Operation Cross Country X: Everything You Need to Know About the FBI's Annual 'Underage Human Trafficking' Sting In One Chart

Sex workers and their customers made up 72 percent of arrests in this "underage human trafficking" operation. Human traffickers? One percent.


The results have been pouring in from Operation Cross Country X, the FBI's tenth annual, nationwide sex sting targeting what the agency describes as "underage human trafficking." Each year, FBI agents across America team up with police officers, sheriff's deputies, state attorneys, Homeland Security investigators, and others for a few days of posing as people buying or selling sex. This year, "hundreds of law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers," the FBI reported. Seventy-four FBI-led "Child Exploitation Task Forces" orchestrated operations in 103 U.S. cities, with more than 400 different law-enforcement agencies participating in the October 13-16 efforts. And the payoff? According to the FBI, "82 sexually exploited juveniles" were recovered and "239 pimps and other individuals" arrested. The average age of the minors was just under 16-years-old.

"This is a depressing day in law enforcement," said FBI Director James Comey, announcing Operation Cross Country 10 (OCCX) results at an International Association of Chiefs of Police gathering last week.

Comey's right—it is a depressing day in law enforcement. But not for the reasons he would have us believe. What's depressing is watching authorities congratulate themselves—and the media follow suit—on fighting child sexual-exploitation in America when the bulk of OCCX efforts involved cops contacting adult female sex workers while posing as customers and then arresting them, if not also seizing the women's money and throwing them in jail. Take a look at just who got caught up in OCCX, by the numbers:


The chart above does not reflect all minors identified or arrests made in OCCX. But of the "more than 400" U.S. law-enforcement agencies that participated, the sample I'm pulling from includes, at my best estimation, 367 of them, including divisions of 12 federal agencies (such as the IRS Criminal Investigations Unit, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Administration). I compiled it over the past week using information from law-enforcement and media reports. It includes 79 of the FBI's stated 82 juveniles identified, ecompasses sting efforts in 30 states, and includes many metropolitan areas that are portrayed by police as hubs of human trafficking, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Within this sample, nearly three-quarters of all arrests were for simple solicitation or prostitution—that is, men and women trying to participate in consensual commercial sex. Some of the "criminals" the FBI helped take down in this operation included a homeless Wyoming woman who was allegedly selling sex and carrying marijuana and a 61-year-old woman offering sex from an upstate New York hotel room. In El Paso, "about 20 agents and officers with the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, El Paso Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety took part" in a bust that led to the arrest of one 18-year-old woman on charges of fraud, theft, and tampering with government records and one 18-year-old woman for prostitution.

Had the 18-year-old El Paso sex-worker been just slightly younger, the FBI could have added her to its "rescued minors" roster: Anyone under age 18 found to be offering sexual-services for pay is considered a sex-trafficking victim under federal law. It needn't require the minor to have been abducted, held captive, or coerced into the sex trade; to have a pimp; or to be working with anyone else at all. In most cases, FBI efforts to "rescue" girls starts the same as the process for busting adult women: make contact via online ad and, once a girl or woman meets in person at a hotel and offers sex, detain them. Those neither underage nor claiming to have been trafficked are arrested for prostitution, while juveniles are returned to their parents or placed in state protective custody.

As Sydney Brownstone writes at The Stranger, "no one, including sex worker advocates, wants minors (or anyone) to be abused in the sex trade." (And just to be clear, no one's advocating to decriminalize knowingly paying minors for sex.) But "the world of sex work is a lot bigger—and a lot more complex—than projects like [Operation Cross Country] depict. Local sex workers and international organizations like Amnesty International say that decriminalizing sex work, and allowing sex workers to exercise their labor rights, would help prevent exploitation, rape, and other abuses, including abuses of minors." And even short of decriminalizing adult prostitution, there are better ways to address underage prostitution than the raid-and-rescue model perpetuated here, which tries to address issues of poverty and marginalization by playing heroes and villains.

Regardless how old someone selling sex is or how willing their involvement, anyone accompanying them may be arrested as a "pimp." In Arkansas, for instance, any men who accompanied adult, female sex workers to OCCX hotel "dates" with undercover cops were arrested for promoting prostitution. In Oklahoma, a man was arrested on federal charges for driving his 18-year-old girlfriend, who was willingly selling sex, across state lines. In Mississippi, a man from out of state who was visiting his 22-year-old daughter was arrested for promoting prostitution because, as Southaven Police Lieutenant Mark Little told Fox 13, he was not forcing his daughter into prostitution but was aware she was doing it. The man's neighbor back home said he was shocked by the arrest and "Something is wrong. He just went to visit her."

