Sex Work

More Than 400 Arrests in 'Operation Traveling Circus'

Obviously, the vice cops are the clowns here. Unfortunately, their idea of entertainment is depriving people of their liberty and livelihoods.


Gilbert Mercier/Flickr

A Houston-area prostitution sting with the inexplicable name "Operation Traveling Circus" led to more than 400 arrests in the first two months of 2016. A joint operation of the Houston Police Department (HPD), the Harris County Sheriff's Office (HCSO), the Harris County District Attorney's Office, and the Houston chapter of the YMCA, Operation Traveling Circus was described by law-enforcement as a coalition of "vice task forces from the various agencies [engaging] in a multi-faceted operation to identify victims of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, arrest the consumer base of "johns" and weed out traffickers who capitalize on the illicit sex industry in our community." 

"We want word to get out to the johns and the pimps that it is not a free for all," said Dan Harris, Vice Division Captain with HPD, at a press conference. "There is a risk. You go solicit a woman, you might very well be soliciting an undercover officer." 

And that's the crux of it: Like most vice stings disguised as victim-centered investigations, this "traveling circus" featured the identification of no actual sex-trafficking victims and zero arrests of human traffickers. But the January 4 through Feburary 26 operation did yield hundreds of men who sought to pay what they thought was a willing, adult sex worker for company. To spin this as somehow related to sex trafficking, officials trotted out the much-debunked idea that sporting events are catnip to human-traffickers, who will be eager to descend on Houston in the coming months as sporting events pick up there. Making men afraid to pay for prostitution now is simply an effort to deprive these mythical future sex traffickers of their client base, officials explained. 

Women attempting to sell sex were also arrested during the operation, but their mug shots were not made public at a press event or in a Flickr album, as the mugshots of men arrested were. Epitomizing cop-style compassion (and cluelessness), Assistant DA Anne Johnson explained that the sex-worker mugshots wouldn't be posted publicly because "many are caught in prostitution, known on the streets as 'the game,' where their bodies are treated as cash cows by their pimps."


Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said officers had to arrest potential vicitms in order to jumpstart the "process." After arrest, booking, and a "forensic interview," law enforcement would "identify those who are trafficked from those who are working prostitutes" so those selling sex on their own could be prosecuted, while victims would have the charges dropped and gain access to some sort of nebulous social services.

Harris County and Houston law-enforcement were the ones who consulted on the canceled A&E "reality" show 8 Minutes, in which female sex workers were solicited to play "sex trafficking victims" on camera for TV producers. When those who did actually want help leaving prostitution tried to get it from show producers, they were ignored or given phone numbers to over-booked nonprofits they had already tried. At least one of them was later arrested by the Harris County officers in a sting. 

In Operation Traveling Circus, more than 200 of the 400 people arrested were "johns" who tried to solicit sex from an undercover officer, according to the HCSO. It's unclear if the rest of the arrests were of sex workers or not. These sorts of stings frequently lead to arrests for things like outstanding warrants, drug possession, or unaurhotized gun possession, as well.  

On second thought, maybe the "Traveling Circus" moniker is apt, after all for this operation. Obviously, the vice cops are the clowns here. Unfortunately, their idea of entertainment is depriving people of their liberty and livelihods because they dare try to mix money and sex, then inviting people online and in their communities to watch the show.