect minors.
We need to be careful that this isn’t used to try to weaken laws that protect minors from sexual exploitation, especially by the porn industry (see my 2015 blog post here about an attempt in the UK to do just that).
QotD: “she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship”
When Jed first heard from friends about websites where you could see naked women, it sounded too good to be true. So one afternoon, aged 11 and with his mind straying from homework, and while his mother was busy, he typed “boobs” and “sex” into the search bar of the family laptop.
“My first reaction was: ‘This is confusing.’ I knew a bit about sex, but there were men doing painful stuff to women,” he recalls.
After trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Jed clicked off the page and cleared the browsing history. “But I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so half an hour later, I had another look.”
Now, eight years on and in his first year of an engineering course at university, Jed is a member of a generation that has grown up with porn, and estimates he spends five or six hours a week looking at it.
Indeed, a 2016 analysis of 1,001 11- to 16-year-olds by Middlesex University for the children’s commissioner and the NSPCC found that at least 56% of boys and 40% of girls had been exposed to online pornography by the age of 16. The study also found that not only are boys more likely to keep seeking it out after they first see it (59%, compared with 25% of girls) but they are more likely to be positive about it.
“It’s normal,” says Jake, 19, echoing many of the boys I spoke to. “If one of my friends hadn’t seen it, I’d consider that weird.” For Jason, a swaggering 17-year-old, porn is a comforting routine, something functional that he wakes up with and winds down to at the end of the day. “It’s stress relief, and less work than girls,” he says.
When Samuel’s parents found a list of what they considered to be extreme sexual acts in his browsing history (“Nothing too serious,” Samuel, who is 16, says: “double and triple penetration”) he wasn’t embarrassed. He was annoyed: “I thought, ‘So what? Everyone watches it.’” Tom, 17, says: “We know it’s fake. My mates laugh about it.”
“They may be laughing about it,” says Dr Gail Dines, a scholar of pornography and professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, “but they are also masturbating to it. They say they know it’s fake, but what does that mean? You haven’t got one brain that processes fake stuff and one that processes real stuff. You have one brain and one body that’s aroused. If you begin by masturbating to cruel, hardcore, violent porn, studies show that you are not going to grow up wired for intimacy and connection.”
Most of the girls I spoke to seemed to be concerned about a loss of intimacy that comes from their male peers’ porn use. Although there are some girls who watch porn, most I speak to are exasperated by the groups of lads accessing it on GCSE field trips or talking in the school cafeteria about videos they’ve seen.
Nia is 14, and though she avoids porn, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt its influence. Among the boys, she says it’s easy to tell which ones are the heavy users. “They’re the ones who don’t know what to say at parties, and then write sexual comments on your Instagram posts.”
Megan, 15, has visited porn sites a few times because she heard about her friends giving blowjobs and thought, “it sounds like a skill you’d better learn how to do. You don’t want to get it wrong.” Ayeesha, 17, talks about how porn warps things. “Boys like to spice it up because ordinary sex is considered boring,” she says. “And girls think having anal sex will make the boys love them.” When Ayeesha had sex, she rated her performance as if through the pornographer’s lens. “The first time I did it, I was thinking, ‘My body looks good.’”
When Rhianna, 21, looks back on her teenage sexual relationships, she recalls being asked to replicate scenes her boyfriends had seen on porn. “It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was as if you were some prototype female they got to act out their favourite videos with.”
Now she’s older, Rhianna has started to demand sex on her own terms and enjoys porn herself. “As long as it’s not violent, or shows rape, it’s fine for people over 18 to watch. I think it can be fun to use with a partner.”
But it’s impossible not to hear the angst and confusion in the voice of Ciara, a 20-year-old retail trainee, when she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship. “Boys all want the things they’ve seen in porn. If you say it hurts, they don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s as if that’s a normal part of the experience.”
There is some hope, though: a few of the older boys I speak to seem to be gaining some perspective on the downsides of porn. Henry, 20, decided to wean himself off it when he felt he couldn’t masturbate without it. “You’re entranced by it. Denying myself and forcing myself to use my imagination instead was really tough.”
