Cuff the Johns

05.22.131:58 PM ET

The Prostitutes Aren’t the Problem: Targeting the Johns

Law-enforcement agents are trying a revolutionary new approach in the fight against prostitution: punish the johns and help the prostitutes. But will it actually work?

They could be anyone—at least, anyone with a Y chromosome—but they’re usually white. Older, in their 40s or 50s. Almost always, they have a high-school diploma, and probably a college education too. Maybe even a university professorship. Most likely, they’re in a committed relationship or married. The most frequent offenders are also rich, with an average income of around $140,000. These are the men that Sgt. Daniel Steele and his police force hunt on Denver’s streets and in the backwaters of the Internet. They try to lure them in with reverse stings—hoping the guys will mistake the friendly female on the other end of an online ad for a prostitute rather than a cop. They collect names, emails, phone numbers, and hotel-room dates and times from rescued women. They are trying to track down the johns.

Steele’s push to target the men who buy sex is at the forefront of a growing trend in American law enforcement based on the idea that the best way to reduce prostitution is to crack down on demand. Seems simple, but for years, the brunt of social and official stigma has fallen squarely on the supply side. Johns are seen as “regular people, the guy next door,” says Steele, who also supervises the FBI Rocky Mountain “Innocence Lost” Task Force that rescues children from sexual exploitation. He points to a 2012 study by Denver’s Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, which found that most respondents “would say the people who are purchasing sex are family guys ... whereas they looked at people who were selling sex as criminals.”

“We need to look at that, and say, ‘Hey, they’re committing the same exact offense. Why are we treating them differently?” Steele says.

Steele brought his expertise in targeting johns to Dallas last week to collaborate with a host of law-enforcement departments and NGOs from across the nation in a strategic planning session run by Demand Abolition. Founded by former ambassador Swanee Hunt as part of her Hunt Alternatives Fund (which also includes the renowned Institute for Inclusive Security), the organization aims to “shift the attention towards the buyers of sex and hold them accountable for the role they play in perpetuating sex trafficking and other forms of prostitution,” says Director of Policy and Outreach Lina Nealon, “so that people are no longer purchased for sex in the United States.”

While hard and fast numbers in the U.S. are hard to come by, the United Nations estimates that the  international sex industry generates close to $32 billion a year. But Demand Abolition and its partners have encouraging statistics to back up their strategy. Take Sweden: a decade ago, the Scandinavian country outlawed the buying of sex while legalizing its sale, so that women in the trade would no longer be rounded up and thrown in jail.  “They really were targeting prostitution as violence against women,” says Nealon. “And in five years, street prostitution went down by 40 percent; it went down by 80 percent in 10 years.” What’s more, Nealon says, Sweden came to be known among traffickers and pimps as an undesirable market, while business boomed in neighboring Finland. “What we see from law-enforcement in Sweden, they have wiretaps of pimps saying, ‘We’re not going to Sweden—it’s high-risk, low-reward,’” she says. “And that’s what we want to try to do here.”

Of course, it’s not just traffickers who notice when law enforcement steps up its arrests of customers—the johns notice, too. In January of this year, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) published a study of local “john boards,” or online forums where men discuss their favorite places to frequent prostitutes and rate the girls. The study found that “johns discuss law enforcement efforts to curb prostitution” and that “ ‘reverse stings’ that target men who buy sex [create] energetic discussions among johns about whether or not to continue buying sex.” (On the contrary, when police cracked down on the prostitutes, the study noted it did “not appear to deter the men on these boards from purchasing sex.”)

Part of the reason that johns are so alert to the possibility of a crackdown is precisely because they are the so-called “guys next door”—and have a lot to lose if they get busted. Unlike traffickers and pimps, who already operate on society’s margins, “buyers aren’t your typical offender population,” says Nealon. It scares them to “see that the police are going to arrest them rather than send them home to their wife and kids, which is what historically has been happening.” As a result, certain police departments have started to put their official insignia on and other sex-industry ad sites, and to assign their officers to patrol an online “beat,” in order to send buyers a message that they’re being watched.

