This guest post was written by Alison Phillips, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City specializing in human trafficking.
This past week, headlines splashed around the country announcing the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, a famous and wealthy financier charged with operating a sex trafficking network and sexually exploiting dozens of underage girls. His death means that he will not be prosecuted in a court of law, nor will he serve a life sentence in prison. His victims are also denied forever the opportunity to see Epstein brought to justice.
This week a new approach to achieving justice is emerging. The government is exploring asset forfeiture for the purpose of restorative justice, and victims are filing civil lawsuits against Epstein’s estate. Attorney General William Barr also issued a statement this week assuring the investigation into the Epstein sex trafficking network will continue and that co-conspirators “should not rest easy.”
Early autopsy results indicated no foul play, however many policies and protocols in the jail appear to have not been followed, including the discovery of falsified jail records. The circumstances of Epstein’s suicide will likely continue to be shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories for some time. What is clear, however, is that Epstein did not act alone in his sex trafficking network. All of these individuals should be brought to justice, including the men who purchased these girls for sexual gratification.
You see, sex trafficking occurs because there is a demand for prostitution. Park on that last sentence for a minute. There simply are never enough people who are willing to voluntarily engage in prostitution to meet the demand for it. In the case of commercialized sex with minors, the law defines “willing” participation as a logical impossibility.
There simply are never enough people who are willing to voluntarily engage in prostitution to meet the demand for it.
Mr. Epstein’s network of individuals who facilitated the trafficking of young girls did not operate as an end in and of itself. It existed because of the money that buyers offer. Will our criminal justice system also pursue the buyers in this case? Will we recognize the role of demand in sex trafficking and the criminality of buyers? Will we hold buyers accountable regardless of their positions of power, wealth, prestige or political affiliation? Or, will we continue to allow their actions to be perceived as benign and this system of injustice to therefore continue?
Previously, Epstein’s defense attorneys have stated that they intend to use “prostitution” as its primary defense. Attempting to make this case about prostitution is a very deliberate strategy on their part. It transforms sympathy for the victims into shame, blame, and stigma for the victims. The Epstein case, however, is about children, and there is no such thing as a child prostitute.
According to federal law, anyone who transports, harbors, recruits, or obtains an individual using force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation is participating in sex trafficking 1.
In the case of minors, force, fraud or coercion need not be prove-able or even present. Any perceived consent is irrelevant. The mere act of obtaining a minor for commercialized sex acts is by definition sex trafficking. A third-party facilitator (ie. a trafficker) is not required to meet the legal criteria. Thus, in this case, it would be correct and appropriate for Epstein’s clients to face sex trafficking charges, not soliciting prostitution. If only the law were as clear cut for the commercial sexual exploitation of adults.
The mere act of obtaining a minor for commercialized sex acts is by definition sex trafficking…. it would be correct and appropriate for Epstein’s clients to face sex trafficking charges, not soliciting prostitution.
Photographic evidence, victim statements, flight logs from Epstein’s private jet (dubbed the “Lolita Express”), guest lists and witness statements provide opportunities for us to make distinctions between Epstein’s social acquaintances and those who were actual clients. The list to draw from reads like the who’s who of the western world’s power elite: high-level politicians, political advisors, Hollywood elite, academics from various universities, even a member of the British Royal Family 2.
The revelation that high-profile, seemingly respectable men would participate in sexual exploitation may be surprising to the general public, even in the wake of what was learned through the Robert Kraft story that broke headlines just weeks ago. Survivors and researchers of commercial sexual exploitation, however, are not surprised.
At the heart of sex trafficking, prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation, whatever label we want to affix to sex-for-money situations, is the reality of one person choosing to use their power, privilege, prestige and wealth/disposable income to exploit the vulnerabilities of another person who usually has little to no choices, and MUCH less power, privilege, prestige and wealth. We see this power imbalance in the Epstein case; a dynamic that is also validated by research.
