Why police erroneously label nationwide prostitution arrests as trafficking stings

08/26/2017 11:04 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2017

“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 arrests in the sex trafficking sting. There’s just one problem: most of the people arrested in this month-long operation spearheaded by Cook County were not traffickers or trafficking victims. They were people attempting to engage 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 far rarer instances of actual sex trafficking. According to federal law, trafficking victims are defined as women and men 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 millions 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, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) was quoted in a Minnesota paper as saying that the trucking industry is uniquely positioned to prevent human trafficking. Yet while some underage prostitutes are no doubt trafficked at truck stops across the nation, most of what goes at these rest areas involve consensual arrangements between adult women and truckers, not trafficking. Yet Klobuchar and others persist in conflating the two for their own political benefit.

At least in this year’s sting 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.) Instead, the police in 37 agencies across the country, ranging from California to Maryland, arrested the buyers of sex, 1,020 men. Most of these arrests occurred after police placed an ad for sex online and then set up liaisons with callers at hotels around town. When the men showed up and offered the undercover female officers in the hotel room money for sex, they were arrested. Police also raided brothels and massage parlors as part of the operation.

All of the men arrested were only 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.

Now 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 even 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 for soliciting adult undercover officers or 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 try to crack an unsolved homicide. These stings bring in money and makes the police look good. What’s not for them to like?

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