The Millionaire Abolitionist: Oil Heiress Swanee Hunt’s Crusade to Stamp Out Sex Work

Color photo of oil heiress Swanee Hunt standing at a lectern and smiling
Here's Swanee! Oil heiress Swanee Hunt at a 2012 conference sponsored by Women's eNews (Lindsay Aikman/Michael Priest Photography via Flickr)
Swanee Hunt has used her vast fortune to push an agenda that seeks to abolish commercial sex among consenting adults

Seattle-based sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill devoted a recent post on her site The Honest Courtesan to an intriguing document: two pages purportedly culled from a report prepared for Demand Abolition, a group that aims to eradicate the commercial sex trade in the U.S. The group was founded by Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria and the youngest daughter of the late Texas oil magnate H.L. Hunt.

The pages, which appear to have been prepared by the prominent public-relations firm Luntz Global, contain the firm’s recommendations and rationale regarding terminology the anti-sex-work group employs in its messaging.

As McNeill points out, Demand Abolition provides funding to police agencies and prosecutors with the provision that they will work in concert with the group to emphasize enforcement on the consumer end of commercial sex — and to adopt its terminology.

For example, the document suggests the use of the term “sex buying” rather than “prostitution,” because, “Prostitution is a ‘gray area.’ Sex buying puts the onus on the buyer.”

Also: “Acknowledge the possibility that a small minority of women in the sex trade are there in [sic] their own free will.” The stated rationale: “Public still sees this as being a choice for some people — to deny it institutes [sic] that their opinion is wrong and we lose credibility.”

And: “Use ‘forced prostitution’ instead of just ‘prostitution.'” Rationale: “‘Forced prostitution’ is accurate because a majority of women in sex trade are coerced. Takes out any ambiguity the public may have about choice.”

In addition, the document contains ten suggested “Phrases for 2015,” including “No buyers, no business,” “Trafficking and prostitution are inextricably linked,” and “Prostitution is in YOUR neighborhood — and mine.”

A screenshot showing part of the purported Luntz Global report prepared for Swanee Hunt's Demand Abolition group
Part of the purported Luntz Global report prepared for Swanee Hunt’s Demand Abolition group (screenshot via The Honest Courtesan)

Much of the language on Demand Abolition’s website echoes the advice contained in the document.

Writes McNeill, “I’ve written for years about Hunt’s purchase of the Seattle prosecutor’s office, and two excellent articles earlier this year went into depth about the extent of this depraved and illegal subversion of the so-called justice system.”

Luntz Global is the namesake of its founder, famed Republican pollster Frank Luntz, a public opinion savant, responsible for creating slippery, GOP-friendly phrases, such as “climate change” instead of global warming, and “death tax,” instead of estate tax. The company utilizes targeted focus groups to render judgment on which phrases and talking points are most effective.

Neither Luntz Global nor Demand Abolition responded to repeated requests from Front Page Confidential to authenticate the document. McNeill declined to violate her confidentiality agreement with her source.

But a review of Demand Abolition’s annual filings with the Internal Revenue Service reveals that in 2014, the group paid $60,000 to Luntz Global Partners for “strategic consulting.” (In terms of the group’s budget, that’s a drop in the bucket: Demand Abolition shelled out nearly $10 million in 2014 to get its message across.)

Setting aside the careful distinctions outlined in the document McNeill acquired, Demand Abolition’s online propaganda conflates the terms “sex trafficking” and “prostitution” — a common ploy among anti-sex-work groups.

Hunt asserts that the distinction between sex trafficking and consensual adult prostitution is “problematic” and “more fiction than fact.”

Actually, the two terms have different meanings, which are codified under state and federal laws. Prostitution is largely prosecuted at local levels and involves consenting adults exchanging money for sex. Sex trafficking, on the other hand, is defined under federal law as causing a minor to engage in a commercial sex act, or causing an adult to do the same through force, fraud, or coercion.

In “Deconstructing Demand: The Driving Force of Sex Trafficking,” a 2013 manifesto that is conspicuously teased on Demand Abolition’s homepage, Hunt asserts that the distinction between sex trafficking and consensual adult prostitution is “problematic” and “more fiction than fact.”

As Hunt sees it, “trafficking is, for practical purposes, often interchangeable with prostitution, since most pimps use ‘force, fraud or coercion,’ and minors cannot legally consent…. [E]stablishing exactly who at any given time is in the minority of adults ‘willingly’ selling their bodies is not a pragmatic or reliable exercise, and it is an insidious distraction from stopping the abuse of the great majority.”

Hunt also frowns on “the use of pornography to masturbate” and seems to take a dim view of the male sex drive in general. As for the right of sex workers to make choices for themselves, she opines that “every decision must be weighed in the terms of the overall effect on the community, even at the cost of the impingement on personal freedom.”

Let the Sex Buyer Beware

Demand Abolition’s donations to law-enforcement agencies have secured the kind of enforcement against “sex buyers” that Hunt favors.

