Demand is defined as “an insistent and peremptory request; made as if by right.” Demand is also defined as “the desire of purchasers, consumers, clients, employers, etc., for a particular commodity, service, or other item.” Demand is now the word used by academics and anti-trafficking groups to refer to the men who buy human beings to meet their desires in sex trafficking and prostitution. Other terms used to describe the “demand,” comprised primarily of white, heterosexual, educated, professional, middle class and wealthy men, are “purchaser,” “buyer,” and “customer.” (1) All of these terms portray a colonial system of racialized sexual cruelty as a business model. (2) On the one hand, these terms of commerce aptly point to the fact that sex trafficking, or organized sexual abuse, is run as a multi-billion dollar global business. Yet, these professional terms also inadvertently maintain both the dignity and invisibility of the men who pay to abuse women and youth who are disproportionately Native American, African American, homeless, poor, disabled, abused, LGBT, and otherwise disenfranchised from social, political, and financial power in the U.S.
“Purchaser,” “buyer,” and “customer” have replaced the colloquial word “john” to describe the men who buy people in prostitution and sex trafficking. “John” has roots in England when men who bought women in prostitution would give their names as “John” to maintain their anonymity. When I began this work in the late 1980s, we used the terms “johns” and “pimps” to describe the men who bought and sold women and youth. The diction used to identify men who make the choice to pay disenfranchised women and youth for sexual use, rape, and physical violence has always sanitized what these men actually do to the people they buy. “John” has always hidden their identity, allowing those with power to be invisible and therefore unaccountable for their choices and behaviors. Since most “johns” are married, it also means their wives won’t find out.
The terms “customer,” “purchaser,” “demand,” and “buyer” continue the invisibility of the perpetrators while making the terms more palatable. Rather than argue that the individuals who use these terms have an agenda of sanitizing them (which may or may not be true), I want to point out the difficulty of discussing the colonizer’s culture using the colonizer’s language. We are using English, the language of the colonizer, to make visible that which the language and culture protect through invisibility. We are using English, a language of commerce, a language of ownership, a language of property, a language of hierarchy to identify men in positions of power and authority who buy people to use them sexually, who dehumanize people–often quite brutally, including murder. (Studies show prostituted and sex trafficked women have between 60 and 200 times the murder rate than those not in prostitution and sex trafficking.) We are using English, a language that reflects, maintains, and enforces the values of the colonizers, namely the use of people and “natural resources”, and the supposed “right” that whiteness and maleness has to use, abuse, and destroy the land, water, trees, animals, and women and girls, especially Indigenous and women-and-girls-of-color, without thought or regard for their sovereignty. (3)
The question about how to make visible the men who drive prostitution and sex trafficking is a conundrum. But using professional words like “customer” in an effort to end prostitution and sex trafficking is a mistake as it further obfuscates who these men are and what they do. We participate in the normalization of prostitution and sex trafficking by using a word that describes people who shop at Target to also describe men who commit sexual, mental, emotional, and physical violence and torture against women and children. Also, it is noteworthy that as this work has become increasingly professionalized and seeks allies and credibility in the primarily white professional world, the word “pimp” has been replaced by “seller” and “trafficker.” The racist narrative of a pimp as an African American man is the underlying perception in the US. (In the late 1800s it was Jewish and Italian men who were scapegoated as pimps.) Displacing the word “pimp” with “seller” makes it more palatable for professionals. I wonder if it also give some kind of dignity to pimps, who are increasingly understood to be white professional men? Are the white, professional women driving this name change doing so in an unconscious (or conscious) solidarity with their white male peers, or perhaps an unwillingness to align themselves with the “abused underclass?” Is this how they keep themselves separate and separated from those “dirty” women who are abused, often by their white male colleagues? Are they using this language to “soften the blow” so as to feel more comfortable themselves while in the room with white male prosecutors, judges, attorneys, and other professionals?
