Coalition aims to combat human trafficking in SW La.

The United Against Human Trafficking Coalition in Calcasieu Parish met for a special forum this week in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. The topic of discussion: how to decrease demand.

“Just like any business, if you stop the demand for something, you can stop folks who are wanting to purchase,” Ken Henry, UAHT coalition and expansion manager, said. “It’s the same thing when it deals with sex.”

UAHT Outreach and Prevention Coordinator Taylor Johnson, who works directly with first-time offenders, said an effective way to address human trafficking is to decrease the demand for sex labor.

“If you have demand, if somebody desires something, then there’s going to be someone who’s going to supply that thing,” he said. “When we talk about demand for human trafficking, what we’re talking about is the demand for cheap labor … more so the desire to purchase sex.”

There are three parties involved in human trafficking that make a “triangle,” according to Johnson. These are the victim, the trafficker and the buyers. It is vital to address the latter — “most under researched, underfunded part of this whole equation” — to decrease demand, he said.

UAHT works to decrease demand through rehabilitation of purchasers. In Harris County, which houses the original UAHT in Houston, first-time offenders of sex-buying are referred to — or sign up themselves — for cohorts that address human trafficking as a form of pre-trial intervention. This program is called Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men (SSE).

SSE was developed to rehabilitate first-time offenders by breaking down the social and physiological factors that encourage their behavior, subsequently discouraging a relapse in sex-buying.

It’s a 10-week program. In the first two weeks, participants attend two individual, 60-minute interview sessions. After these interviews, participants attend eight weekly group sessions. Topics covered include: “Sexuality and Gender Socialization,” “Harm to Victims/Survivors,” “The Sexual Violence Continuum,” “Pimping, Trafficking and Domestic Violence,” “Power and Violence,” “Vulnerability,” “Mutuality in Relationships” and “The Will to Change.”

A unique aspect of SSE is the comfortable environment they aim to cultivate. UAHT is able to accomplish this with the pillar of privacy.

“Something that’s really a vital part of all this is confidentiality. We want to make sure that nobody is sharing information with people outside of the group,” Johnson said. For UAHT, with assured confidentiality comes trust, and with trust comes progress.

Many “anti-demand” efforts rely on shaming practices. The SSE program tries to avoid this.

“We do everything that we possibly can to not make them feel ashamed, because many of them come in already feeling that from all angles,” Johnson said. “They feel like they have to keep it a secret because they’re so scared of the shame that may or may not even be there.”

There are three main goals for participants — to examine masculinity, understand how one relates to themselves and others and, lastly, to reframe prostitution and sex-buying as a system of violence and oppression.

Johnson said the desire to purchase sex is rooted in the harmful depictions and expectations of masculinity for men. “One thing you learn when working with young men is the way in which they receive messages about how sex relates to their masculinity, and the ways that sex purchasing becomes normalized.

“The way that we are trained as men to be men is pretty harmful, even though we don’t really realize it or want to acknowledge it.”

This is addressed with open and honest conversation. “We take the whole thing, look at it right in the face, see what it is, pick it apart and try to reconstruct it if we find it to be harmful.”

Examining one’s internal and external relationships helps buyer’s understand their motivations and the ways in which they move through society. “All of this comes down to relationships, objectification and those processes,” Johnson said.

During SSE, the group introspection leads to the discussion of prostitution, sex work, sex-buying and human trafficking. Johnson has found that most people don’t recognize the interconnections between them. “Most people think that it’s a victimless crime between consenting adults, because that’s what they’ve been told to believe,” he said. “But we want to reframe it for what we see it as, which is a system of violence and oppression against people who are already typically marginalized.”

Contrary to belief, activities like watching and buying pornography and patronizing strip clubs are considered sex-purchasing, Johnson said.

Southwest Louisiana is a vulnerable area, he said, with casinos and the Interstate 10 corridor having increased human trafficking activity.

Henry said their group has begun discussing the institution of SSE with the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office. “We are trying to figure out what the landscape is like, what issues they’re having.”

Open discussions about an area’s specific issues are paramount, as it is important to alter programming to account for local culture. “We have an evidence-based program that works … but you also have to honor a culture.”

Additionally, it is important to establish a demographic. Henry and Johnson said there is no universal demographic of men that purchase sex. Another misconception about buyers is their temperament, Johnson noted. “People have an idea that buyers are just these violent, hidden like, crazy individuals, maybe extremely addicted to sex and drugs.” In reality, he said, most buyers would be considered normal people.

The uniting factor of buyers between all communities is that a vast majority of them are men.

According to World Without Exploitation, a nonprofit that aims to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation, a report from 2020 found that only 2% of men reported paying for sex from 2018 to 2020. This report also showed that less than a quarter of men – 21% – have reported paying for sex in their lifetimes.

Most buyers are low-frequency, Johnson said.

Men can help decrease demand by correcting problematic behaviors that are exhibited by their peers. “As men, we are the ones who notice oppressive behaviors, and most of us don’t interrupt that oppressive behavior,” he said. “People are more likely to listen to people that are like them … if men are typically the ones who are doing the aggressive behavior, and the men are there to interrupt or discourage it, then the behavior is going to decrease.”

To learn more about UAHT’s mission, human trafficking and ways to volunteer, visit uaht.org.

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