Sue the “John”: stopping the demand that drives sex trafficking

July 27, 2018

On November 28, 2011, a victim of human trafficking filed a lawsuit against a “john”—the man who sexually assaulted her after paying a pimp to get access to her. This is the first lawsuit to make this kind of claim in the US, and is a huge step forward in helping victims of human trafficking recover for the harm done to them.

Victims of sex trafficking are left severely traumatized—physically and emotionally—while the pimp and the john walk away, generally without a second look back. Even in the criminal justice realm, the sex trafficking victim is more likely to be charged than the pimp or the john. That is beginning to change as victims find their voice in civil courts.

The lawsuit was filed under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Basically, that law makes compelling people into commercial sex acts a crime or even allowing a minor to engage in commercial sex acts a crime. It also gives the victims of the crime a right to sue the criminals for the harms they suffer.

This kind of lawsuit, against the johns and the pimps, is the next logical step in a growing movement to understand and combat “domestic sex trafficking”—where children are used in commercial sex acts, or adults are coerced into the sex trade. Commercial sex acts include everything from “prostitution” to stripping to pornography (or often all three combined). Pimps make huge amounts of money through their control of these women and girls and selling them to willing johns. (We use the phrase women and girls because most are female, however, there are many men and boys in the same situation and subject to the same force, fraud, or coercion.) Pimps are constantly on the prowl for “fresh meat” to add to their “stable,” and the younger the better. The methods pimps use to control the victims are as varied and nuanced as the victims themselves. Sometimes it’s straight violence, sometimes the threat of violence against family, sometimes forcible addiction to drugs, sometimes through psychological manipulation.

Pimps are very skilled at forcing their victims into the right look. More johns want to buy a girl or woman who is smiling and flirtatious than one who is sobbing, so pimps find ways to force their victims to present the right image.

The johns, who fuel the demand and make sex trafficking profitable, ignore the background where they find the victims. Studies show that johns justify their use and abuse of women and girls by telling themselves that the victim enjoys “the attention” and wants to do whatever it is the john demanded. The johns are wrong.

These women are pearls without price. They are stronger than most people can even imagine, surviving in a situation beyond nightmares. Each one is a gem, precious and unique, who should be respected and cherished.

This kind of lawsuit is a step in the right direction for the minors in the sex trade and those who were forced, defrauded, or coerced into the sex trade. It seeks justice and accountability from those who cause uncountable harms. People escaping sex trafficking should speak with an attorney regarding their rights and whether a civil claim is an appropriate choice for him or her.

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