Beyond that, he also started to recognise how it affected his view of women. “I’d see girls in the street and realise I couldn’t just click a button and see them naked. I’d be talking to someone and get frustrated that I couldn’t just make sex happen.”
Mitchell, 19, has begun to understand the connection between what he watches and how he behaves. “If girls are reluctant to do something, you pressure them because you think, ‘Lots of women do it in porn. Why don’t you?’” He says he began to feel “like I wasn’t in my own body”.
The effects of porn run deep – 53% of boys and 39% of girls in the Middlesex University study saw it as “a realistic depiction” of sex – and even with the anticipated new verification checks, free porn will bubble up in other ways; it is already increasingly appearing on platforms children use from a young age, such as Snapchat and Instagram.
Glamorous and flamboyant, Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello often posted snaps to her Instagram followers of racy days spent surrounded by beautiful young women in some of Colombia’s most exclusive spots.
Behind the façade, prosecutors say, lay a dark secret: last year the brash 48-year-old woman was arrested and accused of being the country’s biggest pimp. She is now in jail and on trial accused of making a fortune by catering to the dark desires of those visiting the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, after her arrest last year along with 17 others in a huge police sting known as Operation Vesta.
Prosecutors allege that Ms Campos Puello, nicknamed “La Madame”, forced young women to work in her international sex-trafficking ring and provided them to clients such as celebrities, policemen and politicians.
While Ms Campos Puello vehemently denies the accusations, her trial has highlighted Colombia’s insidious problem with sex tourism.
During the Eighties and Nineties Colombia was a no-go zone for travellers as a war involving left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries turned it into a near-failed state. But tourism has been booming since a peace deal in 2016 ended half a century of conflict, and Cartagena is the country’s biggest tourist trap. The beaches and colonial architecture of the Unesco World Heritage site attract millions of visitors each year.
But anyone wandering around the city’s old town will come across females, many very young, offering their services. Prostitution in Colombia is legal but it is alleged that Ms Campos Puello coerced women, often from poor backgrounds, into the trade and trafficked them overseas. Others caught in Operation Vesta were alleged to have trafficked children.
Despite admitting to having an escort agency, Ms Campos Puello claims that those involved chose to be so and were always older than 18. Mario Gómez Jiménez, the chief prosecutor, said that Ms Campos Puello had close to 400 women in the network.
“Never, never have there been minors involved,” Ms Campos Puello told local media in an interview from prison.
She has been kept in jail since her arrest last year. She has since been accused of continuing to run her agency and also threatening a journalist via her social media accounts.
Last year Néstor Humberto Martínez, Colombia’s former chief prosecutor, described the victims in the case as “true 21st-century sex slaves”.
The US-aided Operation Vesta led to 17 other people being arrested, including three Israelis who “had built a network of human trafficking, sex tourism and child exploitation that plagued Colombia for over a decade”. One navy official who has been jailed tattooed his initials on the bodies of the underage girls he raped. About 250 victims have been identified.
Mr Gómez said he hoped Operation Vesta would “open the eyes of the state, the government and society”.
Most of Cartagena is poor and the sex trade is seen as an easy way out of poverty for many young women.
“It’s very difficult to believe just one case will radically change the country. But emblematic cases such as this one give us hope,” Mr Gómez said. “We hope it could give some direction and help with the next step with many of the women who are involved in this trade. If the government could help, financially, those trapped in this trade and provide better opportunities, such as funds to set up small businesses, that would be a turning point.”
This article is a long, detailed, critical, but balanced account of the history, from the 1970’s to today, of the second ever battered women’s shelter in the US. I’m posting the first few paragraphs, which cover the setting up of the shelter and its early years, and include details of what was happening in second wave feminism at the same time, but I would recommend reading the whole thing.
In the winter of 1975, a week after a ten-inch snowfall, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez decided to turn Cherie’s apartment into a shelter for women who were getting beaten up at home. Cherie lived downstairs from Chris in a building on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither knew what running such a shelter involved, but nobody did; there was only one in the country, which had opened in St. Paul the year before. They were both on welfare, and each had a little kid, but rent was cheap, and their apartments were bigger than they needed. They put up signs with Cherie’s phone number in laundromats, and the bathrooms of broken-bone units in hospitals, and the waiting rooms of maternity wards. Cherie painted a picture on her wall of a woman brandishing a rifle. They met a few times with a lawyer they knew, to ask questions like: What if a guy found a woman in their apartment and killed her—would they be responsible? They got some women together to make plans, but the meetings were long and kind of boring, so they decided to just do it.
