The Feds Keep Arresting Sex Workers

How "trafficking" stings ensnare consenting adult women


After a squad of federal agents detained the Anchorage sex worker "Alanna" in October, she described the experience as a "scary" one that left her feeling "violated."

The agents reportedly failed to take her claims of asthma and anxiety attacks seriously, refusing to call for medical help until she dialed 911 herself. They also seized her phone—confiscating irreplaceable family photos—despite the fact that she was not arrested or charged with a crime.

Alanna's offense was agreeing to meet with an undercover agent who had responded to her online ad for sensual massages. She was caught up in Operation Cross Country (OCC), the FBI's massive, annual, multi-day, national vice sting conducted under the guise of stopping sexual predators.

In October, federal officials announced the end of this round of stings on "pimps, prostitutes, and their customers"—the 11th such operation to date. Insisting that their "primary goal is to recover children," the agency touted the 84 minors that had been discovered in the effort—mostly teenagers working in prostitution, with or without pimps. There was also one baby of a sex worker; one 16-year-old who happened to be in the car with a sex worker who was busted; and two kids who had not been trafficked but were at risk of being exploited by a family acquaintance in touch with undercover FBI agents.

As in past years, the vast majority of the arrests that took place in conjunction with Operation Cross Country XI had nothing to do with helping children or saving victims of human trafficking. Instead, most were adult women taken in on prostitution charges.

In last year's Operation Cross Country, nearly 1,000 people around the country were arrested for prostitution with the help of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies. Fewer than a dozen people were booked on federal charges as a result, and the prosecutions that did arise included no children being sex trafficked by force or threat.

OCC XI yielded similar results. Federal agents helped small-town and city cops carry out elaborate stings that did little more than nab a few young women. In Cheektowaga, New York, the FBI assisted in arresting five women on misdemeanor prostitution charges and found no sex trafficking victims or perpetrators. In Utah, agents helped bust seven adults for prostitution and one man in conjunction with an adult sex worker, finding no minors or traffickers. In Mississippi, 13 were arrested on prostitution charges but no minors or traffickers found.

In the San Francisco area, with the FBI's aid, one 17-year-old was found advertising sexual services online and 27 unrelated adult women were arrested for prostitution. Twelve people were also rounded up for soliciting prostitution, four for pimping, and four for parole violations. In San Diego, the FBI helped arrest one adult sex worker and her driver, also picking up a 16-year-old who had not been advertised for sex but was with them.

The line between victim and bystander (or perpetrator) has always been blurred in Operation Cross Country. A young woman arrested in a previous effort had her name and mugshot published by law enforcement before they realized she was only 17. After moving her to their victim "rescue" tally—and upgrading her boyfriend from local to federal charges—they simply took her home. She continued selling sex on her own before hooking up with another pimp.

"The vice agents pretty much just took me to my parents' house and dropped me off," she says. "Never offered any counseling, any emotional/physical support. They just wanted to get me out of their way."

About a year later she was picked up in another undercover sting. This time, having turned 18, she was arrested for prostitution (a misdemeanor) and possessing a small quantity of marijuana (a felony). The conviction shattered her dreams of someday becoming a nurse.

Now, she says, "I'm a single mother with a felony and I will be labeled as a loser and a whore for the rest of my life." Mere months ago, she was being exploited. Today, for the same behavior, she's a criminal.

Announcing the 2017 results, FBI Director Christopher Wray said OCC "isn't just about taking traffickers off the street. It's about making sure we offer help and a way out to these young victims who find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of abuse."