Society’s Persistent Misconception: Women Sell Sex Because They Should and Men Buy Sex Because They Can
Commercial sexual exploitation can be viewed, simply, as a two-part system: supply and demand. Under an economic theory, supply (prostituted persons) follows demand (purchasers of sex). In theory, one would surmise that if demand could be eliminated, commercial sexual exploitation would cease to exist. In order to refocus efforts on eliminating the demand, society must shift its conception of what fuels commercial sexual exploitation. Society’s current views glamorize the selling of sex, normalize purchasing sex, and reinforce the status quo of unequal policing of prostituted persons.
Girls are taught from a young age that “sex sells” and is, therefore, glamorous. This message is pervasive in our society. From a very young age, girls are over-sexualized and taught that their worth is tied to their sexuality and perceived attractiveness by men. With this message ingrained, girls grow up to become women with low or diminished self-esteem and rely on men for validation. Craving attention, praise, and affection, girls become prime targets for men to sexually exploit them.
Too often men are taught that using women for their sexuality is normal. From a young age, aggression and foul play are justified based on the idea that “boys will be boys.” Some boys seemingly never outgrow this phase, as this adage continues to justify the actions of men long into adulthood. As men, they buy sex because society has not yet been willing to recognize the role that demand plays in the victimization of prostituted persons. Purchasers of sex are seen as “typical” men, and not as criminals. Societal views reinforce that men who purchase sex will suffer no consequences for their actions.
Despite legislative changes that open the door for the prosecution of the demand, the unequal policing of the crime of prostitution reinforces gender-based inequalities. Archaic views that women voluntarily enter into the life persist. Accordingly, prostituted women are routinely arrested and convicted, while the demand are rarely targeted by law enforcement and even more rarely arrested or convicted.
Earlier this month was Super Bowl 50, the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl and a golden opportunity to shift society’s focus to the demand. In recent years, the Super Bowl has become a large platform for educating the public on the realities of commercial sexual exploitation. Prior to this year’s game, Denver Broncos rookie Ryan Murphy was detained and questioned by police during an investigation into prostitution. Even though he was released by the police and never charged in the incident, the Broncos promptly decided to send Murphy home. The team and its management, from a high-profile stage, shouted to the world that demand for sex cannot and will not be tolerated.
However powerful this message was, it merely scratched the surface. In order to curb demand, there needs to be a complete shifting of the paradigm where men are taught that purchasing sex is not a normal business transaction between consenting adults. Rather, society must accept that over-sexualizing girls and women and normalizing the demand perpetuates the problem of commercial sexual exploitation.
With comprehensive legislation that allows for the prosecution of demand, increased media attention, and the support of national anti-demand organizations, we are in the position to correct these misconceptions and make the statement that society will no longer tolerate the purchase of sex.
Shea M. Rhodes, Esq. is the Director of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE Institute) at Villanova University School of Law. Throughout her career, Ms. Rhodes has worked with survivors of sexual violence, human trafficking, prostitution, and commercialsexual exploitation,including operating her own law practice where she represents victims and survivors. She also serves as an advisor to multiple criminal justice initiatives focused on addressing the needs of child and adult victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Prior to her work with the CSE Institute, Ms. Rhodes served as an Assistant District Attorney for the City of Philadelphia for almost ten years where she helped to found Project Dawn Court, a diversion program for women who have been repeatedly charged and convicted of the crime of prostitution, a primary mode of sex trafficking, and developed a Law Enforcement Working Group to facilitate collaborative investigation and prosecution of cases of human trafficking between local, state, and federal agencies in the Philadelphia region. Before joining the District Attorney’s office, Ms. Rhodes served as a staff attorney for the Crime Victim’s Law Project where she provided legal assistance and advocacy for adult and child victims of rape, sexual assault, and stalking.
Ms. Rhodes currently serves on the Board of Directors for Dawn’s Place, the Greater Philadelphia region’s only residential treatment program for women who are victims of sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation, and sits on the Oversight Committee for the Project Dawn Court. She is also provides the administration for the Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans, an initiative of Pennsylvania’s community partners, victim service organizations, and law enforcement working to implement Act 105, Pennsylvania’s comprehensive human trafficking legislation. Ms. Rhodes also sits on the Pennsylvania Anti--Human Trafficking Advocacy Work Group and is a member of Philadelphia’s Anti-Trafficking Coalition. Ms. Rhodes is a graduate of Villanova Law School and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas. She is the Owner and Principal Attorney of the Law Offices of Shea M. Rhodes, LLC, specializing in working with survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation, Prostitution, and Human Trafficking on criminal, adjudicatory and child dependency matters, with a practice area in the Greater Philadelphia region.