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Can't Buy Me Love

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This week, while we pick through our Valentine's Day chocolates looking for the good ones and watch our roses wilt, let's think about buying love. Not with chocolates, lingerie or jewelry, but with cash or credit card.

The Justice Department estimates human trafficking is the second fastest-growing criminal industry after the drug trade. Approximately half of all victims are children. There's money in flesh, and in pictures of it. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates it is a $32 billion industry.

Studies have estimated that 15 to 20 percent of American men have bought sex at least once in their lives, but other estimates, with broader definitions of sex-buying, count lap dances and phone sex, and put that figure up toward 80 percent.

That means somewhere between one in five and nearly every other man has bought sex at some point. Shrinks, lawyers, plumbers, governors of New York. Dads, husbands and sons.

Prostitution is said to be a victimless crime. Usually, nobody dies, although one study found that johns are eight times more likely to say they would rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it. But even if you are Ashley Dupre and the worst thing that happens to you is the governor of New York keeps his socks on, the "work" does lasting damage to the women.

First of all, most of them start as kids. As a society, we separate pedophilia from the adult flesh trade but the average age at which trafficked girls enter the sex industry is 13. It was outrage about the minors on the Village Voice's old Backpage ads that eventually attracted the contempt of Nick Kristof, among others, leading to a complete divorce between the two entities in September last year.

But trafficked children and teens are only in training to become adult merchandise. "I have friends who are survivors of sex-trafficking who were sold on the streets as early as 12 years old," said Brooke Axtell, founder of an organization that helps trafficked women. "These johns are not considered a 'pedophile' market. This is mainstream."

When 13-year-old trafficked children age into adult female "sex workers" at 18, they become legally less worthy of protection and socially, less deserving of sympathy. They become laborers plying a somewhat dirty trade that requires no degree and which benefits them economically, like being a waitress or a hospital orderly.

Organizations like the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW) in New York have been pushing for cops and prosecutors to arrest buyers, a paradigm shift they believe is a step toward making prostitution less socially acceptable. The "Demand Abolition" movement claims it has persuaded 900 police departments around the nation to go after the buyers. Their model is Sweden, where a national strategy of arresting and punishing sex-buyers in 1999 has reduced prostitution by 90 percent in otherwise notoriously libertine Stockholm.

Last year, the NYPD initiated a similar strategy. Arrested men forfeit cars, plead to misdemeanors (or felonies on third arrests). Some are sent to a john school in Brooklyn, where trafficked women lecture them on their harrowing life stories hoping that a kind of Clockwork Orange re-education program can cure them of the taste for purchased female flesh. An ex-prostitute at a San Francisco john school who talked to PBS last year tells the men about being sexually abused at age 3. She winds up her talk with: "You think the girls like it, but I hated you when I was out there."

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne says the john sting strategy is ongoing. But CATW's Norma Ramos says the NYPD isn't as vigilant as it could be.

To their credit, it is not easy for the NYPD and the D.A.'s offices to aggressively pursue a john-baiting strategy in a city where the buying of female flesh is totally normalized. The "Demand Abolition" movement wants to re-define prostitution as human bondage and johns as criminals. But female flesh is a job perk on Wall Street, and hooker culture is glorified in pop culture. If poor women from Malaysian villages and the Caucasus or runaway teens from Bronx crack-dens locked up in NYC hotel rooms with pimps and their "clients" don't feel they are in a "profession," and might rather get the hell out -- well, that's just life in the big city.

Even if -- and it's a big if -- prostitutes/sex workers/trafficked women do freely choose and like their jobs, as the pro-sex worker organizations claim, it's my opinion that in a society where men can and do routinely buy women's bodies, all women -- women who run corporations, or prosecute criminals or teach at Harvard or become Secretary of State -- are undermined. How can a man who buys female flesh -- or sees his peers do so -- respect a woman in the boardroom, Congress or courthouse?

That's just in the workplace. The trade hurts "free" women in bed, too. British writer Julie Burchill has written about how prostitution affects the women's sex lives. "Prostitution reinforces all the old dumb clichés about women's sexuality; that they are not built to enjoy sex and are little more than walking masturbation aids, things to be DONE TO, things so sensually null and void that they have to be paid to indulge in fornication, that women can be had, bought, as often as not sold from one man to another." Burchill tartly concluded: "When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women."

A few weeks ago, Lisa Taddeo wrote about the global call-girl rating website called TERS where aficionados of the sex trade share tips, including where and how to find the finest female flesh money can buy. The website's home page features a woman's voice comparing the website to a restaurant rating app.

The story focused on one TERS user, a handsome, financially stable New York bachelor who prefers prostitutes -- or, as the anti-prostitution movement calls them "trafficked women" -- to actual girlfriends. This john-about-town explained that he doesn't want to be bothered with the tedious follow-up -- like calling them -- that goes along with free sex, the emotional complexities of females who pressure him into interacting with them when he'd really rather not. He prefers a GFE -- girlfriend experience in the lingo of the online john world -- once every few weeks. His Valentine is one who who can give him a Friday night blowjob, clean up to become arm candy on Saturday night, do it again, and then get out of his face before Monday rolls around. The saddest part of the story was when the GFE girl said she missed her client when he didn't call.

Like the NYC bachelor, almost nobody cares what happens to these women's capacity to love, an emotion that money and the men who wield it separate from their bodies. "All around the world, men and boys are destroying women and girls through sex-- where humans are often at there most vulnerable and intimate," Ramos said. "We never ask as a culture, what does being prostituted, the end-point of sex trafficking, do to the sexuality of the prostituted? I think learning to trust and then love again takes a lot of long-term support and loving expertise. In fact I'm not sure our society has even developed the therapeutic modalities to address this harm on a significant scale as of yet."