In a groundbreaking article published in The Intercept, Alison Bass, a professor of journalism at West Virginia University and the author of Getting Screwed: Sex Work and the Law, details how Demand Abolition’s donations to law-enforcement agencies in several cities helped fund local crackdowns on johns.

Bass found that from 2013 through 2018, Demand Abolition’s Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation Network (CEASE) donated millions of dollars to nonprofits and public agencies nationwide.

But as Bass also discovered, the money came with strings. By obtaining public records from the district attorney’s office in King County (Seattle), Bass showed how Demand Abolition’s $191, 667 in donations over a four-year period allowed the organization to dictate timelines for prosecutors and law enforcement to carry out dragnets that targeted customers of the sex trade.

Closeup photo of a man's hands zip-tied behind his back.
Demand Abolition’s donations to law-enforcement agencies came with strings attached: timelines, quotas, and frequent use of the term “sex trafficking” (picturexv via Flickr)

King County prosecutors reportedly tailored their language to suit Demand Abolition’s ideology and allowed consultants hired by Demand Abolition to rewrite press releases, inserting the word “sex trafficking” despite the fact that prosecutors preferred the term “commercial sexual exploitation.”

King County prosecutors signed statements declaring that they agreed with Demand Abolition’s ideology regarding the harmful effects of the commercial sex industry.

As one consultant explained in an email to prosecutors, “Removing all references to sex trafficking will hurt our ability to grab reporters’ attention.”

King County prosecutors signed statements declaring that they agreed with Demand Abolition’s ideology regarding the harmful effects of the commercial sex industry. And in a controversial 2016 sting that involved eleven men and a website called The Review Board (on which clients posted reviews of their encounters with sex workers), prosecutors filed unprecedented state felony charges such as promoting prostitution in the second degree.

Though the Review Board case did not include allegations of force or coercion, police and prosecutors referred to the busts as involving “sex trafficking” and “sex slavery.” Bass quoted legal experts who said the prosecutor’s office stepped over ethical lines in its partnership with Demand Abolition. Three defendants in the Review Board case sued King County for defamation, citing the influence Hunt’s organization wielded over the prosecutor’s office.

Demand Abolition funded similar programs through CEASE in other jurisdictions, most notably in Cook County (Chicago), Illinois, where Sheriff Tom Dart leads a semiannual National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). Dart bills the initiative as a massive “sex trafficking” bust, heedless of the fact the operation rarely nabs any sex traffickers. Press releases from Dart’s office regarding the sweep thank Demand Abolition for its backing.

In an interview, Bass told Front Page Confidential that Demand Abolition halted its campaign to influence prosecutors “because they realized they were crossing the line.”

Indeed, Demand Abolition’s website speaks of the program in the past tense, stating that the organization’s “funding and direct oversight ended in March 2018” (though it continues to “collaborate informally” with cooperating cities in an effort to “to combat demand for paid sex”).

In her article, Bass explained that Demand Abolition has encouraged state and federal lawmakers to enact harsher statutes criminalizing prostitution, such as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which Congress passed in late March 2018. The law essentially makes it a federal crime to advertise prostitution online.

Bass rejects Demand Abolition’s premise that adult women cannot consent to be part of the sex trade. Minors in the commercial sex industry are automatically considered trafficking victims under federal law. But Bass says most sex workers in the U.S. who are over the age of eighteen are not trafficked.

“They are selling sex by choice,” Bass told Front Page Confidential. “And so it is erroneous to call this ‘trafficking.’ And I don’t care what Demand Abolition says; that’s not what the law says.”

H.L. Hunt: Rich Man, Bigamist

Swanee Hunt created the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where, according to the school’s website, she holds the title of Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy.

In her roles as an activist, academic, and philanthropist, Hunt has supported the empowerment of women in general, gender equity in the U.S., and the plight of women in Rwanda. She is a lifelong Democrat who has contributed millions to the party’s politicians and causes. On more than one occasion, she has admitted that a $250,000 donation in 1992 to Bill Clinton’s campaign for president helped pave the way for President Clinton to appoint her Ambassador to Austria in 1993.

Black-and-white headshot of H.L. Hunt, circa 1965
Swanee Hunt’s father, oil magnate and infamous bigamist H.L. Hunt, circa 1965 (via Wikimedia Commons [public domain])
The last of fifteen children sired by Texas billionaire, oil tycoon, and fervent anti-communist Haroldson Lafayette “H. L.” Hunt Jr., who died in 1974 at the age of 85, Swanee Hunt has access to untold millions. She uses some of that money to bankroll her Hunt Alternatives foundation, which reported nearly $60 million in disbursements from 2011 to 2016 (including funding for Demand Abolition), according to public filings with the IRS.

Alison Bass describes Hunt as a “second wave feminist,” referring to feminists who came of age in the 1960s, some of whom view prostitution and pornography as the consequences of a male-dominated society.

