End Demand Worcester rally

Shifting blame in prostitution culture

Photo: Saroya Madlada

On Wednesday evening, 875 Main Street was transformed from a place of sex solicitation to one of activism as throngs of community activists, students, and survivors took part in the End Demand Worcester rally. Participants, ranging in age from toddlers to the middle-aged, flanked either side of the crowded street, holding signs reading, “Is your daughter their next victim?” and “Our girls are not for sale.”  Between the activists’ synchronized cries of “no more johns,” passersby honked their car horns in support, met each time with cheering and dancing by the activists. Organized by End Demand Worcester, Wednesday’s rally aimed to spread awareness about Worcester’s ongoing problems with prostitution arrests.

“We’re here to educate the community,” says Athena Haddon, an activist with End Demand. “If the men were being arrested, they wouldn’t troll the area and threaten the safety of our community. Demand is what fuels the industry, not the prostitutes.”

In 2013, Worcester made 171 prostitution-related arrests, the most of any city in Massachusetts. Of the 171 arrests made in Worcester, a staggering 91 percent were sex workers—not those who solicited the transactions. This year, of 126 total arrests so far, 121 (96 percent) have been women. Across the state, 70 percent of the 900 total arrests in 2013 were women. While the disproportionate number aims to prevent women selling sex, End Demand believes the statistics show a clear bias.

This trend of arresting sex workers rather than johns (those who purchase sex) is one that End Demand Worcester aims to stop. “If we are trying to combat prostitution…men need to be the target of arrests, not women,” says Hannah Yore (’15), who frequently works with the organization.

According to police, arresting the buyers is far more difficult than arresting the sex workers. It’s easier and less costly to arrest prostitutes, according to Michael Shively, founder of Demandforum.net, a website that aims to track prosecution of sex buyers nationwide. To arrest a sex buyer, the police must deploy an entire team of officers to catch a buyer in the act, whereas arresting a sex worker requires only one officer.

Although Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme has repeatedly declined to comment on the numbers, he said in a written statement that the police force was acting to “[reduce] the visible presence of prostitution related activity that negatively impacts the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”

As a response to these statistics, Attorney General Martha Coakley compiled a task force last year to address ways to reduce the demand for commercial sex. The report concluded that “arresting prostituted women and trafficked girls is inefficient at best, and leads to re-victimization at worst…If demand is not addressed, thereby shrinking or destroying the market, traffickers will continue to victimize their prey for profit.” Although the task force pushed for reforms including “john schools,” a court-ordered education program meant to deter demand, progress has been slow, and classes have not been held since September 2013. According to the Telegram & Gazette, this is due to an insufficient number of men arrested to fill these classes.

Arrests of prostitutes, according to Haddon, fail to offer any long-term prevention. “Most times, they’re arrested at four in the morning, and back out on the streets by that night. There’s no services provided, so they don’t really have a choice.” This, combined with the failure to arrest buyers, results in what many see as a victim-blaming complex. “It echoes our culture and who we blame for sexual transgressions,” says Yore.

End Demand’s rally aimed to change this convention. Through their signs, literature, and rhetoric, the organization clearly aims to shift the blame from the sex workers to the buyers and perpetrators of the movement. “It’s a call to the police force. We see the statistics, we think it’s wrong, and we want you to do something about it,” said Yore. Although sex workers are obviously the more visible party, End Demand aims to educate the community to make those who buy sex liable for their actions. “These men rob, rape, and beat these women on a daily basis, and [the women] don’t report it because we often blame the victim for these crimes, and ask them why they got themselves into the situation to begin with,” says Haddon. “We want to help these women, but we can’t do that if things stay the way they are. If we can get the community on board with this rally or anything else we do, that’s the first step in making a change.”