Civil Liberties

Justice Department Distorts Sex-Trafficking Arrest Numbers

Loretta Lynch claims "hundreds of sex traffickers" were recently arrested by the FBI. It's not true.


In early November, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a gathering of law-enforcement officials from around the world that the FBI had recently arrested "hundreds of sex traffickers" in its annual "Operation Cross Country" sting. It's not true.

The operation, ostensibly meant to save sex-trafficking victims, did lead to the arrest of hundreds of individuals, but many of them were sex workers themselves, not traffickers. In addition, men who solicited prostitution were arrested, along with people described by the FBI only as "pimps." According to an initial FBI press release, "150 pimps" were arrested around the country in the latest sting.

But an untold number of these "pimps" were never actually charged with a crime—in Virginia, for instance, three of 12 "pimps" were released with no charges and two more were juveniles (i.e., not subject to federal sex-trafficking charges). The FBI has not, however, revised its totals since putting out the initial Operation Cross Country press release.

Even if all 150 "pimps" had been charged, that still doesn't support Lynch's statement. For one thing, 150 can hardly be described as "hundreds." For another, pimping is not—legally speaking—the same thing as sex trafficking.

While federal sex trafficking charges require either the use of force, fraud, or coercion or the involvement of a minor, pimping and related charges come at the state or municipal level and can apply to anyone who transports, helps, or receives anything of financial value from a sex worker—no force, fraud, coercion, or minors required.

As Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler pointed out yesterday, "the language regarding the crime of sex trafficking has become so fuzzy that even the nation's top law enforcement officer can speak before an international audience and utter wildly inflated statistics." After fact-checking Lynch's statement, Kessler deemed it "clearly false."

But exaggerating the number of bad guys apprehended by the FBI is only part of the problem here. At the same time, officials talking about Operation Cross Country downplay the number of arrests for those not involved in sex trafficking.

"The FBI, for several years, used to reveal exactly how many people were rounded up through Cross Country," explains Kessler. FBI data from 2008-2010 shows that around 240 minors engaged in prostitution were found, while around 3,187 adults were arrested on other charges, mainly prostitution. In October 2008 stings, for instance, 518 people were arrested for prostitution, while 124 people were arrested on unspecified other charges. But beginning in 2010, the FBI stopped releasing total arrest numbers. "Instead, officials only listed the number of juveniles recovered and 'pimps' arrested, though there is little indication that many of the pimps were related to the children recovered," Kessler reports.

Using data compiled from local news reports (by me and sex worker activist Emi Koyami), however, Kessler was able to get some indication of total arrest numbers in the past few years. Overall, at least 6,000 adult sex workers "and probably far more… have been rounded up as part of an effort that found 738 children engaged in the sex trade," he notes. That's about eight sex-worker arrests for every underage "victim" found.

Victim is also a loose concept here, though. Under federal law, anyone under 18 who is engaged in prostitution is defined as a sex-trafficking victim, regardless of whether they're working on their own. And research on U.S. minors in the sex trade shows that most do, in fact, operate independently. While this (underage prostitution) may not be something we, as a society, want, it's a far cry from teens trapped in the sex trade by evil pimps and sex-trafficking rings, and requires different solutions. As it stands, many of the teens "rescued" during Operation Cross Country are sent right back out to the streets if they refuse a very narrow range of services from their law-enforcement "liberators."

"There have been no records kept of the number of pimps who were arrested specifically for trafficking in underage children" during Operation Cross Country, notes Kessler. Nor have FBI kept track of how many "pimps" were accused of using force, fraud, or coercion. "Instead," writes Kessler, "government officials appear to believe they can boost their success rate by slapping the word 'sex trafficker' on adults who have been arrested even though such charges have not — and could not— be brought in a court of law."