01/11/2013 01:27 pm ET

Global Sex Trafficking & the Guy Next Door

Scroll through an online search of "prostitution" and "victim" and the words "victimless crime" appear often. In the year 2013, how is the sale of a human being considered victimless?

On January 11--Human Trafficking Awareness Day--we reflect on the progress made and the strategies needed to stem this multi-billion dollar industry. As awareness of trafficking grows, now is the time to be very clear about the causes, the impacts and the remedies. To effectively combat sex trafficking, a paradigm shift is necessary to recognize the definitive link between prostitution and trafficking and that those who buy sex fuel trafficking.

The commercial sex industry preys on women and girls who are particularly vulnerable. Most have experienced significant trauma and many are still children when they enter prostitution. The end destination for the majority of sex trafficking victims is prostitution, which, by its nature, is dangerous and dehumanizing.

According to the US Department of State, research in nine countries concluded that 60 to 75 percent of women in prostitution are raped and 70 to 95 percent are physically assaulted. The vast majority of prostitution results from gender inequality, racism and poverty. Lack of choice impacts women, even those who say they have chosen prostitution voluntarily. With these factors at play, coercion is common and a safe exit from prostitution is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

There is nothing victimless about this crime.

Globally, women and girls account for 75 percent of all trafficking victims and make up 98 percent of those trafficked for sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking victims face significant trauma, high rates of physical violence and extraordinary psychological abuse from pimps and customers. And yet, the selling of sex is tacitly tolerated in most parts of the world.

The commercial sex industry operates, like any other business, on the principles of supply and demand. On the demand side, men pay for commercial sex, fueling the industry. On the supply side, traffickers, facilitators and pimps profit off this demand, supplying unlimited access to a diverse market of women and girls. Without buyers of commercial sex, sex trafficking could not exist.

Rationalizations for buying sex abound. Often men tell themselves, "She needs the money. I'm helping her out," or "She wants this"--avoiding the probability that she has been coerced and the likely possibility that she has to hand over her money to a pimp, manager or promoter. Although the notion that "boys will be boys" persists, prostitution and its consequences are not inevitable.

Solutions exist. "End demand" strategies have proven successful. This approach has been adopted through laws penalizing the buyers of sex, while decriminalizing those who are sold. Since the introduction of these laws in Sweden, street prostitution has been dramatically reduced and Sweden has become an undesirable destination for sex traffickers.

Popular misconceptions and misrepresentations of the sex industry must be corrected. Those who buy sex must be accountable for the victimization and abuse inherent in the industry they are supporting. We need to confront attitudes that permit the more powerful in society to purchase the bodies of those who have far more limited opportunities. Addressing the demand for commercial sex is critical to all effective local, national and international efforts to prevent sex trafficking.

For more information on this subject:

What is the 'Nordic Model'?

Does Legalizing Prostitution Protect Women and Girls? Findings from Countries and States Where Prostitution is Legal