Chris grew up in the projects in South Boston. One night in 1966, when she was seventeen, she went to the Waldorf, a twenty-four-hour restaurant on Tremont Street where gay people used to go after the bars closed. She met a deaf Puerto Rican guy there, got pregnant, and married him. Soon after she gave birth, he started beating her up. He tried to strangle her and drown her in the bathtub. She fought back, but he was stronger. They had terrible arguments, all in sign language. She left him when she was eighteen and moved back in with her parents; her mother watched the baby while Chris went downtown and turned tricks. The money was good, and she moved to a nice apartment in Back Bay with a woman she’d been seeing who worked as a prostitute, too. She changed her last name from her husband’s name, Mendez, to Womendez.
Later, around 1973, Chris had a minor nervous breakdown, became religious, moved to Cambridge, and found work moving furniture and delivering the Gay Community News in her van. Then, one night, she met Cherie at a Daughters of Bilitis meeting, and they went out afterward to a lesbian bar in Boston called the Saints. They became friends, and then a couple, and talked every night about how they wanted to do something to really turn things upside down. They thought, There are so many women getting beat up who need a place to stay—we should just open our place up, make it a shelter. They would call it Transition House.
Cherie, like Chris, had fled a violent early marriage. When she was a teen-ager, she went to Puerto Rico with some friends and met her future husband, a rich man from San Juan, in a hotel lobby. They had a daughter together, but he hit her, and then he became violent with their daughter, too. She left him and travelled around for a while, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a high-end escort. She spent some time in Mexico City, then stayed for a summer with friends who had an organic farm in Michigan. Finally, she fetched up in Cambridge and met Chris.
Word about the shelter spread fast. It was Cambridge in 1975, and there was a lot going on. Women were meeting for consciousness-raising sessions at the Sergeant Pepper Coffee House, and helping rape victims at the Women’s Center, and starting up the Combahee River Collective. There were biker feminists in leather, and Cambridge feminists in bandannas, and Dorchester feminists in dresses. There were socialist feminists who believed that all victimized groups should struggle together against capitalism, and radical feminists who believed that misogyny was the fundamental oppression—that if the patriarchy could be broken then all other oppressions would follow.
Cherie and Chris opened their shelter on New Year’s Day, 1976, and it was full almost immediately. There were mattresses stacked up in the kitchen and all over the floor, and children everywhere. The women who came to stay all pitched in, cleaning the house, taking donations, answering the phone, which began ringing constantly, helping out with child care while mothers went to the doctor or the housing office. A lot of women showed up at the apartment to help. One was Betsy Warrior, a former battered woman who was a founding member of Cell 16, a radical feminist group whose journal, No More Fun and Games, advocated celibacy, separatism, and wages for housework. Another was Lisa Leghorn, an ardent young student who had met Warrior in Cell 16 and spent time with her studying social movements. (They concluded that the basis of women’s subjugation was their place as unpaid laborers in the home, reinforced through violence.) There was Rachel Burger, who had grown up in a pacifist Anabaptist community in England and Paraguay, and, having seen abuse that nobody talked about in that community, had gone looking for another. There were housewives from the suburbs who turned up carrying homemade cakes.
The idea was that there should be no difference between women who came to stay and women who came to help. They made decisions together, went on protest marches together, went out drinking and dancing. “We were changing consciousness,” Leghorn says. “A woman would come into the shelter in the morning, and by the evening she was showing a new resident around. Women were learning that they weren’t just victims.” Nobody wanted to make rules or control behavior; the only rule was to keep the shelter’s location a secret. Chris and Cherie had almost no money, but they were determined not to fund-raise from any source other than individual women, because doing so would compromise their independence and their politics.
