Almost 300 people were charged late last month with soliciting prostitution in conjunction with a massive human sex trafficking investigation in Florida. The Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office said this week that it offered New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and 24 other men a standard diversion program traditionally given to first-time offenders. The program requires the men concede their guilt, attend a class about prostitution, perform 100 hours of community service, and pay a fine of $5,000 per count. And the charges will be dropped.
Kraft denies committing a crime. Whether he accepts the plea deal or not, Palm Beach should not have made the offer.
The state attorney’s decision to possibly forgo fully prosecuting these men is an all too common byproduct of misunderstandings about human trafficking and prostitution.This was clear in the disturbing share of the media coverage expressing sympathy for the men charged, proclaiming the entire operation a waste of resources, and advocating for legalization of prostitution. Not only do such opinions diminish the grotesque human rights violations alleged in this case, they ignore the pivotal role the demand for commercial sex plays in perpetuating human trafficking.
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During this investigation, several massage parlors from Orlando to West Palm Beach were targeted as potential hotbeds for trafficking in the Sunshine State. Authorities recovered a series of victims and found most had been living out of the illicit businesses, cooking on hot plates and sleeping on what were likely the same massage tables where they allegedly engaged in commercial sex to repay their traffickers for debts incurred traveling from China to America.
Yet some in the media sympathized with the men charged with soliciting prostitution. Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports went on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to protest that the entire investigation was a conspiracy to bring down the Patriots NFL team, insisting that Kraft’s actions had no relation to human trafficking. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith told listeners he supported Kraft and flippantly dismissed the incident as a “public relations blemish.”
The authorities who took part in this this multijurisdiction investigation expressed the importance of charging the demand for commercial sex. Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr noted that “if there are customers, then these types of business can flourish.” Sheriff Deryl Loar of Indian River County said the sex buyers involved in this sting “either knowingly or not knowingly were certainly supplying the funds to perpetuate” human sex trafficking. Sheriff William Snyder of Martin County said the “monsters are the men” who patronized these businesses.
Misguided sympathy for the buyer
That’s not how some media figures see it. For instance, Michael Smerconish used his CNN segment to compare the legalization of marijuana to prostitution. After a comment about consenting adults exchanging money for sex, he said prostitution should be “cleaned up, regulated, so that those working in the industry are healthy and being paid fairly.” He went on to condemn traffickers who force women into this line of work, only to juxtapose the charging of Kraft as a waste of police resources due to his status as a 77-year-old widower.
Eliciting sympathy for the men charged in this investigation to bolster support for full legalization is an attempt to overshadow the symbiotic relationship between human trafficking and prostitution. It is a proven fact that trafficking increases in places where prostitution is legalized. Not to mention, this viewpoint reinforces the patriarchal idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies and that “boys will be boys.”
Moreover, those who buy sex have comparatively more power and privilege than those who sell it. A study by Cook County, Illinois — described as “a window into sex trafficking” — found that those who buy sex are mostly white, educated and employed. Those who sell sex, by contrast, are more likely to be of color, coerced into prostitution under the age of 20, and struggling with mental illness.
These disparities show an obvious imbalance of power in every commercial sex interaction, regardless of whether human trafficking is involved. As Will Bunch wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “The real scandal here is the gross imbalance of power involving women who were held in a form of human bondage to serve as objects of gratification for powerful men intoxicated by their belief they can get away with anything.”
Stop buying lies about prostitution
The decision by Palm Beach to offer Kraft and 24 others a plea deal that would ultimately rid them of their solicitation charges encapsulates this disgusting imbalance in a nutshell. Those with privilege and power are getting a slap on the wrist for their role in exploiting those who do not share the same advantages.
The age-old trope that there is no harm in a man paying for a commercial sex act is an example of the ignorance that has allowed sex trafficking to thrive across the world for so long. Let’s get this straight: There would be no trafficking without the persistent demand for commercial sex. The actions of Kraft and the other persons arrested in this investigation, their supportive commentators and even the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office do not exist in a vacuum. They are a part of a widespread refusal to acknowledge the connections between sex trafficking and prostitution, and the inherent structural inequalities that permeate the commercial sex industry.
As a society, we must face the reality that buying sex is far from a “victimless crime,” and that validating arguments to the contrary has dangerous ramifications.
Shea M. Rhodes is director and co-founder of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Jamie L. Pizzi is a Justice for Victims fellow at the institute. Fellow Sharon Robinson and research assistant Stephanie Mersch also contributed to this column. Follow them on Twitter: @ShMrnRhds, @PzJamie @msskrobinson