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Kristof: Targeting johns in combating the sex trade

  • A "john" who attempted to pick up an officer posing as a prostitute is escorted in handcuffs to an area where he will be ticketed during a prostitution sting in Cicero, Ill., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Increasingly, experts in the field are applying the label human trafficking to domestic prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers ("pimps" and "johns") and on getting help for prostitutes. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

CHICAGO

Several police officers are waiting in a hotel room, handcuffs at the ready, when they get the signal. A female undercover officer posing as a prostitute is with a would-be customer in an adjacent room, and she has pushed a secret button indicating that they should charge in to make the arrest.

The officers shove at the door connecting the rooms, but somehow it has become locked. They can't get in. The undercover officer is stuck with her customer. Tension soars. Curses reverberate. A million fears surge.

Then, suddenly, the door frees and the police officers rush in and arrest a graying 64-year-old man, Michael. His smugness shatters and turns to bewilderment and shock as police officers handcuff his hands behind his back.

Michael had reason to feel stunned. Police arrest women for prostitution all the time, but almost never their customers.

Yet that is beginning to change. There's a growing awareness that sex trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses around, with some 100,000 juveniles estimated to be trafficked into the sex trade in the United States each year.

Some women sell sex on their own, but coercion, beatings and recruitment of underage girls are central to the business as well. Just a few weeks ago, New York City police officers rescued a 14-year-old girl in Queens who had run away from home and ended up locked up by pimps and sold for sex. According to court documents, she was told she would be killed if she tried to run away, but after three months she managed to call 911.

Police increasingly recognize that the simplest way to reduce the scale of human trafficking is to arrest men who buy sex. That isn't prudishness or sanctimony but a strategy to dampen demand.

Polling suggests that about 15 percent of American men have bought sex, and back-of-envelope calculations suggest that a man has about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being arrested while doing so.

Yet stings to arrest johns are marvels of efficiency. Here in Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff's Office places ads on prostitution websites. When men call, an undercover officer directs them to a hotel room. The officer negotiates a price for a sex act, and then other officers jump in and arrest the customer.


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