Research shows men in the US would stop making the choice to buy human beings to use sexually if the men’s involvement in prostitution and trafficking were exposed to their families, workplaces, and communities. The vast majority of women, especially Indigenous women and youth, are in prostitution and sex trafficking because they are trapped by current and childhood violence, poverty, lack access to education, lack of safe and affordable housing, and lack of food, diapers, clothes and other essentials for themselves and their children. Their children are often held hostage, abused, and threatened, forcing those women to choose between their own freedom and their children’s safety. That the men who buy women and girls would stop if exposed points to both the strategies we can use to reduce “demand” and counters the myth that prostitution and sex trafficking is an actual choice for those being used in this system of exploitation. It’s crucial to not play hide and seek with the identity of those who are the pimps and johns in the US. The very group in this country that has the most power, is the primary group that sells and buys people. One man who buys prostituted and trafficked women said, “Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoever he wants…” Another man said, “I feel sorry for these girls but it’s what I want.”
Research and discussions with survivors reveal how many of us have been harmed by white professional men, the very men and professional class that we appeal to for help in ending prostitution and sex trafficking. For instance, in Minnesota in 2009, the Minneapolis police department exposed a sex trafficking ring comprised of thirty wealthy men who called themselves “Minnesota Nice Guys.” They chose the term as a play on “Minnesota Nice.” They believed themselves to be above being caught by the police and more trustworthy than the “average john.”
Grant Snyder, a Minneapolis police sergeant, said about the men in the Minnesota Nice Guy trafficking ring:
I saw that these were rich guys that were using vulnerable immigrant women … like playthings that they could buy. These are men that are purchasing another person and they’re getting them to do things they clearly don’t want to do. (4)
Who orchestrated the recruitment, travel into and through the country, and sex at expensive Minneapolis hotels? Who organized the lawyers, business owners, accountants, and mortgage bankers from urban and rural Minnesota who bought the women? In other words, who was the pimp? John St. Marie, a white man and former Hennepin County Assistant Attorney was the pimp of the Minnesota Nice Guys sex trafficking ring. For decades, he was also active in numerous non-profit organizations, especially disability rights organizations. As a child, he contracted polio and was wheelchair-bound. In 1978, he founded Wilderness Inquiry that provided wilderness experiences for all ages and abilities. As a lawyer with the county, he represented social service agencies and did civil commitments. Regarding the “Minnesota Nice Guys,” St. Marie was charged with six counts of felony promotion of prostitution and plead guilty to three counts. He did not go to jail due to severe health problems. After sentencing, his attorney said that he “could be sent to jail if he violates his probation and was ordered to pay a sum to a women’s advocacy group.” (5) Unsurprisingly, St. Marie violated his probation. St. Marie, like some other white male professionals, can add “pimp” and “john” to his list of identifiers.
St. Marie and the other men in the Minnesota Nice Guy trafficking ring were and are prominent men in their communities who believed they were entitled and special. The “johns” charged with a gross misdemeanor were “John Walter Zbaren, 65, of Vadnais Heights, Mark Allen Zuber, 59, of Arden Hills; Patrick Allan Davidson, 42, of Oronoco; John Patrick Ball, 44, of Shakopee; Alex Norman Casterton, 36, of Chanhassen; John Robert Stone, 62, of Grand Marais, Minn.; and Carl Kenneth Walker, 45, of Andover.” Zbaren told police that buying prostitutes was his hobby, and he “was ‘supposed to be treated special’ and expected a reduced price…because money was tight for him.” They bought women from South America who were flown in to the US through Florida.
