“I would also like to share on the record that I called you from home because this morning we had to place our office in formal lockdown, file a police report, and get sheriff escort” Khara Jabola-Carolus, Executive Director of the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women told me, following a threat of “imminent physical danger” her office received on Friday, Sep. 21. “This is a big business and no one – from the small time profiteers to networks and institutions – wants their money flow interrupted.”
The threat, Jabola-Carolus said, was in response to the organization’s political stance and publication of a study by HSCSW and Arizona State University School of Social Work, titled Sex Trafficking in Hawai‘i Part 1: Exploring Online Sex Buyers, that suggests prostitution demand is much higher in Hawai‘i than it is in the rest of the U.S. The study used the O‘ahu and Big Island “Women Seeking Men” personals section of Backpage.com, “a well-known site for sex selling advertisements around the globe,” to post sex advertisements on Mar. 23 and 30, 2018. Researchers analyzed the responses to derive estimates of the size of the sex-buying population.
In one day, the research team elicited 756 contacts from 407 unique phone numbers with the advertisement posted Mar. 23 on the O‘ahu Backpage site. In that same 24-hour period, 58 other sex advertisements were independently posted on the O‘ahu Backpage section. Within five minutes of posting, 10 texts from seven phone numbers and 10 calls from four numbers were received from potential sex buyers. In response to the ad posted on the Big Island Backpage that day, 206 contacts were made from 113 unique phone numbers.
Mar. 30, which was Good Friday, was a slower day for the research team. The O‘ahu advertisement received 430 responses from 239 unique phone numbers; the Big Island ad got 95 from 65 unique numbers. Using “the most up to date and conservative statistical methods,” the study estimated “that one out of every eleven males (9 out of 100) over the age of 18 and living in Hawai‘i, are online sex shoppers.”
According to the ASU team, the response to sex-selling advertisements in Hawai‘i state was much higher than in other areas of the U.S. where research was conducted: “a typical response in Phoenix, Arizona of 45 unique respondents, in Chicago, Illinois, 25 unique respondents, Denver, Colorado, 20 unique respondents, and Boston, Massachusetts, 22 respondents.”
The Oldest Profession in the World?
“Prior to Western contact in 1776, there was no prostitution in Hawai‘i. There was also no term for prostitution in ‘Olelo Hawai‘i (Native Hawaiian language)” states the report, citing renowned Native Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. “The demand for prostitution in Hawai‘i can be traced to Western intervention,” it continues, referring to the growth of the whaling industry in the Pacific which lead to an increase of foreign men “who assumed that Hawaiian women should be available to them if offered material or monetary renumeration [sic].”
The report’s reference to the Western roots of the commodification of sex, women, and bodies and to the patriarchal and colonialistic ideology which made early foreigners feel entitled to the bodies of native people, is contrary to the common phrase that prostitution is “oldest profession in the world.”
“Prostitution,” the report asserts, “made inroads as gender roles where women had status and inherent value were replaced by a rigid, hierarchical gender binary where women became adjuncts to men. This occurred alongside increased attempts by Westerners to control Native sexuality, land, education and economies, culminating in a shocking overthrow of the Native Hawaiian Kingdom.” The inroads continued into modern history, with the military and tourism industry further driving demand.
The argument between those who think prostitution is an unavoidable reality and those who disagree on a historical and moral basis gets to the point of the contemporary debate regarding sex work: Should markets be eliminated with strictly enforced laws in order to end prostitution demand, or should they be legalized and regulated for sex workers’ safety and tax revenue?
Shortly after the HSCSW/ASU study was conducted in March, Backpage.com was seized by the Justice Department, an indictment that reignited the debate. Although many of the charges filed against Backpage included allegations that the site contributed to the proliferation of advertisements for sex which contained children and victims of sex trafficking, outlets responded with a number of stories that expressed concern that the shutdown would lead to less safe conditions for sex workers.
A Vice Broadly piece interviewed criminologist Mary Finn of Michigan State University. “[Sex work] is the oldest profession, and it’s continuing to flourish,” she said. “We enact [anti-prostitution] laws because we think we’re helping vulnerable people, but, for those individuals who are involved in the sale of sex, criminalizing it just drives it further underground. This can prevent individuals from seeking assistance, and it’s also a public health issue.”
N’jaila Rhee, an educator, sex worker, and host of The Cuntcast Podcast, told The Verge that sex workers who “are impoverished, those that are running away from abusive partners, those that are actively trying to get out of really bad situations, especially black, trans street workers” are “now cut off from a means of elevating themselves into a safer workspace.”
Another sex worker, interviewed by The Cut, told a reporter “right now, the focus is on finding the next Backpage. Once there’s a vacuum like this, something will come to fill it. The demand in the market for commercial sex is never going to stop.”
Reframing the Issue
This support for Backpage as a “safe” market came despite recent testimony to U.S. Senate subcommittees by Yiota Souras, vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Media, that more than 71 percent of child sex trafficking reports from the public to the CyberTipline were related to Backpage. The problem had become so rampant on the site, Souras said, that staff would check Backpage first whenever there were reports of missing children at risk of human trafficking.
“I feel like we’re thinking about it too much as just a black-and-white binary because that’s what folks who are pro-transactional sex or pro-commodification of sex are pushing,” Khara Jabola-Carolus told me in response to the argument that markets such as Backpage gave sex workers opportunities. “The sex trade is really a spectrum,” Jabola-Carolus said, and workers, like those highlighted in The Verge and The Cut who find it empowering, are a privileged minority at one end: “Everyone else along the spectrum doesn’t have all that. Endless research shows a majority of people don’t have all that. So the majority of people in the sex trade are not that privileged, have some form of coercion, would probably meet the definition of being trafficked.”
“Ultimately,” the report by HSCSW/ASU concludes, “sex buyer demand is the culprit of sex trafficking. Addressing sex buyers is a critical step to reducing sex trafficking in Hawai‘i. Sex buyers create a market for victims to be bought and sold for sex, with over 400 buyers for one online advertisement, there is a tremendous incentive for sex traffickers to sexually exploit children and adults in Hawai‘i.”
Yet, in Honolulu, sex buyers are arrested far less than prostituted people. “From January- December 2017, 36 sex buyers and 72-prostituted persons were arrested,” the report states. “From January to June 2018, 14 sex buyers and 37-prostituted persons were arrested.”
“Criminalizing those prostituting drives them away from help,” Jabola-Carolus said, “We must decriminalize those being prostituted, wherever they fall on the spectrum… but that doesn’t mean that we should decriminalize those driving the demand. Note it’s the same demand for prostitution and sex trafficking.”
But with more people in Honolulu being penalized for sit-lie violations and jaywalking than for buying sex, it’s clear the State of Hawai‘i and law enforcement don’t quite see the problem the same way.
You can find the full report, which is part one of a larger upcoming series on sex trafficking in Hawai‘i, online at Humanservices.hawaii.gov/hscsw.
Photo courtesy of flickr/valeriamelissia
Discussion 9/27/2018: Should sex buyers be more aggressively penalized by the state and law enforcement?
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