At Harvard Law, the case for ending demand

April 13, 2017 | Swanee Hunt

Director Mary Mazzio has crafted a heart-rending documentary on the ravages of sex trafficking in America. “I Am Jane Doe” is an emotional roller coaster, showing us the wrenching stories of children tricked and trapped into having their bodies sold by pimps.

It’s also a meticulous legal argument against the online sex market website Step by step, the film builds the indictment against Backpage as a virtual pimp. Not merely an ad host, the site is actively shaping and promoting the abuse of children.

Mazzio’s film is generating much-deserved buzz across America, and clearly it’s affecting policymakers as well. That energy was on display at a full-house screening at Harvard Law School recently. I interviewed Massachusetts state Rep. Kay Khan, who has introduced ground-breaking legislation that would end the practice of arresting women and girls being sold for sex. Instead, the Commonwealth’s legal system would aim at the buyers who are driving the demand.

Panel, right to left: Filmmaker Mary Mazzio (with the mic), Boston Police Department Lt. Det. Donna Gavin, EVA Center founder Cherie Jiminez, Harvard lecturer Siddharth Kara, CEASE Network head Dhakir Warren, and me.

During a post-viewing discussion, I joined Mary onstage with four eloquent allies in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation: Harvard author Siddharth Kara, a global expert on modern-day slavery; Lt. Detective Donna Gavin, the fearless head of Boston Police’s anti-trafficking unit; Cherie Jimenez, non-profit leader helping courageous survivors like her rebuild their lives; and Dhakir Warren, CEASE Network Director for our foundation.

CEASE stands for Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation—a dozen major urban centers finding new ways to reduce the demand for paid sex. Dhakir argued that we have to confront the demand—the buyers. They have the checkbooks and the choices.

That’s what Representative Khan’s bill would do: shift the accountability from the women and girls to the buyers who are creating the demand. As our Demand Abolition program says: no buyers, no business.

With documentaries, legislation, grass-roots city activism, and support for survivors, we are shifting the debate in the United States to focus on combatting demand and confronting the buyers. This is happening globally, too, with the adoption of the “Nordic Model” in a wave of countries, including France and Ireland. Now it’s our turn in the United States.