Snyder addressed the myth that trafficking and prostitution of adult women is a victimless crime when he said that the men in the Nice Guys ring: were wealthy and taking advantage of immigrant women. He said the men “[we]re purchasing another person and they’re getting them to do things they clearly don’t want to do.” (3) Another myth about the men who buy women and girls is that there is a clear separation between the prostitution and sex trafficking of adult women and the sex trafficking of girls. Walker expressed his sexual desires for girls, saying “that he had fantasies about having sex with the babysitter, a cheerleader or a school girl…” (5)
I am not suggesting all white men, or all professional men engage in prostitution and sex trafficking. They do not. However, predatory men hide behind the societal assumptions of their supposed “goodness” of their status as white, male, and educated and use their power to sexually abuse women and youth. For example, former B.C. judge David Ramsey used his knowledge of the twelve-to-sixteen-year-old First Nation girls who came through his courtroom to track them down on the streets, pick them up in his car, and sexually abuse them in exchange for money. He smashed one of the girl’s head into the dashboard of his car when she asked him to use a condom. Ramsey also “slapped her, sexually assaulted her, called her a whore and smiled…” He left another girl naked outside and threatened to kill her. His confession “stunned” his friends and family. I don’t know any survivors who would be surprised that a judge was a john. (7) My only surprise is that he was caught and prosecuted.
This is one reason why it’s crucial to be clear and honest about who is doing what to whom. Ramsey is one example among many. Given the amount of exploitation in social services, Child Protection Services, and the so-called criminal justice system, if we don’t have advocates specifically and only beholden to those going through the systems, are we really just streamlining abusers’ access to vulnerable youth and women? It’s not often that Indigenous girls are believed over a white judge. We need to identify and implement structural change where it’s needed and we cannot do this without identifying who the abusers are and how they are getting away with rape. The johns and pimps are hiding in plain sight. It’s not a secret. Survivors and those still in prostitution and sex trafficking know who they are. But who will listen to us? Who will believe us over white men in power? Will you?
In the thirty-three years I’ve been listening to survivors, organizing, writing, and researching, one of the most pervasive and salient observations I’ve made is the invisibility of the men for whom this industry exists, while making those who are harmed in this industry—women and youth—hyper visible and blamed yet without individual identities and value. Prostitution and sex trafficking underpins the racialized, sexualized, commercialized US culture, yet everyone in it lacks individuality. The men lack it so that they are protected, and the women and girls lack individuality because we’re not deemed human. We’re not deemed individuals with our own goals, intelligence, wishes, desires, lives—with our own humanity.
In the 1990s I did outreach with the John Van, a group of neighborhood women in south Minneapolis who travelled through their neighborhood in an old van donated by a supportive man. They painted slogans on the sides, and called it the John Van. One of their purposes was to make visible the white, middle class and wealthy men who came through the working class and poor community-of-color soliciting women and girls. The neighborhood has a large Native American population. Every night the women of the John Van would encounter expensive cars driven by white men with baby seats and stuffed animals lining their rear windows. The men were mostly from white, wealthy suburbs. The women collaborated with the police such that when they witnessed one of these men soliciting in their neighborhood, they gave the license plate to the Minneapolis Police Department. Then the Minneapolis Police Department sent letters to the men’s homes stating that they’d been seen in an area with high prostitution and were suspected of soliciting. The John Van women also worked with an organization run by prostitution and sex trafficking survivors and handed out kits for the women, making contact, even if briefly under the watchful eyes of pimps. They let the women know they were cared about—they were seen as valued individuals. The women would thank us profusely, and then run away to avoid being punished by the men selling them.
Eventually these three women burned out and the rusted John Van was recycled. But night in and night out for years, the demands of the white, wealthy men from the suburbs soliciting women and girls before work, on their lunches, or on their way home after work were highlighted and exposed, sometimes literally by the John Van women’s spotlight and megaphone. Another woman in the neighborhood also tried to help the women and girls on the streets. One morning at 6:00, she heard screaming. She ran out of her house as a white man was pulling the fingernails and toenails out of a Native woman’s hands and feet. The sexual—and sometimes not sexual–use of people, whether money is exchanged or not, does not deserve to be made “nice.” The exchange of money is part of the sexual charge for some men, for other men it means they can do anything they want to those they buy, and for others the transaction abolishes their obligation to view those they buy as human. One john said, “Prostitution is being able to do what you want without the taxation.”