Chris and Cherie worked around the clock, taking naps when they could. There were a lot of people and a lot of frantic emotions in a small space. Everyone was in crisis, panicking about where she was going to go next. One woman kept begging Chris to kill her, and Chris would say, Not today, honey, maybe tomorrow. A volunteer went to help a woman escape from her house and got beaten up herself. Some of the women had not been battered but had come because they were homeless; Chris and Cherie couldn’t decide what to do about them. Some days, when the weather was nice, all the women would take a picnic out to the back yard and the kids would play and everybody would be at peace for an hour or two.
In August that first year, Transition House helped to organize a women’s march that rallied at Government Center, in Boston. Five thousand people turned up. Leghorn spoke passionately about female servitude. Florynce Kennedy, the founder of the Feminist Party, advised battered women to occupy the nearest cathedral, mosque, or synagogue, because religions had been “pushing the family trap” and had taken upon themselves “a monopoly on the license to fuck.” Afterward, dozens of women showed up at the shelter to volunteer.
Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”
Domestic violence felt like the front line of the liberation struggle. “When we started to understand how deeply pervasive and corrosive it was, when we heard stories from women whose father beat their mother and then they replicated that in their own relationship, it felt like the work was so central to creating a world in which women could be liberated,” Sullivan says. All women needed was a place to go—a refuge where they would realize that they could survive on their own—and then they would be freed from dependence on violent men, or any men, forever. The stories were brutal, but the work was exhilarating.
Unlike most small feminist organizations founded in the nineteen-seventies, the shelter survived the decade, and the next, and the ones after that. It is still open, in a clapboard house in Cambridge with an unpublished address. It was founded not just to be a refuge for battered women but to embody a set of principles and enact a theory of how women would be liberated. It survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.
Each abandonment was the occasion of bitter fights, mutinies, and accusations of betrayal. For many women who worked there, Transition House was their first political love, to which they attached their most utopian hopes for the future, and, after all the devotion and the sacrifices and the impassioned arguments and the work day and night, it was hard to leave its founding principles behind, no matter how destructive they had become. Women left in anger, or hurt, or from exhaustion, or because they got older, or it was a different time. But the doors stayed open.
When I first heard about the tragic case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced in 2006 to 51 years for killing a man who was paying to use her for sex when she was 16-years-old, I immediately thought of Emma Humphreys. In 1985, Emma also killed a man in very similar circumstances.
Both girls killed as a result of severe provocation and mental ill health, caused by the extreme abuse they had endured in prostitution.
Brown shot Johnny Allen in 2004. On the night she killed him, Allen picked up Cyntoia and took her to his home. Brown said in her statement she thought he was reaching for a gun during sex, so she shot him with a handgun and fled with his money.
The defence claimed Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life and was afraid of coming back to her pimp, “Cut Throat”, who used to beat and terrorise her, with no money. The prosecution said she was a greedy opportunist. Cyntoia was convicted of murder.
Like Cyntoia, Emma had grown up with appalling abuse, and was pimped into prostitution as a runaway child. Having met Trevor Armitage on the streets of Nottingham, Emma – who had been prostituted on the streets aged 13 – moved in with him, desperate for a home.
Armitage began beating, raping and pimping Emma, and her life was sheer hell. She killed him after he threatened her with a “gang-bang”. Like Cyntoia, she was just 16 years old, and yet was convicted a few months later of his murder. The jury failed to understand how child abuse and neglect is a training ground for prostitution, and how pimps and other predators target girls such as Emma.
Following a relentless three-year campaign to overturn Emma’s conviction, she finally walked free in July 1995. Emma had served a decade in prison for the “crime” of defending herself. But the lifetime of abuse, and her decade in prison took its toll on her mental and physical health, and Emma died three years later.
Cyntoia had been in prison for over a decade when campaigners brought her case to the public’s attention, and soon the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown trended on Twitter. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, and even Snoop Dogg, himself a former pimp, called for her release.
Cyontia says that “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” Emma said much the same when she was released. What Emma needed, and what all the girls caught up in prostitution need from us is to call it what it is – child abuse.
