Two weeks after Texas Democrats fled the state to avoid casting a ballot on a voting reform bill, pundits are still arguing about whether the legislators’ move was novel.
Whatever the case, Texas lawmakers did do something unprecedented this session: they made Texas the first state to curb the demand for commercial sex with a substantial, punitive measure.
Tucked into H.B. 1540, the Human Trafficking Prevention Taskforce’s bipartisan omnibus bill, is a provision that makes sex buying from an adult a felony offense. (Solicitation of a minor was already a felony.)
Ty Bowden, who serves as the associate director of The Net, a Fort Worth anti-trafficking nonprofit, characterized the change as a significant step in the effort to transform the approach of law enforcement to the sex industry and the plight of trafficked individuals.
“It reflects a cultural shift,” he told me, and one that is long overdue.
Historically, buying and selling sex has been effectively indistinguishable under the law.
Sellers, typically vulnerable women whose participation is often compelled, generally are not recognized as victims, even in the presence of physical, emotional or mental coercion, which by definition makes them trafficked.
That’s a stark reality that The Net founder and executive director Melissa Ice says unfairly stigmatizes women who have already been exploited.
She noted that even the nomenclature used carries an imputation; women are prostitutes but men are “johns.”
“That’s a generous way to describe someone who is commodifying someone else,” said Ice. “They should be called predators and sex-buyers.”
But however you title sex-buyers, their crime of solicitation has long been considered only a minor offense, one that is often pled down or not charged at all.
“Fear of arrest ranks low among reasons why men stop buying sex,” explained Bowden, likely because “it’s been such a slap on the wrist legally to this point.”
But with real penalties and prison time now on the table for the first offense, law enforcement has more leverage to go after the buyers.
The question is, Will they?
The new law “is a way to discourage the demand for prostitutes and trafficked victims,” said Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson in an emailed statement.
But her office did not elaborate on whether using this law, which takes effect in September, as a tool to fight sex trafficking will be a particular priority.
Given what we know about the ubiquity of the sex-buying industry, it certainly should be.
While the nature of sex-trafficking makes it difficult to quantify, the best available research from anti-trafficking group Demand Abolition, says that about 6% of men will buy sex in any given year; 20% will buy sex at some point in their life.
In an area like Tarrant County, that equates to about 40,000 to 50,000 sex-buyers this year alone.
Bowden says in the Metroplex, where avenues for commercial sex are plentiful, that number is probably higher.
The number of sex-trafficking victims is likely underestimated, as well.
A 2016 human trafficking study conducted by the University of Texas School of Social Work, estimated that there were approximately 300,000 trafficked individuals including 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking in Texas.
But because adults in the sex industry have historically been considered complicit participants, it’s safe to assume that many people who are sexually exploited are not included in such estimates.
“There are lots of factors that lead [women] to this industry,” said Ice, who explained how the cycle of trauma and the sense that they are solely responsible for their situation is often what prevents them from getting out of sex work.
But the work wouldn’t exist without a market, which is why in addition to supporting women who have left the sex industry, The Net also seeks to disrupt demand by educating men about the culture of female objectification that makes the sex industry possible.
Its Men Against Sexual Exploitation (MASE) program both confronts would-be sex-buyers at the point of sale and conducts broader community outreach.
“Shame is not a motivator for long-term change,” said Bowden. “We want to invite them out of that behavior.”
On occasions when that fails, the increased penalties should serve as a substantial deterrent.
“It should make Texas a less easy state to buy sex in,” Bowden said.
That’s a first for Texas that should make everyone proud.