Multiple studies, data from police records and Buyers’ Education programs, and even anonymous survey responses of survivors all paint the same basic picture3 45678. Sex buyers are almost exclusively heterosexual males, the majority are Caucasian, have more than a high school education, are married or in a committed relationship, and have one or more children. The professions commonly cited are lawyers, doctors, judges, politicians, teachers, police officers, priests and pastors, salesmen, and construction workers.
Another characteristic of sex buyers is an increased propensity for criminality, especially crimes of violence against women. This, in particular, is something policymakers should take note of. A 2011 study of over one hundred sex buyers, found that they had more arrests in general. Fifteen percent surveyed said they would rape a woman if they thought it could be kept secret, compared to only two percent of men who had not bought sex 4.
This same study also found that sex buyers had a greater history of having engaged in sexually aggressive and hostile behaviors, such as sexual harassment. Those who understand how these attitudes and behaviors correlate are not surprised when it is revealed that men of power and privilege who have known histories of sexual harassment are associated with the Jeffrey Epstein network; men like Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump 2.
We must stop the one-sided, illogical scrutiny of the choices that children and vulnerable adults make in these situations while ignoring the fact that sex buyers are truly the ones that have choices.
It’s time that we stop making dismissive excuses, stop making “happy hooker” jokes, and stop handling sex trafficking cases as if the traffickers were the only offenders. We must stop the one-sided, illogical scrutiny of the choices that children and vulnerable adults make in these situations while ignoring the fact that sex buyers are truly the ones that have choices.
Buyers do irreparable harm to their victims and families, to our communities, and to themselves. Their money fuels a multi-billion dollar global enterprise that leaves millions of destroyed lives in its wake. The most effective and efficient way to reduce the occurrence of sex trafficking is to deter demand. We can do this through implementing serious legal consequences for buyers, by not allowing them to plea their charges down to smaller offenses, by applying punitive fines and jail or prison time. We can deter demand by making their behavior known to the public, or through asset forfeiture and restorative programs like buyers’ education classes.
We must stop criminalizing victims. We must not make exceptions and turn a blind eye when it is found that sex buyers are the politician whose agenda we agree with, when it’s the actor whose movies we like, the pastor we respect, or the married man next door with children. If we are serious about the eradication of sex trafficking, arguably one of humanity’s worst atrocities, and want justice for victims and society’s most vulnerable, we must hold buyers accountable.
- 1. United States Congress, (2005). Trafficking victim’s re-authorization act of 2005. PUBLIC LAW 109-164. Retrieved from: https://www.congress.gov/bill/106th-congress/house-bill/03244
- 2. Raymond, A. & Stieb, M. (2019, July 10). Jeffrey Epstein’s Rolodex: A Guide to His Famous Friends and Acquaintances. The Intelligencer.
- 3. Arichega, C. & Phillips, A. (2019). Demand for commercial sexual exploitation in the Kansas City Metro Area. (Unpublished research). University of Missouri, Kansas City, MO
- 4. Farley, M., Schuckman, E., Golding, J. M., Houser, K., Jarrett, L., Qualliotine, P., & Decker, M. (2011). Comparing sex buyers with men who don’t buy sex. San Francisco, CA: Prostitution Research & Education.
- 5. Lutya, T. M., & Lanier, M. (2012). An integrated theoretical framework to describe human trafficking of young women and girls for involuntary prostitution. INTECH Open Access Publisher.
- 6. Monto, M. A. (2004). Female prostitution, customers, and violence. Violence Against Women, 10(2), 160-188.
- 7. Monto, M., & Milrod, C. (2013). Ordinary or peculiar men? Comparing the customers of prostitutes with a nationally representative sample of men. Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 58(7), 802-820.
- 8. Phillips, A. (2017). Commercial Sexual Exploitation: an analysis of prostitution in Kansas City. Retrieved from: https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/60582/Thesis_2017_Phillips.pdf?sequence=1