We need to challenge those that claim that when the Cyntoias and Emmas of this world reach 18 they are merely exercising a “choice”. One pro-prostitution organisation recently referred to Cyntoia as “a survival sex worker” as opposed to a victim of sexual exploitation, and called for changes to attitudes so that such young women can hang on to their “agency”.
A child in the sex trade has no “agency”. She is a victim of sexual abuse and violence. Girls such as Cyntoia and Emma usually never come to our attention. They often take their own lives, die from HIV, are murdered by pimps and punters, or end up in prison. We owe them a duty of care, and that begins by calling prostitution what it is: one of the worst forms of sexual exploitation and brutality on the planet.
Former top porn actress Mia Khalifa has called out pornography companies that “prey on callow young women”.
The 26-year-old says the corporations “trap women legally in to contracts when they’re vulnerable”.
Mia spent just three months working in the porn industry before leaving in 2015 but she remains a highly ranked star on site Pornhub.
Speaking in an interview with her friend Megan Abbott, Mia says she “hasn’t yet accepted [her] past”.
Mia has usually avoided speaking about her career in porn, but says she’s “ready to shed light on every questionable moment from my past, because if I own it, it can’t be used against me”.
She is one of the most-viewed porn stars of all time – but Mia says that didn’t necessarily equate to payment.
She says she made around $12,000 (£9,900) during her time performing and “never saw a penny again after that”.
There is still an active website under her name, which she says she doesn’t own or profit from.
“All I’ve wanted these last years is for the site to be changed from my direct name,” she says.
The Lebanon-born performer opened up about how difficult it is to move on after porn, as she found out when attempting to pursue a career in sports punditry.
“It gets me so down when I get ‘no’s’ from companies who don’t want to work with me because of my past, but I also thought I would never find a man like my fiancé,” she said.
Mia Khalifa got engaged to Robert Sandberg earlier this year.
“The fact that he appreciated everything I’ve done since porn meant so much.”
Although Mia’s career was short-lived, it wasn’t without controversy. Her most famous scene shows her performing sex acts whilst wearing a hijab.
“Instantly that it was posted, it was like wildfire. ISIS sent me death threats, they sent me a Google Maps image of my apartment.
“I stayed in a hotel for two weeks after that because fear really set in.”
With almost 17 million followers on her Instagram page, Mia often receives offensive messages from trolls.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, things people say don’t offend me. I always think ‘OK, but are you ISIS? Are you going to kill me? No, move on’.”
The actress was scouted on the street in Miami in 2014, and made her first porn film in October that year.
She didn’t plan for anyone to find out, telling Megan Abbott she saw it as her “dirty little secret”.
But by December she was the number one ranked performer on website Pornhub.
“I definitely have not come to terms with my past yet,” she says. “I might put on a facade, because I fake it until I make it.”
The findings of a US-wide survey, outlined in a report, ‘Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand’ might help the general population appreciate why prostitution is not a victimless crime, and how the sex trade is driven by the demand and not the supply side.
Demand Abolition, a US-based group that campaigns against the sex trade, commissioned a survey about johns and their behavior, interviewing 8,201 adult men across the US. As ‘quality control’, a number of women who were previously involved in prostitution (sex trade survivors) were asked to give their views on the research and to help come up with recommendations for change.
How common is paying for sex in the US? Despite the creeping normalization of prostitution, which, in popular sanitized parlance is commonly referred to as ‘sex work’, the majority of men choose not to pay for sex.
Demand Abolition found that on average, men who buy sex spend a minimum of $100 per sex act, which goes towards an estimated $5.7 billion profit from prostitution. Buyers use illicit massage businesses, the street and online to buy sex. High frequency’, or entrenched, regular buyers drive the market and typically earn $100,000 or more annually. Regular buyers are more likely to be younger.
I have heard a variety of justifications by johns that tally with the findings of the research. Many convince themselves that the women enjoy it; that if they don’t have sex they will spontaneously combust; and that they are merely looking for a little ‘variety’.
So, why do men pay for sex? According to the research, motivation is varied, but the increasing normalization and sanitization of the sex trade, such as the propaganda promoted by pimps and other profiteers that would have us believe that buying sex is the same as paying for a beer and a burger, removes the stigma from the men, and provide a clear conscience.
