Sex Work

'National Johns Suppression Initiative' Nets Nearly 1,000 Arrests for Attempted Sex

Only a few million arrests to go and surely we'll stamp out this prostitution fad, by golly...

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Tony Fischer Photography/Flickr

Every summer, police and prosecutors from around the country come together under the helpful tutelage of Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart to saddle men with criminal records for attempted sex. This year, the good Sheriff's "National Johns Suppression Initiative" netted 961 "sex buyers" across 18 states. Dart described it as a blow against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and children. 

Granted, the months-long effort of 39 law-enforcement units turned up fewer than 75 individuals suspected of anything tangentially related to sex trafficking (including "pimping, pandering or "promoting prostitution"). But police were able to arrest nearly 1,000 men who indicated they might like to pay adult women for sex, along with an untold number of sex workers themselves. Tomato, tomahto…

"This broad national movement should send a strong message to prospective johns that sex trafficking simply is not a victimless crime," said Dart, who has also been leading a crusade against the web-advertising site Backpage.com.

NBC Las Vegas described the stings as highlighting "the role of sex solicitors as perpetrators to this violent and exploitative industry." Newport News Police Detective Travis Gault described the strategy as "basically the prostitutes will disappear because you've gotten rid of anybody that wants it."

This summer's Johns Initiative will net law enforcement a minimum of $189,170 in fines for the solicitation arrests alone. Cook County arrested the most sex solicitors—150—but Houston and Harris County, Texas, were close, with 143 and 107 "john" arrests respectively. 

Dart's initiative, formerly known as the "National Day of John Arrests," has been gaining ground since its 2011 launch—last summer, only 500 prostitution clients were arrested. It's basically a vice-squad operation writ large over the entire nation and imbued with overstated moral urgency.

Over the four-year period, police stings—assisted by various federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI—have led to more than 4,000 arrests, mainly for crimes such as (consensual) prostitution or solicitation. Sometimes you see drug, loitering, or other charges thrown in there. Every so often, someone might even get arrested for sex trafficking. 

"Twice as many johns were rounded up as last year in the 12-day effort," Pittsburgh police bragged this week. The department arrested 61 men for solicitation, two men for drug charges, and nine women for prostitution as part of the 2015 Johns Suppression Initiative. "God only knows how many children we save," Detective Joseph Ryczaj told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  

There haven't been a lot of details released yet about this year's stings. Dart claims they uncovered 308 sex-trafficking victims, including 258 adults and 50 minors. But it's hard to say what this really means, since all minors engaged in sex work are labeled de facto victims by police, even when they're working 100 percent alone and of their own free will. And many police departments have started classifying sex workers of any age as trafficking victims—at least for public-relations purposes. After the press releases come out, however, these adult and teen sex workers are all-too-often arrested if they refuse to cooperate with cops, and sometimes even if they do.  

Pittsburgh's Detective Ryczaj said arresting sex workers is "the kindest thing you can do for them," because he thinks they're mostly homeless, drug addicts, or mentally ill. A criminal conviction "brings them into the system and provides them with services they may not have had access to," said Ryczaj. Chris Fischer, retired Dayton, Ohio, police sergeant, concurred: "When the johns pay for money for the sex act, all that's doing is going to our drug dealers." Dayton's efforts to thwart human trafficking involved the arrest of myriad "hookers," as local news described them, along with men soliciting sex. Two of the arrested individuals had their children taken into state custody. Others were arrested during the stings for "drug paraphernalia."

That's not to say that no real victims were found. Las Vegas police mention two women from California who were beaten and forced into prostitution, and one 16-year-old from Arizona who was threatened into selling sex. It's great they were able to find and hopefully help these victims. But the first incident was uncovered by a 911 call and another by patrol officers in a "known prostitution area." A third "potential human trafficking" incident was uncovered when neighbors saw a man smashing in the windows of a woman's car. None of these arrests had anything to do with the department's simultaneous john stings and prostitution busts.