In addition to arrests, men are also typically deterred by the possibility of large fines or of having their car impounded, says Marian Hatcher, the special projects assistant for the Sheriff’s Women’s Justice Programs in Cook County, Illinois. (In her district, police have been known to tell the offender that if his wife comes to pick up the auto, the car will be released free of charge. No one has taken them up on the offer.) Hatcher also notes that certain jurisdictions have found success with publishing pictures or names in local newspapers or on the Internet. “I’m not saying we agree with it,” she says, but “once you’re on the Internet, you’re on the Internet forever. These pictures and mug shots and names don’t go away.” Other things that men say would deter them from buying sex, according to Demand Abolition’s research: being put on a sex-offender registry (88 percent of men interviewed say it would deter them); having a letter sent to their primary residence (82 percent); and losing their automobile (71 percent).

Hatcher and her colleagues have started to put this research into action at the Cook County Sheriff’s office, coordinating a National Day of Johns Arrest, which began last year around Columbus Day. Turns out, it’s not actually a day but a series of covert campaigns by law-enforcement partners across the country to crack down on buyers. Past partners have included the LAPD, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dayton, Boston, Nashville, Seattle, and Denver. Indianapolis joined up in time for the Super Bowl last year, when trafficking and sex sales traditionally spike. Since the project’s inception, Cook County alone has arrested 1,150 johns and seized more than 400 cars, Hatcher says. They are currently calculating how much money they’ve generated in fines and penalties—each operation typically nets hundreds of thousands of dollars for the various partners—and in Cook County, that money goes back into services to help prostituted women exit the sex trade.

This component—offering women alternative job training and rehabilitation resources—is key, Hatcher and Demand Abolition’s Nealon agree. “When you’re talking about reducing the demand, what you’re doing is taking away the livelihood of women and children, whether or not they want to be there—with the majority not wanting to be there—but still, there has to be something in place for them,” Nealon says. “The job training, the security, the mental-health counseling—there are programs around the country, although not enough.”

As it happens, Cook County has one of the most innovative models of helping women get out of “the life.” In fact, Hatcher herself is “a product of that program,” she says. The pilot started at a time in the late ’90s, under then–sheriff Michael Sheahan, when the number of incarcerated women was skyrocketing, both in Illinois and nationally. The program was so successful that it has continued on under Cook County’s current sheriff, Tom Dart. When a prostitute is picked up, the sheriff’s human-trafficking response team is called in and a staff clinician determines whether the woman needs to go to a drug-treatment facility or the hospital (often for mental-health issues). “After they begin to stabilize, we provide them with the way out,” Hatcher says. “We can make sure that they get everything they need to get out of the life.”

Of course, sometimes women refuse the services being offered. “A lot of the time they’re under the influence … they’re not in any condition to be able to make a healthy choice,” Hatcher says. “Sometimes traffickers will be sitting outside waiting for them—all kinds of scenarios where they’re coerced, whether it’s in front of you or whether it’s in their head.” In these instances, local judges can court-order the services. Even those women who prefer to take the jail time get assigned to a residential treatment program inside the prison, with an array of services on offer, from psychological therapy to rehab and re-entry services. Around 2,000 women come through the program annually. “The thing that is really unique about it is that a woman’s after-care program planning starts when she comes into our program, when she enters the jail walls,” Hatcher says.

Thanks to the efforts of Hatcher, Sergeant Steele, Nealon, and others, a cultural shift seems to be slowly but surely underway. Preventative education programs, “john schools,” and public-awareness campaigns are helping to “debunk the myth of prostitution as a victimless crime between consenting adults,” says Nealon. Most important, police are starting to view prostitutes not just as drug-addled criminals but as women in need of a community’s help. After all, as Hatcher points out, the average age of entry for most women in the sex trade is between 12 and 14. At that age, they are technically trafficking victims under federal law. But when these girls turn 18, they are suddenly considered consenting adults. “Somehow empathy drops after a girl becomes 18,” Nealon says, “even though she’s been in the life for five years.”

Police are also starting to recognize that a basic power imbalance exists in the buying and selling of sex, says Steele. He teaches cops to recognize that “the guys out there purchasing sex, at a bare minimum, they are equal [to the women] ... but quite honestly, they’re proliferating the crime,” he says. “Here you have this guy who has everything that he could want in the world, and lives in a nice house in the suburbs and drives a BMW and he feels the need to come down and commit the same offense as a woman who’s living in an impoverished community, who was victimized and exploited probably when she was 14 years old, and forced into the sex industry—and she may be 22 now, and may not be under pimp control.”

The bottom line, Steele says of targeting johns: “There’s a completely different situation there of two people committing the same offense.”