These are all people the FBI refers to as "pimps," because pimp is a term vague but sinister enough that most casual observers assume the worst. But just to be perfectly clear, there needn't be any deception, coercion, force, nor minors involved for someone to be charged with "pimping" or related charges, such as "promoting prostitution" (the most common) or "pandering." And included in FBI totals for "pimps and other individuals" are some men merely convicted of solicitation of prostitution—that is, responding to someone they thought was an adult sex worker who, in the case of OCCX, was actually an undercover cop.

One might reasonably assume OCCX targeted organized crime networks, transient traffickers, or similarly multi-jurisdictional bad guys, at least. But no—despite the fact that there's no federal law against prostitution, the biggest part of this FBI-led operation was the arrest of hundreds of individual women (and a few men) on prostitution charges and more than 130 individual men for soliciting sex from adult women. And while there were some cases of genuine exploitation and abuse uncovered, these were few and far between cases of people arrested for trying to participate in consensual, adult prostitution.

People often say, "if it saves even one child victim, it's worth it." But there's simply no reason why saving said victims requires cops to arrest hundreds of adult women, or even one, for selling sex. We don't round up and arrest car dealers when there's an auto thief on the loose.

It wasn't only sex workers arrested in OCCX without having any relationship to exploited children. In practice, Operation Cross Country serves as a sort of quasi-federal vice sting. This October's efforts yielded arrests for driving on a suspended license; marijuana, meth, and heroin possession; outstanding warrants unrelated to prostitution; and more. Many of the men arrested—whom news headlines, just to remind you, are describing as child sex traffickers—did nothing more than show up to meet with an undercover cop they thought was an adult sex worker. The following chart gives as detailed an account as I could* muster-up about the "pimps and other individuals," as well as potential victims, identified by the FBI.

This chart does not include people whom authorities merely caught and either detained or sent a text-message warning to in several sex-worker and "john" stings. The "pie" represented here is people either arrested or counted as victims in the Operation Cross Country X stings I analyzed, a group we will (for lack of better phrasing) refer to to as those who had a significant interaction with OCCX task forces.

OCCX arrests

So, of the people police had a significant interaction with in this operation, around 7.5 percent were those who could at least legally be classified as "underage human trafficking victims" and around 0.8 percent were potential adult victims of sex trafficking. A little more than half of the people police had significant interactions with were adults, almost exclusively women, who wound up arrested on prostitution charges. The next largest chunk of interactions was with men arrested for trying to pay for sex.

If we zero in on arrests only, adult sex workers and their would-be customers make up around 72 percent of all interactions. Arrests on suspicion of human trafficking make up 1 percent.

In pouring through press releases from FBI field-offices along and all of the local-media accounts of OCCX I could find, I've identified approximately:

  • 534 arrests for prostitution
  • 163 arrests for attempting to pay an adult for sex (solicitation)
  • 145 arrests for charges such as pimping, pandering, promoting prostitution, or contributing to the delinquency of a minor
  • 14 arrests for attempting to pay an undercover-cop pretending to be a teenage-girl for sex
  • 10 people arrested on human-trafficking charges
  • 9 people arrested for "keeping a bawdy place," in conjunction with massage-parlor prostitution businesses in Virginia

* I want to be clear that while I've been as careful and thorough as I could in a reasonably quick amount of time, these numbers shouldn't be taken as anything more than a well-informed estimation of OCCX results. Even if I tallied everything perfectly, my data comes from cross-checking such notoriously vague and unreliable sources as law-enforcement statements and local TV-network reports. In the not-so-distant future, a project I'm working on with the Reason Foundation's criminal justice reform director should produce some more concrete data.

NEXT: Female Genital Mutilation Remains Widespread in Many Countries

FBI Operation Cross Country Police Sex Trafficking Sex Crimes Civil Asset Forfeiture Moral Panic Sex Sex Work Federal Agencies

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18 responses to “Operation Cross Country X: Everything You Need to Know About the FBI's Annual 'Underage Human Trafficking' Sting In One Chart

  1. ENB, a rare rational voice distinguishing its angelic warble and tenor from the scribbling hacking scribe throngs.

    The culture of man is such that sexuality remains caged inside moldy moralities and the decrepit dysfunction of orgasm fright hammered for centuries into the fucking social milieus.

    We are the genetic offspring of a goddamn alarmist puritanism that clothes itself in the chains of bureaucratic oppression and long-winded charlatan castles.

    The earth is shuffling toward disaster and the fucking law and order crowd can’t resist popping their loads on the shivering cuffed wrists of poor spinsters and lonely fucks caught renting kisses.

    No amount of explanation can make plausible the vicious hunting of the comfortless by the bully state.

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    2. If you trivialize the sexual slavery of underage girls (in many instances) and other at-risk young women and men, you haven’t thought it through. This is not two consenting adults, mind you! Perhaps you are not aware of the many kidnapped and exploited young people tangled within these disgusting webs.

