Attacking the demand for child sex trafficking
by Siddharth Kara
Editor’s Note: Trafficking expert Siddharth Kara is a Harvard fellow and author of the award-winning book, “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.” For more than 15 years, he has traveled around the world to research modern-day slavery, interviewing thousands of former and current slaves. Kara also advises the United Nations and governments on anti-slavery research and policy.
This effort is intended to attack male demand to purchase commercial sex from minors, many of whom are by U.S. law prima facie victims of sex trafficking. (Related: Real men join stars in fight against slavery) The importance of this effort cannot be overstated.
Most NGOs and policy-makers focus on the supply-side of sex trafficking, with efforts intended to protect people from being trafficked, such as awareness campaigns, education and economic training, and other efforts that attempt to mitigate the forces that render people vulnerable to being trafficked. All such efforts are crucial and should be expanded.
However, sex trafficking – like all forms of human trafficking – is a business, and for any business to survive it requires two forces: supply and demand.
The demand side of sex trafficking receives much less attention than the supply-side, even though I argue it is much more vulnerable to near-term disruption by the right kind of policies and interventions.
While the issue of sex trafficking often gets sidetracked by ideological debates on prostitution (i.e., whether to legalize or criminalize it), no right-minded person can think that legalizing the sale of children for commercial sex is in any way acceptable.
In addition to supply-side efforts to protect children from being trafficked, an aggressive and sustained campaign against male demand to purchase commercial sex from minors promises to have a meaningful impact on the overall business of child sex trafficking.
Such campaigns may not eliminate the totality of global male demand to purchase children for sex, including child pornography, which also involves countless trafficked children. However, any meaningful decrease in demand that results from these campaigns will go a long way towards disrupting the overall business of child sex trafficking.
There are also important economic forces of demand that must be attacked, namely the exploiter’s demand to generate immense profits through the sexual exploitation of children.
By my calculation, the global sex trafficking industry generated profits exceeding $39 billion in 2010, with an annual weighted average net profit of over $29,000 per slave (ranging from roughly $11,000 in South Asia to over $130,000 in North America and West Europe). Considering that the global weighted average acquisition cost of a trafficked sex slave is $1,900 (ranging from a few hundred dollars to roughly $8,000), then the return on investment is staggering.
These numbers alone demonstrate why there is immense demand among small-time criminals and international organized crime groups alike to be involved in the business of sex trafficking.
At the same time, the penalties for the crime remain paltry in most jurisdictions globally – relatively short prison terms and small economic penalties, or no economic penalty at all.
It is striking that sex trafficking involves the aggregate of numerous crimes – such as rape, torture, illegal confinement, administering a noxious substance (drugs), battery and assault – all of which are aggravated in the case of a minor, yet the penalties for each of these individual crimes are often greater than their aggregate in the form of sex trafficking.
Addressing these economic forces of demand is a matter for law enforcement, prosecutors and lawmakers, who must deploy far more aggressive efforts to investigate and punish child sex traffickers, particularly with severe economic penalties that negate the underlying purpose of the crime.
However, none of these crimes would exist without the robust forces of male consumer demand to purchase women and children for sex.
Attacking this force of demand is an indispensable component to an overall strategy of eliminating the crime of child sex trafficking.
The DNA Foundation is to be commended for focusing on a key component in the fight against child sex trafficking, and attacking that component with an aggressive, intelligent and hopefully very successful campaign.