What is often overlooked in regards to the choice the primarily white wealthy men have in buying Indigenous women and girls is the impact on the community—the geographical neighborhood and the Native community at large. These are choices made by men with privileges. They don’t have to drive to the “‘hood” at lunch to pick up a destitute Native woman and force her to have sex with them in exchange for five dollars. No one is holding a gun to their heads demanding that they demean, hit, berate, torture, and rape Native women and youth. They could go to Subway instead or bring their lunch to work and stay in the office. They could do a plethora of activities beside buy human beings on their lunch hour and in the process harm the individuals they buy, their families, and communities. Many Native and African American women and girls living in that neighborhood spoke of being harassed on the streets by the men driving through looking for a blow job or more from strangers. In other words, a Native or African American woman or girl walking down the block was assumed to be a “prostitute” by entitled white men—a legacy of colonization and slavery in the US that continues to be enacted on a daily basis in prostitution and trafficking.
The choices we make to end sex trafficking must be strategic. Personally, I intermingle “john” and “pimp” and “trafficker” with the phrase “the primarily white heterosexual men who make the choice to buy others for sexual and physical assault.” While that is a mouthful, if we don’t clearly identify who is doing this and why, we are not identifying the problem, we cannot create effective solutions, we pander in racist and colonial tropes, and we continue to allow white men to do as they please on this land. The choices we make must be aligned with those who are harmed rather than making ourselves more comfortable hobnobbing with white professional men and functioning “as professionals” within the systems that protects perpetrators and maintains their status and power.
Prostitution was imported and forced upon Indigenous cultures as part of the attempted genocide. I have been told there is no word for “prostitution” in Ojibwe. The People’s Online Ojibwe Dictionary also yields no results when I search for “prostitution.” Elders say prostitution is not part of our traditional culture. Cultures have language to describe their activities, beliefs, behaviors, and values. In English, the words for men who make the choice to buy other people for their own sexual desires hide the identity of the men. We must make their identities visible as a first step toward accountability, toward building a culture free of this violence, toward creating strategies that build a culture free of this violence. We need to do this with honesty and courage to expose who these men are and the choices they make to buy women, youth, and children.
Diction may seem like a minor issue; however, words are our first point of contact in identifying and strategizing how to stop colonial sexual exploitation. Words matter. Diction guides our strategy toward building a culture where no one is bought and sold, and where the sovereignty of the land we dwell upon and the water we drink and the trees that purify the air we breathe are respected and valued. As Indigenous people say, it’s all connected. You can’t use words that hide truth if you’re trying to get to the truth.
Notes and Citations
- Men (and sometimes women) from all religious, racial, sexual orientation, and economic groups buy people for sex but in the US research shows most “johns” are white and middle class or wealthier.
- While it is important to understand that sex trafficking and prostitution exist, in part, to make money for the traffickers/pimps, state and federal government, and corporations, it is a double-edged sword to obscure the inherent abuses and outright brutality inflicted on those used in this colonial system. This is also a system that allows men to brutalize women and youth, to enforce their perceived entitlements and superiority over women and youth, and to act out their sexual fantasies which are often sadistic. Sex trafficking and prostitution are not only about money. They’re also about the enjoyment men get over exerting sexist, racist, class superiority over actual living people. This system also maintains and fuels the oppressive narratives that the US was founded upon—namely a colonizer mentality.
- Who, not what, as Indigenous cultures view animate “objects” in the colonizer’s worldview as respected forms of life that must be respected, learned from, and acknowledged as having their own reason to exist beyond the needs of humans.
“Demand” is the third blog in a series of posts about sex trafficking of Native women and youth in Minnesota written by Chris Stark, following “A Feast and a Gift“ and “Accountability“.
Click here to watch Chris’ story.
Chris Stark is an Anishinaabe and Cherokee writer, researcher, and survivor. Chris’ latest novel, Carnival Lights, about MMIR in Minnesota, is a Minnesota Book Award Finalist. Learn more at www.ChristineStark.com. Carnival Lights can be ordered anywhere books are sold.