On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted unanimously on legislation to address the demand side of sex trafficking, marking a major shift in the way our state addresses this crime.

Over the last 10 years in Connecticut, individuals arrested for prostitution were seven times more likely to be convicted than those arrested for buying sex. Both crimes are class A misdemeanors, but their enforcement is inequitable, as is how they are perceived. In the eyes of the law and of the public, buyers of sex are an afterthought, almost entirely absent from the public discourse over prostitution and human trafficking.

Law enforcement practices reinforce the idea that those buying sex are secondary, as evidenced by the name given to police operations targeting buyers — “reverse sting.” Even more glaring is the omission of sex buyers from cultural conversations about prostitution, which almost exclusively focus on the sex worker/victim dichotomy. By framing the issue squarely on “the prostitute,” the act of buying sex is treated as a given.

In fact, the acceptance that men will buy sex is so intrinsic to our culture that as recently as 2013, Connecticut enacted a policy that protected those buying sex. When lawmakers made it a felony offense to buy sex from a minor, they included a provision to reduce the charge if the minor appeared older than age 16. Not only did this provision legitimize an illegal act and place responsibility for that act on “the prostitute,” it made paying to sexually abuse a child inconsequential.

Last year, the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Council — a legislative body and partnership of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children, and Seniors and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, recommended that lawmakers remove this “mistake of age” provision. Lawmakers did just that. They also raised the age of prostitution to 18.

These changes were an important first step in bringing attention to those buying sex and increasing their risk for doing so. Unfortunately though, it is going to take a lot more than one change in law to shift decades of cultural complacency and little to no risk for buying sex. Demand is currently at an all-time high in Connecticut. In 2016 alone, more than 650,000 Connecticut-based ads were posted online selling sex with women and girls, the highest number to date.

Whether an individual pays for sex with someone under the age of 18 or for sex with an adult, that buyer is creating demand and that demand is being filled by sex traffickers.

Earlier this year, the TIP Council launched a statewide campaign, End Demand CT, to raise awareness about the connection between those buying sex and the sexual exploitation of Connecticut’s most vulnerable girls, boys, women, and men. Building on the experiences of allies in communities across the United States, the campaign is developing strategies to reduce the number of buyers, which in turn prevents sex trafficking. One of the most effective ways to decrease demand is to increase the risk and consequence for buying sex.

The legislation voted out of the House on Wednesday that now makes its way to the Senate will do just that. An Act Concerning Human Trafficking (HB 7309), will create a stand-alone charge of commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Men who pay for sex with a child can no longer be charged with patronizing a prostitute, and their actions will rightfully be called sexual abuse. This legislation also increases the penalty for paying to sexually abuse a child from a Class C to a Class B felony, and for those who purchase children under the age of 15, to a Class A felony.

After the launch of End Demand CT in January, our partners who work in computer forensics informed us that chat rooms of Connecticut men who discuss how, where, and who they buy sex from, were distraught at the prospects of greater attention being focused on buyers and some even questioned their future buying decisions. The increased attention, risk, and possible consequences had a clear impact on the men who buy.

Connecticut has been a nationally recognized leader on public policy to address human trafficking. We are hopeful that lawmakers will continue to lead with policy that can truly prevent sex trafficking. “Johns” and their actions have been allowed to remain anonymous for far too long. It’s time Connecticut end demand, once and for all.

{media_2}Jillian Gilchrest is the Director of Health Professional Outreach at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence and she is Chair of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Trafficking in Persons Council.

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