Guest MINDSETTER™  Donna M. Hughes: Rhode Island Should Target Sex Buyers

Thursday, May 05, 2016


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In Massachusetts, public employees now can lose their jobs if they are found guilty of purchasing a sex act. Recently, Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Mayor of Boston Martin Walsh announced a new zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking and related activities. Buying sex is now considered a crime contributing to sex trafficking.

Men who buy sex----and they are only a small minority of men---are responsible for the crime of sex trafficking continuing to thrive. When sex traffickers find victims and coerce them into prostitution, they are serving the sex buyers, who pay them well for finding and marketing the victims to them.

It's been 16 years since the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made human trafficking a crime. For years, analysts have studied sex trafficking to determine the best way to combat this modern form of slavery. Today, a consensus is forming among advocates and law enforcement that to combat sex trafficking, the focus has to be on men who buy sex as much as on the pimps who recruit and enslave the victims.

Thanks to the leadership of former Representative Joanne Giannini, Rhode Island has a prostitution law that allows sex buyers to be arrested. Over the past couple of years, law enforcement in Rhode Island has stepped up the arrest of sex buyers, informally called “johns,” with sweeps in Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Cranston. Federal agents have arrested sex buyers and charged them with the federal crime of sex trafficking of a child for “obtaining” a minor girl for sex. These men face a minimum 10 year sentence.

The details of Rhode Island sex trafficking cases reported in local news stories reveal the role that sex buyers play in traumatizing and destroying a girl’s life. Recently in Providence, a jury found a Pawtucket man guilty of rape and sex trafficking. He held a 16-year-old girl in his basement, raped her, and advertised her for prostitution on Backpage. “Hundreds” of men texted replies to the ad. Police said the girl was forced to have sex---raped---by 40 sex buyers before she was rescued.  

And recall the case from 2013, in which a 14-year-old Pawtucket girl was sold to 40 to 50 men in a 30 to 45 day period. These men create “the demand” for victims of sex trafficking. Pimps traffic women and girls so these predators can pay for them and sexually abuse them for a few minutes or an hour.

Rhode Island Should Follow Massachusetts

Massachusetts and Rhode Island are linked in the sex trafficking of victims. Traffickers bring victims from Massachusetts to Rhode Island for prostitution. Men from Massachusetts drive down to Rhode Island to buy sex. Recruiters for pimps in Rhode Island go to Boston’s South Station to “catch” victims and bring them back to Rhode Island and turn them over to the pimps. Pimps stash their victims in hotels in Seekonk while they advertise them online. When sex buyers call, the pimps deliver the victims to them in hotels in Rhode Island.

In 2009, Rhode Island passed a state comprehensive anti-human trafficking law, and since then the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney have charged 35 people with human trafficking. In 2012, Massachusetts passed a state anti-human trafficking law, and since then the Attorney General’s Office has charged 25 people with human trafficking. A number of the sex traffickers prosecuted moved back and forth between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Governor Raimondo, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, and the mayors of Rhode Island need to implement the same policy as Massachusetts’ officials have just done---and provide the resources to implement it--- to send a strong message that sex trafficking and the buying of sex that supports it won’t be tolerated in Rhode Island.

The women and girls of Rhode Island and Massachusetts deserve it.

Donna Hughes is a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies & Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island


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