She likens Hunt to prominent feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Catharine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, who believe that all sex work is exploitive and objectifies women.

Bass believes that while sex work can be exploitive, some women feel empowered by it.

For Hunt, sex workers are female victims in need of rescue from the male pimps and johns who must be reined in by the law.

“Many of them are doing it for economic reasons and because they can earn a much better living,” Bass told Front Page Confidential. “And it allows them more flexibility — if they’re single mothers raising children or they’re trying to pay for tuition to get through school, that kind of thing.”

For Hunt, on the other hand, sex workers are female victims in need of rescue from the male pimps and johns who must be reined in by the law.

In a 2016 interview with CNN, Hunt explained that she began Demand Abolition in 2008 and traveled to Sweden and Norway to research what’s referred to as the “Nordic model,” in which law-enforcement agencies target the consumer side of consensual commercial sex.

“And so we looked at this model and said, ‘Would this work in the United States?'” Hunt told CNN. “Gee, we’d have to get all these laws that say it’s illegal for the men to buy [sex]. And then we discovered, no, we don’t have to — the laws are already there.”

In “Deconstructing Demand,” Hunt bolsters her arguments in favor of a war on sex buyers by citing a number of myths about prostitution and sex trafficking that have been repeatedly disproven but persist nonetheless.

Hunt states that the average age of girls entering prostitution is thirteen; that as many as 300,000 children are sold for sex every year in the United States; and that sex trafficking is a $9.5 billion-a-year business. All three purported factoids have long been discredited.

Hunt also trots out the spurious claim that the National Football League’s “machismo-driven” Super Bowl amounts to a sex-trafficking extravaganza. The assertion, a favorite of Hunt’s fellow multimillionaire heiress Cindy McCain, has been thoroughly debunked.

Though Hunt genuinely seems to want to help women, Demand Abolition’s efforts are making sex work more dangerous, not less, according to many advocates of sex workers’ rights. Those advocates contend that the passage of FOSTA and the seizure of the online listings giant — both of which Hunt supported — have robbed sex workers of the ability to screen customers and share information online about bad clients.

Bass pointed to a 2017 study by researchers at Baylor and West Virginia universities, which found that adult ads on Craigslist reduced the overall homicide rate for women by more than 17 percent on average.

In places where prostitution is not criminalized, Bass said, sex workers cooperate with police to capture actual sex traffickers and are more likely to practice safe sex, resulting in lower rates of HIV infection.

But there may be more at work in Hunt’s worldview than radical feminism.

Her father, H.L. Hunt, was an infamous philanderer who maintained two secret families in addition to the one he shared with his first wife, Lyda Bunker Hunt.

Swanee is the daughter of the woman who would become Hunt’s second wife, Ruth Ray Hunt, following the death of the first Mrs. Hunt. In her aptly titled 2006 memoir Half-Life of a Zealot — the writing of which she claims spared her “endless hours of psychotherapy” — Swanee Hunt describes how her intensely religious mother was a kept woman who was “completely dependent on my father” and lived with her four children, including Swanee, in a Dallas home within driving distance of the mansion where H.L. lived with Lyda Bunker Hunt.

The billionaire oilman would visit his second family when his first wife was off playing bridge, Swanee Hunt writes in her memoir. She describes her mother’s “anguish” at the situation, noting that because of it, Ruth Ray Hunt remained convinced that she was “an embarrassment to her children.”

(To further complicate matters, after Hunt’s death it was revealed that the rascally billionaire — said to be the model for J.R. Ewing in the TV series Dallas — had yet another family in Florida with a woman named Frania Tye, with whom he sired four children. Frania claimed to have secretly married Hunt in 1925.)

Her mother’s relationship to H.L. was a mystery in the early years of Swanee’s life, and she admits to wondering as a kid why she “didn’t have a daddy like the children next door” — one who’d come home at the end of the day, toss her in the air, and carry her on his shoulders.

Such lachrymose reminiscences may add some context to her anti-prostitution jeremiad.

Take, for instance, this passage from “Deconstructing Demand”:

With most monogamous couples, fidelity includes not only abstaining from sex with another person, but also honesty and transparency. Buying sex, however, is largely a secret affair that requires a web of deception involving one’s location, time, and money. Often buyers try to convince themselves and others that they are unfaithful because their partners do not fulfill their needs, shifting the blame. Even so, guilt stands between the two and further damages or destroys their relationship. When the truth comes out, partners may break up. Children’s lives are strained and they may well become disillusioned with their fathers.

See Also:
“Annual ‘Sex Trafficking’ Crackdown Nets Zero Sex Traffickers Nationwide — and Far Fewer Johns Than Previous Iterations”

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times,, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

One comment

  1. My only disagreement with this article is in labeling the money that Hunt and Demand Abolition shells out to law enforcement agencies as “donations”. Call me old-fashioned, but when someone privately pays public servants to do their bidding, the correct term is “bribery”.

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