Friday, October 19, 2012

Down to the roots: what will stop men from buying sex?

There's a small tree shooting up in my yard in a place where we really can't have a tree.  Every couple of years, I trim it down to a stump, but (surprise, surprise!) it just keeps growing back.  Until I make the effort to go deeper and address it at the root level, all of my "fixes" will only have temporary results because the roots of the tree remain.

I think there's a good warning here for those who engage in the "anti-trafficking movement", and especially those whose focus is more on sex trafficking.  It seems an honest critique to say that much of the work we've done so far to address aspects of sex trafficking (raising awareness, enacting better legislation, beginning to provide aftercare, etc.) has been akin to skillfully trimming branches above the ground - important work to be sure, but not really getting at the roots.  Until we address the roots, sex trafficking will persist.

So, what are the roots?  At the risk of over-simplifying, if we dream of a day when there is no more sex trafficking, we have to look squarely at one obvious truth:  Sex trafficking will end only when men stop buying sex.  

Which begs the question:  "What are the best ways to stop men from buying sex?"  I'll be exploring this over my next few blogs.  If the goal is TRUE CHANGE, I will contend that the best answers will go deeper than attempts to modify behavior, and will address a man's heart and mind:  What motivates a man to buy sex?  

Before I continue, let me be clear:  this is not going to be a plea for sappy compassion towards the men who purchase sex, but for wise action in creating long-term social change.  Regardless of what motivates men to purchase sex with girls and women, it is 100% wrong, and anger towards the men who perpetuate sex trafficking is entirely justified.  That said, I'm convinced that we will not see change if all we do is blame men for creating and sustaining the problem.  Rather, if we can understand motivations, we will (eventually) find the right solutions.

So, here are five starting points that I'll just mention here and then develop in future blogs.

Why do men buy sex?
1.  They are overwhelmed, need comfort, and see purchasing sex as a way to alleviate their stress.
2.  They feel emasculated, either in general or by women in particular, feel the need to regain a sense of power, and see purchasing sex as an effective way of doing that.
3.  They are relationally confused.  There is a battle between their powerful attraction to/sexual desire for women and their common inability to draw close to women in meaningful relationships.  Paying for sex emerges as an option for satisfying the desire in a way that doesn't require a meaningful relationship.
4.  Self-centeredness combined with having never learned to value and honor women results in a warped tunnel vision that leaves them focused only on doing whatever it takes to get whatever needs they have from #1-3 met....with little/no regard for how it affects the women they are purchasing.

The combination of these is powerful enough that (1) men will ignore any internal sense that paying for sex is wrong, risk potential exposure, and pay lots of money for a temporary pleasure; and (2) they will do it often enough and the "highs" will be strong enough that paying for sex becomes an addiction.

A fifth motivation that I think needs to be included in the list:  they do it because they can, most of the time, get away with it without being exposed and punished.  Thankfully, there are some good developments here:  with kudos to the Boston Police Department, see this article on a recent bust that targeted men buying sex.

I'm sure there are others we could add to the list, but I think this is a good start.  If we are serious about finding solutions and dealing with sex trafficking at the root, we need to focus significant attention on creating social change at these levels.  Yes, it's a BIG challenge to wrestle with how we help a large portion of an entire gender think and act differently; at the same time, I think there are legitimate answers that I'll get into next time.

I said it in my last blog, and I'll say it again:  As a man, I'm so sorry for how maleness-gone-awry has resulted in the sexual exploitation of women and girls.  It is, in my opinion, the grossest evil on the planet.  Let's do the hard work to get down to the root issues so we can find the best solutions.

Bob Atherton is the Executive Director of Amirah.

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