Prostitution is violence against people. There, I said it.
One quick internet search to try and back up that statement renders opinions from all over the map. Words like criminalization, full and partial decriminalization, Equality Model, Nordic Model, and more have been thrown about in an effort to discuss and address the rights of people who have been prostituted, with or without their consent.
I don’t claim to be a legal scholar. I don’t claim to have an inside track on any robust governmental or scientific studies or even any direct personal experience with prostitution. But I do have an opinion as a human being, and I feel compelled to accept the invitation and step into the conversation with compassion. I appreciate that this published series is a dialogue, with statements coming from different sides of the table. And in order to fairly consider my assertion, it helps to know the story about how my philanthropic journey led me here.
I carry hope around in my pocket. Isn’t that a strange way to start my story? But it’s true, and if you don’t learn anything else about me, I hope you remember that.
When I was 25 years old, I was sexually assaulted while on a morning run. I was brutally beaten and left for dead. The visit to the hospital was excruciating – I waited for hours to receive treatment. The doctor in the emergency room ignored my pleas to stitch up my face and called me a narcissist for trying to advocate for myself. Finally, a police detective spoke up on my behalf and I received medical care and was released. I was grateful, but my recovery process exposed the inadequate support for survivors of sexual assault. In the years that followed, I would come to understand that few people – law enforcement, medical personnel, and even some friends – understood my pain or worse, minimized it.
The road of my own healing is a complicated and brutal one. In addition to my rape, I am also a survivor of abuse and domestic violence. I spent many years finding my way, and part of my healing is a lifelong dedication to helping survivors of sexual violence. My philanthropy began on a very personal level, as a volunteer advocate for survivors of sexual assault at the hospital for the Tarrant County Rape Crisis Center. It felt good to carry hope with me and share it with others. However, I soon realized my individual efforts were not enough. More needed to be done.
Adversity comes in many forms. We can be born into it, create our own, or face it because of the actions of others. No matter how it comes, every person has to choose what they will do with it.
In 1989 I created a private foundation, based on the belief that hope changes everything. My philanthropy became more personal and impactful as I began speaking on college campuses and even in prisons, trusting that my story would bring change and reach those who were feeling alone and without hope. Creating as great an impact as possible, we funded many projects over the years, particularly in the areas of sexual violence, education, gender equity, poverty, and community.
But sexual violence remains a looming threat. Every 68 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, and 1 out of 6 women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. It is estimated that of the 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation, over 1 million of those are children. As our foundation studied challenges associated with survivors of sexual assault, I began to hear more experts also talk about prostitution, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking. These subjects called to me, and I set out to learn everything I could.
I quickly learned that prostitution is a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. It occurs in every country and community and has often been referred to as the ‘oldest profession’. But I can’t think of any other profession that has a more terrifying risk of rape, dehumanization, STDs, exploitation, emotional abuse, and extreme assault and violence on a daily basis. In fact, proponents of full decriminalization often cite the threat of violence as one of the reasons prostitution should be legal. If women and men are ‘choosing’ prostitution as work, one is left to wonder what options they had to choose from in the first place.
I learned there are prostituted persons who maintain the position that they are there by choice, but I also discovered an astonishing number who are there by force, fraud, and coercion. The more I learned about how human trafficking is often misrepresented as prostitution, the more my heart ached. I had been raped and abused, but those were isolated occurrences. I was not forced, by coercion or by circumstance, to sell my body multiple times a day to make money for my abuser, or even just to pay my bills.
There is no denying that human traffickers make money through prostitution. It is a business. They will do anything to make it easier to sell their product and make a profit. Why sell consumable goods like drugs when you can sell a human being over and over again, day after day and make a profit?
Human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable among us in every community across the United States and around the world. They find weakness, loneliness, addiction and/or poverty, and exploit it. Most victims of human trafficking are not kidnapped as Hollywood might lead us to believe. Traffickers lure vulnerable people into a life of fear and shame, creating a spiral from which it is almost impossible to escape. If prostitution is ever fully decriminalized, traffickers will benefit from it.
Prostitution and human trafficking have devasting consequences on women and girls.
- Over 92 per cent of women in the sex trade report being subjected to physical violence, including being raped, shot, stabbed, beaten and more.
- 55 per cent report suffering from PTSD similar in severity to veterans who have experienced intense combat.
- 42 per cent have attempted suicide at least once.
- 33 per cent were trafficked between 11 – 13 years old.
