Sting operations shift the focus of sex crimes arrests
Despite high-profile roundups, victims’ advocates say too few men face penalties for buying sex—even from minors
Last week, Florida police arrested 22 men—including the senior pastor of a Methodist church—as a result of a sting operation that targeted adults seeking sex with minor children. According to Pensacola police, the men, who ranged in age from 18 to 71, showed up at a home expecting to engage in sex acts with children. They brought with them drugs, sex toys, and plans for illegal activity. Instead, police arrested them.
The five-day Pensacola sting, known as Operation Undertow, reflects a growing change in police tactics: targeting the men who buy sex while offering restorative services, not a criminal record, to those who sell it. According to a 2011 FBI report, most victims enter the sex trade as minors and their number has reached an “epidemic proportion,” with “hundreds of thousands of children” possibly at risk.
The U.S. Department of Justice notes police arrested more than 43,000 women and children for prostitution-related offenses in 2010, compared to just over 19,000 men. In 2011, Chicago Sheriff Thomas Dart’s office led the national focus on buyers with his National Johns Suppression Initiative. Since then, more than 900 U.S. cities have switched their focus to pursuing buyers, according to DemandForum.
Arresting johns often comes with new and stronger penalties for buying sex, especially where a minor is involved. In some states, johns face up to five years in prison and can be forced to register as sex offenders. Johns in Chicago are smacked with fines that can total close to $1,300.
But are the men arrested for trying to buy sex from minors actually held accountable in court?
In a 2012 Boston sting, police arrested six men for seeking underage prostitutes. Each man faced a minimum $1,000 fine for attempting to buy sex and up to five years in state prison for seeking to purchase sex from a minor via the internet. But a year later, four of the six men saw their charges reduced, dismissed, or continued without a finding. None of them were convicted of seeking to buy sex from minors. None received a $1,000 fine. In fact, not one of the state’s 11 district attorney’s offices could cite a case in which a sex buyer received the minimum fine—much less jail time—in the two years after new sex crime laws took effect, according to a New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) survey.
Statistics on a national scale are scarce, but many agencies that care for sex trafficking survivors agree johns often evade consequences despite being arrested.
“There’s a pervasive attitude that they are not really criminals,” Lina Nealon, director of Demand Abolition, a project that focuses on sex buyers, told NECIR. “They are the guys next door. We can relate to them more than we can relate to a pimp or a prostitute.”
Adaiah Rojas, now 30, was recruited into prostitution at age 16 and has been out of the sex trade for more than 10 years. But she still remembers the threats, beatings, and insults she endured from johns who were often released by the same police officers who led her away in handcuffs.
“Why protect these men that are cheating on their wives, living double lives, while, me as a minor, I was labeled and put out there to be a horrible person,” Rojas told NECIR. “I was treated as a criminal … with disgust.”
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