In Berlin recently, home of the mega-brothel, I came across a sign advertising a ‘beer, blood sausage, and as many girls as you can manage’ as a lunchtime deal for €60. Prostituted women are marketed alongside food and booze, and in turn, become nothing but a consumable item in the mind of the john.
Some even see themselves as saviors. ‘At least (now I have paid her for sex) she can feed her kids and buy them shoes,’ one john, who openly admitted paying for sex with a street prostitute that ‘looked in a bad way’, told me. Another said, ‘If women could give full satisfaction to husbands and boyfriends, then men wouldn’t go to prostitutes.’
‘If I wasn’t able to have sex with a prostitute and was frustrated, I might have to go out and attack a real woman.’ The ‘real’ woman that this sex buyer was referring to was a woman who wasn’t prostituted. I have heard the same thing said by sex buyers, by women in prostitution, pimps and by members of the public.
Prostitution is dangerous business. A review of homicides of women in street prostitution found that they were 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than other women. And the johns are the main perpetrators of homicide and other violent crimes towards prostituted women – in 2017, between 57-100 percent of homicides of prostituted women in the United States were committed by sex buyers.
Research by Dr Melissa Farley, a psychologist and academic based in San Francisco, found that the attitudes and behaviors of regular johns are similar to those that are common among sexually aggressive men. ‘College-aged men who used women in prostitution reported having committed more sexually coercive behaviors than men who had not used women in prostitution,’ says Farley.
Marian Hatcher is a sex trade survivor based in Chicago. Hatcher is employed as a victim advocate by the anti-trafficking division of Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and was one of the peer reviewers asked to provide feedback on the research findings. For Hatcher, finding what would deter the johns is key.
‘Better understand who buyers are and what leads to (and helps put a stop to) buying behavior,’ says Hatcher, ‘and we can work towards ending demand. End the demand and there will be no impetus for traffickers and pimps to supply the women.’
The key recommendation of the report is to shift the limited resource law enforcement has from seller to buyer. Funding programs to support state and local agencies to address demand. Fund survivor exit services and law enforcement demand reduction operations from fines collected from buyers. Increase fines and penalties for repeat offenders.
Targeted education, healthcare and media effort to combat the normalizing of sex buying. Establish zero tolerance employer policies prohibiting sex buying under any circumstances, including activities on company time or with company resources that are related to sex buying. Targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications to change behavior.
During my travels researching my book on the global sex trade, I encountered vibrant “sex workers’ rights” movements in the global south, namely East and South Africa, India, South Korea and Cambodia.
I was told by a number of activists that the abolitionist position was “white feminism” and that such feminists, including black, Asian, and indigenous sex trade survivors, were imposing colonialist views of “sex work” on people of colour in the sex trade.
In response to criticism about Amnesty International adopting a policy of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “All want to end poverty, but in meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” Roth had plenty of support for this statement, but lots of dissent. One of the many replies from human rights activists was by sex trade survivor Rachel Moran, who asked: “Roth, wouldn’t you say, if a person cannot afford to feed themself, the appropriate thing to put in their mouth is food, not your cock?”
Ruchira Gupta is founder of Apne Aap, an NGO dedicated to preventing intergenerational prostitution in India which supports more than 20,000 vulnerable girls and women.
According to Gupta, India is being used as a site for neoliberal pro-prostitution politics to be tried and tested because the women in prostitution in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi are disenfranchised and voiceless.
In March 2015, at the beginning of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session, Gupta was “warned off” by a senior UN official while on her way to accept a major prize for her work. She was told that “trafficking” was fine to mention, but that prostitution was not, because it would offend those that consider “sex work” to be labour. But Gupta refused to capitulate, because she has seen for a number of years how the pro-prostitution lobby has distorted the reality about the sex trade in her country.
“In India, the term ‘sex worker’ was literally invented in front of our eyes,” says Gupta. “There was no poor woman or girl [in India] who thought that ‘sex’ and ‘work’ should go together. The pimps and brothel keepers who were on salaries began to call themselves ‘sex workers’ and they became members of their own union, along with the customers.”