We have listened to the voices of those lucky enough to get out of ‘the life’, whether through exiting prostitution by choice or by escaping a trafficker. Years of violence can leave them suffering emotionally, physically, financially, and more; burdened by arrest records and convictions, poor credit and debt often created by their traffickers, limited or non-existent familial or social support, and emotional and physical scars that will never fully heal. Finding a well-paying job when you have a gap in employment history and a criminal record is nearly impossible. Safe housing and stability are elusive, often out of reach. Even though they desperately want to make a new start, survivors often find themselves dealing with the same vulnerabilities that lured their traffickers and abusers to them in the first place. I could clearly see the connection between prostitution, human trafficking, and sexual violence.
For these reasons, I shifted my philanthropic focus and created The Jensen Project. After much diligence in discovering what support existed already in the field of sexual violence, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we elected to create a pool of resources to amplify the great work being done by others.
The Jensen Project’s mission is to fuel strategic partnerships in the fight against sexual violence. GrantTank, our primary funding mechanism, is a comprehensive process focusing on accomplishing several goals.
First, of course, we look to support the most inventive projects and organizations with the best opportunities for success. Second, we strengthen the network of frontline organizations and create collaborations to maximize impact. And third, we seek to elevate solutions in the field, educating people and the public about prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation in their communities.
Below are a few of the innovative philanthropic approaches we use at The Jensen Project which have proven effective and that other philanthropists can adapt as well.
- Take on and encourage thoughtful risk: We look at our philanthropy as ‘social risk capital.’ We provide resources for organizations to innovate, take risks, and try new approaches, generating new lessons, successes, and collaborations.
- Diversify our philanthropic portfolios: We try various giving approaches and beneficiaries. We incorporate elements of Trust-based philanthropy into our giving, giving grantee partners the freedom to innovate and allowing us to learn and share best practices from around the country and apply lessons learned to future initiatives.
- Invest in infrastructure, people, leadership, management, and teams: Too often philanthropists want to invest in new programs but fail to support the whole organization. Recognizing that people are an organization’s best asset, we provide grantee partners with training, strategic planning, and fundraising support that goes beyond their initial grant award.
- Foster collaborations: We love to foster collaborations between organizations. Our national focus and reach introduce us to innovative programs and inspirational leaders across the country. Bringing them together and matching them with others increases their impact and strengthens the overall network.
- Make the Big Bet: GrantTank grants are issued for $100,000 to $1,000,000 with a partnership established for 2–3 years, We provide game-changing capital that can truly inspire innovative solutions. Free from having to worry about stitching together funding from other sources, grantee partners can focus on achieving results.
The rewarding mission of helping frontline organizations is critical for the success of individual survivors, and it is also the area where the few other philanthropists in this field are most involved. But there is not enough money to support all the needs in the field, and there is an absolute dearth of funding supporting the critical public policy changes necessary to make a real difference.
Public policy needs to change. To that end, we’ve also invested in national organizations working to promote the Equality Model. This would protect survivors, reduce demand for prostitution, and hold buyers and traffickers accountable. We are also working to pass the EARN IT Act and the TVPRA.
We need more philanthropists and people of goodwill to step into this battle. Government alone cannot meet this need. There are many opportunities for us to stand with survivors and with those exiting the sex industry. Together we can collaborate to end sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
When I talk about why I’ve directed my philanthropic journey over the years towards fighting sexual violence and exploitation, I always start and end with hope. I’ve walked beside other ‘hope bringers’ along the way, a beautifully diverse community that invests and conspires to fight, show up, and speak up for those who feel unheard and alone. Most of us understand that when even one person shows up and stands up for you, it can change everything.
The 2021 Women & Girls Index produced by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute shares that philanthropic support for women’s and girl’s organizations represents just 1.9 per cent of overall charitable giving. Surely, we can do better than that. We must do better than that.
My years of philanthropy have taught me many lessons. I am consistently inspired by the survivors I meet, by their resilience, determination and hope. And while I have been blessed with support, success, and financial security, there is so much more to be done. And so, I carry hope around in my pocket and scatter it where it can grow. I seek ways to provide opportunities and better choices for those I serve. I keep my eyes, ears, and heart open, always inspired by how one person can change themselves, their community, their nation, and the entire world for good.
Janet Jensen is the Founder & Executive Director of the Jensen Project.
This article is part of a series exploring philanthropy and the global sex trade. Read more.