Civil Liberties

64 Face Jail After Elaborate Sting Aimed at 'Ending Demand' For Prostitution in Houston

At least 270 arrested in Houston prostitution stings since start of 2014



Dozens of men face jail time and thousands of dollars in fines for offering to pay undercover Houston police officers for sex. The arrests were part of an elaborate prostitution sting using a police-run "modeling studio" advertised on The Houston Police Department (HPD) says these arrests will help "end demand" for sex trafficking. 

Granted, there's no reason to think any of the men arrested were seeking out sex-trafficking victims. Nor did they have reason to suspect that the women they were meeting were trafficked and not, as advertised, willing, adult sex workers (or, as not-advertised, undercover Houston police officers). But it plays so much better to tell the community you're catching sex traffickers than arresting average men for feeling a little lonely or horny and having the audacity to prefer purchasing sex directly. It's the same old vice squad, same old resource wasting, and same old results, of course, but now vice cops get to call themselves "trafficking task force" members. From the Houston Chronicle

The nondescript storefront at a southwest Houston shopping center did not carry a sign and was cloaked by thick curtains—for good reason. Sex was for sale inside. That's what scores of men believed in recent weeks as they stepped inside the building only to be snared by an elaborate sting at a bogus modeling studio opened by police.

The Houston Police Department on Wednesday announced an end to the operation after identifying 64 men who went to the fake business and agreed to buy sex from undercover officers. They were all charged with prostitution, a Class B misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail and as much as a $2,000 fine.

The sting, one of the largest in many years locally, was intended to cut into the city's burgeoning sex trafficking trade, which too often involves underage girls and women forced into prostitution, said HPD Capt. Dan Harris. By targeting customers, police hope to reduce demand for the illegal sex trade and protect women from exploitation. "Prostitution is not a victimless crime," said Harris, head of HPD's vice division. "It fuels the sex trafficking trade."

There's no real evidence that sex-trafficking is burgeoning in Houston, nor that it's filled with underage girls. Furthermore, there's no evidence that casting sporadic nets for would-be prostitution clients is at all effective at thwarting actual sex traffickers or helping actual victims. But police, in Houston and elsewhere, routinely repeat assertions like these, and media outlets (particularly TV news stations) routinely relay them unquestioningly.

The Houston Chronicle, however, offers up a little skepticism that such sting operations are the best use of police resources:

In a city where a recent manpower study noted that in 2013 HPD did not investigate 21,000 burglaries, assaults and hit-and-run accidents with workable leads, some residents questioned the use of limited resources to arrest low-level offenders.

"Honestly, I think they should be going after burglars, people who are breaking into cars," said Kafayat Ayodele, who shops at a Chinese grocery store in the mall. "Last year I went into a bank across the street, and there was a smash and grab. They broke into my car, took my purse, and I called police, and it took them almost three hours to get here."

Local lawyers and other residents in the neighborhood where police conducted the sting agreed.

Phillip Lyons, interim dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, said there is evidence that these sorts of prostitution stings deter one thing: "married men who are otherwise law-abiding" from attempting to pay for sex. As with all policies that crack down on "johns," this won't stop demand for sexual services, but it may dampen demand among a more wealthy, educated, or image-conscious clientele—leaving sex workers with more need to accept less savory clients.    

A policy that makes life more dangerous for sex workers, saddles innocent men with criminal records, and does not a darn thing to catch anyone who might actually be trafficking individuals for sex? Well done, HPD. Though the department did not release the budget for the sting operation, officers have been operating it since late January, and planning it for longer. The HPD's vice division employs 55 officers, who investigate gambling operations and sexually oriented businesses, according to the Chronicle. A recent HPD staffing report said the division needs more manpower, as it doesn't have time to conduct yearly inspections of the city's 72 strip clubs, 57 adult bookstores, and 140 spas and massage parlors.

February's prostitution sting is far from an anomaly in Houston. In January 2015, 100 alleged clients and 14 alleged sex workers were arrested in Harris County, where Houston is located, as part of a two-week prostitution sting, undertaken in conjunction with the "National Day of Johns Arrests" campaign. Last July and August, the Harris County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) arrested 23 alleged sex workers and 76 alleged clients during a three-week sting operation. A Houston sting in May 2014 led to 18 arrests and, in January 2014, an HCSO sting resulted in 57 arrests.