United States: Call for zero tolerance on demand that fuels sex trafficking


view as pdf

Last month, 24 U.S. Secret Service and military personnel on government business in Cartagena, Colombia – a city identified by the U.S. government as a significant sex trafficking and sex tourism destination – allegedly “spent the night boozing and buying women” through a local brothel (see joint lettersfrom U.S. and Colombian groups on potential sex trafficking crimes in Cartagena to U.S. and Colombian presidents). Last year, Secret Service agents, military members and Embassy staff in El Salvador allegedly hung out at a strip club where they paid cash for “sexual favors” in the VIP room. And in December three Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil along with an Embassy staffer allegedly pushed a prostituted Brazilian woman out of their car after “partying” with her at a nightclub in Brasilia: the woman suffered a broken collarbone. News reports continue to emerge that illustrate a persistent culture within the U.S. military and security sectors that allows for and encourages the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls.


Many politicians, commentators, and news articles have dismissed the men’s actions as “boys will be boys” or expressed concern about possible national security breaches. They miss the point. They ignore the realities of discrimination and exploitation of women, fuelled by sex trafficking to satiate the demand for commercial sex by sex tourists that underpin these women’s lives and those of countless other women around the world.

Sex trafficking is the fastest growing, multi-billion dollar criminal industry. It degrades and violates the human rights of women and girls worldwide. “An estimated 80% of all trafficked persons are used and abused as sexual slaves,” says the Executive Director of UN Women.

The sex trafficking industry is driven by the demand for commercial sex. The more sex “johns” buy, the more girls and women must be trafficked to “satisfy” their growing demand. U.S. nationals make up a large portion of sex tourists to destinations worldwide.1

Many countries that have legalized prostitution and have normalized the demand for commercial sex have witnessed an increase in sex trafficking. As the current U.S. anti-trafficking Ambassador, Luis CdeBaca, stressed, “No girl or woman would be a victim of sex trafficking if there were no profits to be made from their exploitation…. It doesn’t matter whether the woman is over 18 or how willing she may appear – because the truth is you can never know."

As part of efforts to prevent sex trafficking, the U.S. government is bound by national2 and international3 laws and policies to reduce the demand for commercial sex. The U.S. government falls short of its obligations as it lacks a consistent, uniform, and enforceable legal standard on sex trafficking and purchasing sex that covers the conduct of all government employees and contractors, military and civilian. While several federal agencies have policies or codes of conduct that expressly prohibit employees from buying sex, it is unclear whether they are implemented or enforced. For example, the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits all uniformed personnel from patronizing a person in prostitution, and the State Department prohibits members of the Foreign Service from “frequenting” people in prostitution. Yet, the Secret Service, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, is not governed by an explicit policy prohibiting commercial sexual exploitation.

The current patchwork of policy, regulations and laws that governs some, but not all, government agencies and contractors undermines the U.S. government’s commitment to combating sex trafficking, and perpetuates the abuse of women and girls around the world. The United States assesses other countries’ anti-trafficking efforts by their work to reduce the demand for commercial sex and sex tourism,4 but falls short on these issues itself.

1ECPAT USA, Statistics, at
2The Trafficking in Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).
3United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Article 9(5); The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking, Guideline 7.
4In ranking countries around the world on their efforts to curb sex trafficking, the U.S. government requires “serious and sustained efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, and participation in international sex tourism by nationals of the country.” TVPA, Sec. 108(B)(11).

Call on U.S. President Barack Obama to issue an Executive Order prohibiting all federal employees and contractors from buying sex as it contributes to sex trafficking, and to ensure that all agency heads strictly enforce such a zero tolerance policy. Doing so would help ensure the United States lives up to its national and international commitments to curb the demand that fuels sex trafficking. >> TAKE ACTION NOW!

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
United States of America
Fax: + 1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

Following the recent “scandal” involving Secret Service agents and military members traveling on official business buying sex from women in prostitution in Cartagena, Colombia and similar reported incidents worldwide, I am writing to request that the U.S. government act now to end commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. I urge you to issue an Executive Order prohibiting all federal employees and contractors from buying sex as it contributes to sex trafficking, and to ensure all agency heads strictly enforce such a zero tolerance policy.

Demand for commercial sex fuels sex trafficking and exploitation. Millions of women and girls are sold and bought for sexual exploitation in violation of their rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, and to be free from violence and torture. As part of efforts to prevent sex trafficking, the U.S. government is bound by national and international laws and policies to reduce the demand for commercial sex. In addition, the U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador has made clear that reducing demand is an integral part of the fight to end sex trafficking. Yet, there is no consistent policy on sex trafficking and purchasing sex that covers the conduct of all government employees and contractors.

I respectfully urge the U.S. government to adopt a zero tolerance policy on the demand for commercial sex that fuels sex trafficking. Thank you for your attention.