1,020 charged in national sex trafficking sting” blared the headline in the Chicago Sun Times earlier this month. The news story was essentially a rewrite of a press release issued by the Cook County Sheriff’s office with a very similar headline trumpeting sex trafficking. There’s just one problem: most of the people arrested in this month-long sting spearheaded by Cook County were not traffickers or trafficking victims. They were people engaged in adult consensual prostitution.

The way police involved in this nationwide sting chose to spin their costly efforts to entrap the buyers and sellers of sex is just one more example of how law enforcement and others routinely conflate consensual prostitution with the far rarer instances of actual sex trafficking. According to federal law, trafficking victims are defined as people who have been forced or coerced into selling sex. In addition, anyone under the age of 18 who is selling sex is automatically considered a trafficking victim since they have not reached the age of consent.

But in this national sting operation, which cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, only six underage prostitutes were found out of a total 85 prostitutes. And as the Cook County release itself acknowledges, only 14 “pimps” were arrested and there is no evidence that any of them actually engaged in trafficking according to the legal definition.

It’s not just law enforcement that makes the mistake of conflating victimless sex work with trafficking. Many politicians do it as well. Just recently, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was quoted in a Minnesota paper as saying that the trucking industry is uniquely positioned to prevent human trafficking. While some underage prostitutes no doubt are trafficked at truck stops across the nation, most of what goes at these rest stops  involve consensual arrangements between adult women and truckers, not trafficking.Yet Klobuchar and others persist in conflating the two for their own political benefit.

This year, the month-long stings mostly involved police placing an ad online, waiting for the phones to ring and then setting up liaisons with the callers at hotels around town. When johns show up and offers the undercover female officers in the hotel room money for sex, they are arrested. But police also raided brothels and massage parlors as part of the operation.

In this year’s operation, law enforcement agencies made a point of saying they did not charge any sex workers detained with a crime as long as they agreed to go into rehabilitation. (If they didn’t avail themselves of  “recovery” services they did face arrest, according to a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s office.) Instead, the police in 37 agencies across the country, ranging from California to Maryland, arrested the buyers of sex, 1,020 men. All of these “johns” were charged with a misdemeanor (solicitation of sex) and slapped with a fine.

And that’s the crux of it. These annual stings have become a lucrative money-making operation for law enforcement agencies. Last year, Cook County collected $132,000 in fines from men who were busted for soliciting sex, according to Sam Randall, director of communications for the Sheriff’s office there.

You may have no problem with law enforcement making money off of men who are desperate for sex. But the problem here is that police are diverting a number of their best officers from pursuing more violent crimes to entrapping people who are mostly engaged in what many (including the sex workers themselves) say is a victimless crime. So instead of solving armed robberies or homicides or burglaries — crimes that the public really does care about — law enforcement agencies are spending their public dollars (which often includes overtime) arresting mostly adult sex workers and their hapless clients.

And this is not just a waste of taxpayer dollars, as I showed in much greater detail in my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law.  It’s also an enormous drain on the state and district attorney’s offices who have to prosecute these men, especially since many of them are not convicted in the end.

I’m all in favor of law enforcement throwing the book at true traffickers — men and women who prey on underage youth, most of whom have run away from homes where they have been abused and are selling sex for survival. But that’s not what’s happening here. Most of the buyers arrested in these stings are arrested in undercover sting operations or for soliciting adult women who are selling sex by choice.

As the head of an outreach center for sex workers in Washington, D.C. told me when I interviewed her for my book:

“It’s a massive waste of resources,” said Cyndee Clay, executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). “I would rather use that money stopping violent crime and arresting people who actually hurt others.”

The unfortunate truth is that it’s easier for law enforcement to place an ad online and sit back and wait for the phones to ring than it is to go after real traffickers who operate in the shadows. Or solve a homicide. These stings bring in money and makes the police look good. What’s not to like?

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post. 




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