  2. 1%. Impressive. I’m not sure the “aggregation principle”, even, could provide a justification. – My respect for the data mining; going through what the government does with numbers rarely inspires the will to live.

    (Also, there’s always trouble with the 1%.)

  3. I always assumed the fact that most arrests were for simple prostitution is a feature, not a bug. The cops are much less likely to face bullets taking down a simple hooker than trying to arrest a REAL child trafficker.

    This sounds like a combination of ‘Hey, let’s earn some free propaganda and gain a bigger budget’ and ‘Hey, it’s ‘Give a Cop a Free Blow Job’ week again. WooHoo!’

    1. Real child trafficking (as in actual children aka preteens) is so damned rare in the US that focusing on it would leave most of these cops sitting on their ass, thus funds being removed, thus people losing cushy positions. Places where children are more commonly selling their bodies for sexual favors happens in countries where taboos about child sexuality were never and often still aren’t as strong as elsewhere, thus busting in and taking them away from their source of money thus food and health often confuses and upsets them. Again, even in such countries (think certain Asian countries) actual child sex slavery is rare.

  4. 9 people arrested for “keeping a bawdy place,” in conjunction with massage-parlor prostitution businesses in Virginia

    Swearengen’s Gem Saloon is in Virginia now?

    of the people police had a significant interaction with in this operation, around 7.5 percent were those who could at least legally be classified as “underage human trafficking victims” and around 0.8 percent were potential adult victims of sex trafficking. A little more than half of the people police had significant interactions with were adults, almost exclusively women, who wound up arrested on prostitution charges. The next largest chunk of interactions was with men arrested for trying to pay for sex.

    And thus ends the scourge of prostitution throughout this great land.

    1. There was recently a story on the radio here in Indianapolis about a massage parlor that was giving ‘happy endings’.

      They had some ‘woman on the street’ interview with a neighbor who was griping:

      I can’t believe this was right down the street. This is disgusting. etc.

      While my thought was:

      I can’t believe this was right down the street. I’m disgusted. Why in the hell didn’t anyone TELL me about this place?

      Here is a link to a very basic story about it:

      1. This is the second prostitution arrest at the spa in just over a year. A woman named Zhi Huang, 44, was arrested there in August after she reportedly went too far while massaging an officer.

        Police are looking into getting the spa’s permit pulled.

        Seems an awful lot like he heard about the spa from his friend Bill. Once they eventually get all the bills outta the place, then their permit will probably get pulled.

      2. Domina: A common flesh-peddler in the house next to ours, disgusting!
        Senex: Disgraceful, all that revolting flesh. Just next door?

    2. ….keeping a bawdy place….

      Does that hearken back to the days of handle barred mustachioed gentlemen sharing ribald tales at the local tonsorial parlor? One can almost imagine Lemuel flipping through a copy of Comely Ankles with the strong scent of witch hazel in the air. One can see Officer McCluskey peering in the window, baton at the ready, waiting for his chance to break up anything unpleasant.

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  6. I wasn’t going to read the post, just check the comments to see if anyone noticed the resemblance between the graph and someone giving the finger.

  7. It’s about the narrative, and the narrative must be supported.

    It serve’s politicians who can call for more to be done and claim look at what we’ve done to combat this heinous crime of juvenile exploitation.

    It serves the media, who love a good compelling click bait of a story, and getting their name out there for a good cause.

    It serves law enforcement, and makes really wonderful PR when they need all they can get and what’s wrong with you that you don’t support law enforcement. Comes in handy when it’s time to submit the annual budget, too. Need more resources to rescue more juveniles from sex slavery.

    And finally, but by absolutely no means least, it’s for the children. You do love children, don’t you? No, then you ergo hate children, as the two poles are indeed mutually exclusive with no quibbling allowed.

    So, Reason,org. you must stop fucking with such a good thing.

  8. I am sorry, a teenager selling themselves for sex is not a child being forced to have sex for money that is then stolen from them.

    The hysterical rhetoric is just a means to keep people scared, keep the votes coming in, keep the funds coming in and keep control of the population.

    It isn’t actually about helping or protecting anyone.

    The best way to help and protect prostitutes and minors would be to lower the age of majority to 16 and legalize prostitution. That way grown women will be able to make their own decisions and LEAs can focus on actual cases of abuse or actual young girls (or boys) being pimped.

  9. Is it safe to say this isn’t a problem? Because, compared to the scale of teen prostitution, these arrests are very rare events.

  10. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….

    …….. http://www.jobprofit9.com

  11. If prostitution were legal then customers and employers would be ale to check if their prostitutes were underage. As it is all you can do is say “She looked 18”. If the Feds really want people to stop selling child sex, make it possible to check the IDs of prostitutes by making it legal.

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