During a research trip to Cambodia, I had arranged to meet a group of women through the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). The NGO, based in Phnom Penh, says it represents 6,500 Cambodian “sex workers” who are campaigning for decriminalisation of the sex trade.
A board member of the WNU decided to attend my meeting with the women. During the two hours we were together, she talked for and over the women, looking frustrated and irritated when I directed my questions to them and not her.
The women were desperate to tell their stories of the daily violence and abuse they endure from punters. All told me how much they hated selling sex for a living. I asked the women about the benefits of being in the Union, and was answered not by the women, but by the WNU member. She spoke solidly for five minutes, ignoring any interruption from the women themselves. “If they are beaten by the police, they are given legal training on their rights; if they are arrested, the WNU will provide food during the time they cannot work; and if one of the women dies, they will help to buy the coffin,” she explained. Knowing their rights “empowered them”, I was told.
The women did not appear to be empowered. Some had become pregnant by buyers and were caring for the babies. Three were HIV positive. All of the women had been raped on multiple occasions. Each told me they could get out of prostitution if only they had $200 to buy formal identification papers, because this was the only way to secure legitimate employment in the service industry or a factory. None of the women were familiar with the international campaign to de-criminalise the sex trade, and all said that they wanted out.
None of the women, the translator told me, used the term “sex work” to describe what they do, or “sex worker” to describe who they are. One of WNU’s aims is “to challenge the rhetoric around sex work, particularly that concerned with the anti-trafficking movement and the ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers”. All of the women asked me where they could get help to escape the sex trade. In the meantime, WNU board members and paid staff travel the region, speaking at “sex workers’ rights” conferences, distorting the voices of the exploited women.
This NGO seemed to consider the concept of “sex workers’ rights” to be above and beyond the importance of the lives of the women themselves. I asked the board member if they were planning on raising money to help the women out of prostitution. She told me: “No”.
QotD: “Husband killed his wife ‘when 48-hour bondage sex session’ during their ‘honeymoon period’ in Germany left her with a perforated bowel”
A German man is in court facing manslaughter charges for killing his new wife in a 48-hour BDSM sex session just days after they walked down the aisle together.
Ralph Jankus, 52, and his wife Christel, 49, took part in a 48-hour sex session for their nuptials, he claims.
New bride Christel suffered severe internal injuries allegedly after a sharp object was inserted into her.
When emergency services were called four days later, they were unable to save Christel.
Self-confessed sadomasochist Jankus faces manslaughter charges at the court in Krefeld, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany.
He is being prosecuted for failing to call for help, allegedly leaving her injured for four days. He claims he was not aware his wife was seriously ill.
The public prosecutor believes that Jankus must have been aware of how unwell his wife was and that her life was in danger.
When questioned, he told police the sex had been consensual and that he had been taking part in sadomasochism sessions for the past thirty years.
Jankus has reportedly admitted that his wife had previously complained about discomfort and had been to see an internal medicine specialist who had carried out a colonoscopy, but nothing had been found to be wrong with her.
Forensic medicine specialists came to the conclusion that the woman must have had some sort of barbed hook inserted into her and when it was removed this caused a perforated bowel.
The victim’s 30-year-old son, who has not been named, claimed his mother had been abused as a child and was mentally unstable.
He added that his mother was dominated by her husband and had started wearing clothes that covered her up well.
She had also allegedly reported abuse at the hands of her husband before they got married, in 2017, but later withdrew these allegations and had spent some time in a psychiatric clinic.
Her son claims that she fled to a women’s shelter in 2018, before turning up happier and marrying her partner in July of the same year.
He said: ‘She had injuries over her whole body and in her genital region.’
The son said: ‘I made accusations to her that she was putting up with too much and that it should never have gone this far.’
He added he had seen bruises which his mother had shown him and she allegedly told her son that she never wanted to see her partner again and never wanted to be hurt by him.
He claims that Jankus ‘abused, mistreated and humiliated’ his mother, but added: ‘I do think she loved him though.’
Her son’s partner, who is also a witness and who has not been named, said: ‘We had no idea about the violence at first. But over time it became more apparent, she was not allowed to leave the apartment. She was forced into taking drugs. She was beaten for going to the hairdressers without permission.’