We drove into the motel parking lot scanning the faces of those sitting outside their doors. Our eyes bounced from person to person looking for her distinct baby-faced smile.
We knew the corners she often tucked herself in attempting to be shielded from the elements and the watchful eyes of those coming to evict her from the property for lack of payment.
We made the loop and glanced once more at the open doors and passersby. We met another car as we both managed to squeeze into the narrow-paved area as we passed one another.
There was one more place to look, not too far away, where she may have found some refuge. Young and vulnerable, she tended to bounce from place to place. She roamed in a way that some try to romanticize as if the life of a gypsy is glamourous. It isn't. It's often a homeless and hungry existence scrapping together room rent and food. It's often resorting to drugs or alcohol to cope with the toxic blend of current hardship and past trauma.
We pulled into the next motel and committed to a similar loop through the property. As we pulled through, relief and joy spread throughout the car as each of us recognized the small-framed girl sitting in a chair midway down the strip of rooms. Her stuff was bagged and leaned against an old mattress. Motels routinely air them out or exchange them to attempt to control the bed bugs.
We pulled past her with the intention of turning the car around for a better parking angle. In that brief moment, however, another car pulled behind us.
It was the same car we had spotted at the previous motel: a mid-2000s SUV with an older white male behind the wheel. He was easy to identify considering the blue neck pillow resting on his shoulders as he drove.
He pulled up to our girl, rolled down his window, and asked her a series of questions. Then, we waited sadly knowing we were not the only ones who were looking for her. As familiar as we were with her usual spots, so was he. As vulnerable as we knew she was, so did he.
What is Demand?
Human trafficking, including sex trafficking, is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, behind only drug trafficking in overall profitability. In the coming years, it is on pace to overtake drug trafficking as the most prevalent and profitable criminal activity. Why? Because while drugs can be sold once, a human being can be sold and purchased for sex again and again.
Demand for commercial sex is the core of sexual exploitation. The term demand refers to a buyer's desire to purchase sexual interaction whether through prostitution, pornography, or stripping.
Demand is the economic engine of sexual exploitation. Drawing from basic principles of supply and demand, the absence of demand would innately diminish the criminal activity of supplying victims for commercial sex, who are predominantly women and girls facing histories of trauma, generational poverty, etc.
So, how do we acknowledge and address the rising issue of demand for commercial sex?
The Data on Demand: Who Are Buyers? Who Are Victims?
Buyers of sex are overwhelmingly male and represent 99% of buyers, also known as "johns". Of the general population, 20% of all men report having purchased sex at least once in their life, with 6.2% considered as active buyers. One-third of buyers are married. One-half of buyers have children under the age of 18 years old (National Center on Sexual Exploitation).* Buyers of commercial sex are much more likely to have an addiction to pornography, have negative viewpoints of women's sexual agency, and consider the purchase of sex as a victimless crime.
As Dr. Melissa Farley, the foremost leader in research on the correlation between trauma and prostitution, put it, "Even today, some assume that prostitution is sex. In fact, prostitution is a last-ditch means of economic survival or 'paid rape,' as one survivor described it. Its harms are made invisible by the idea that prostitution is sex, rather than sexual violence" (2004).* Another advocate shared, "The only difference between rape and purchased sex is money." Both are unwanted exchanges under unequal power dynamics.
How is it possible to make this equivalence?
Of those prostituted, 84% are under third-party or pimp control, which is legally considered sex trafficking. 95% are victims of childhood sexual trauma. 89% desire to escape but see no way out. They experience a death rate 240 times the average. 75% have experienced homelessness. The majority are caught in cycles of generational poverty, heralded from minority communities, and actively struggle with addiction (Treasures LA).*
Buyers of sex place emphasis on their personal gratification and view money as license to objectify and abuse the women and girls they purchase without regard for their circumstances of poverty, trauma, etc. that lead to their bodies being bought and sold.
Demand is rooted in the objectification of the female body and the dissociation of her true personal agency and worth.
Sexual exploitation will cease in our community only when demand for all forms of commercial sex are appropriately viewed as a basic form of dehumanization in the name of sexual
gratification. Demand preys upon the vulnerabilities of those being purchased.
When faced with the stark reality of the wide-spread victimization taking place around us, we are naturally prompted to ask: What can be done?
The effort to dismantle demand begins in three basic responses: the legal response; the moral response; and the personal response.
The legal response begins with the appropriate enforcement of existing local, state, and national laws against the purchase of sex. Often times, women and girls who are actively being victimized bare the weight of the legal ramifications, with pimps and johns escaping responsibility. Furthermore, we need additional laws that place harsher punishment on the buyers of commercial sex, including public reports of their names and offenses, registering them as a sex offender, and requiring them to attain and attend rehabilitative resources that address pornography and sex addictions. By shifting the legal responsibility, we would shift the overall narrative and better address the root of demand rather than heap it upon those being victimized.
The moral response addresses the faulty beliefs that many in the community hold that facilitate sexual exploitation, particularly those related to demand. For example, when we view prostitution as a 'choice' we diminish the personal history that led women and girls to exploitation and make a pathway for buyers to defend the viewpoint that exploitation is a victimless crime. Morally, we provide the defense for the buying and selling of the female body when we refuse to address the underlying assumptions made about those who are being purchased. To rectify this, the community as a whole must insist on trauma-informed environments; the availability of resources that meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those victimized; and shift the intensity of our scrutiny from the ones being bought to those who are purchasing and facilitating the purchase of sex.
Perhaps the most important response is one of a much more personal nature. We pray routinely for men, young and old, who are struggling with addictions to sex and pornography. Our culture is permeated with acceptance for pornography, and it is seeping into the very hearts and minds of an entire generation of young men. Whether you are a concerned parent, an individual who is struggling, or simply someone whose heart desires to pray, we each have a role to play in beating back the enemy's desire to have a hold on our community. Demand for commercial sex often begins with exposure to pornography. If you are a parent, we encourage you to have honest and compassionate conversations with your children about the dangers of pornography. If you yourself are struggling, reach out for help to someone that you trust. If you desire to pray, pray for the fullness of grace and truth won on the cross to provide wholeness for ALL people, including victims, buyers, and pimps. No person is too far from His perfect grace.
Sexual exploitation thrives in communities that refuse to address the roots of a growing problem. Until we take seriously the vulnerabilities that make women and girls susceptible and take seriously the demand for commercial sex that exists, we will continue to contribute to an environment ripe for exploitation.
Addressing the problem means addressing the roots.
That day in the motel parking lot, we witnessed a buyer's awareness of the role vulnerability plays in his procurement of sex for money. As he drove through the parking lot, he knew what to look for and where he could find it. As a predator, he knew how to search out the most vulnerable.
What he didn't expect, though, is for her to recognize our car as he drove up. He didn't expect for there to be a more powerful force than hunger or physical need for shelter. He had no way of knowing that genuine love turns the tides.
When she turned him away, there is no way of knowing his thoughts, but the unfortunate reality is there are more parking lots for him to drive though, no doubt he is familiar with other places where vulnerable women gather.
Our sweet girl came and climbed into the front seat with us, smiling through the pain she carries with her on a daily basis.
You are so loved, sweet girl. You matter more than you know. And one day, you will believe it in a way that transforms everything you have ever known.
Please continue to pray with us for each and every one of the precious women and girls we have the privilege of serving.
*National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Sex Buying (https://endsexualexploitation.org/issues/sex-buying)