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Columbus Council Lays Groundwork For 'End Demand' Approach To Solicitation

Franklin County jail in downtown Columbus.
Paige Pfleger
Franklin County jail in downtown Columbus.

Columbus leaders are weighing changes to local solicitation laws that would emphasize punishing those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it. But critics argue those changes will be counterproductive.

Sweden pioneered the demand reduction model, and Columbus City Council member Mitchell Brown contends it’s a more humane approach to fighting sex trafficking.

“For years, enforcement and penalties have disproportionately focused on sellers rather than buyers in the sex industry," Brown says. "We must correct these inequities while offering support to those who may be victims of human trafficking.”

The Council's proposed amendment institutes a penalty of up to $1,500 and 180 days in jail for a first offense. The second and third offenses include mandatory minimum fines of $550 and $800 respectively, as well as 10 and 15 days in jail.

“By instituting real penalties that make it more difficult for buyers to hide their behavior in the shadows, we are making steps forward,” argues Columbus Police deputy chief Jennifer Knight.

Although the changes council is contemplating focus on legislative changes, Knight says it’s important for the city to continue counseling programs like "John School," which features sessions where men caught soliciting hear from former trafficking victims. The hope is that johns will better understand the consequences of trafficking and their role in supporting it, and be deterred from soliciting again.

Anti-trafficking researchers like Jennifer Suchland argue "end demand" policies often backfire, however. She has spent more than a decade in the anti-trafficking field and serves as an associate professor in Ohio State’s women, gender and sexuality studies department.

Suchland says many researchers dispute that approach’s efficacy, and policymakers are beginning to move away from it.

“Because there’s now substantial evidence to show that they are, one, not actually reducing the amount of exploitation, and two, they are increasing the precarity of those people who are in the sex trade,” Suchland says.

Suchland acknowledges policymakers are often approaching the issue with good intentions. The problem, she says, is the "end demand" model is based on a faulty assumption.

“The assumption is that shrinking the trade will reduce the harm, but that’s far from the case,” Suchland says. “When you add more criminalization to the sex trade, it both makes it harder to reach potential victims and worsens the conditions for those who rely on the sex trade for survival.”

Instead, Suchland argues for non-punitive interventions to connect people involved in the sex trade with support services like affordable housing and counseling.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.