Prostitution and Human Trafficking Sting Operations

Prostitution sting operations targeting customers aka “Johns” are becoming increasingly commonplace in the United States. Sting operations represent a change in the focus of law enforcement from targeting prostitutes to targeting the demand for the services prostitutes offer. Law enforcement in Cook County, Texas went so far as to call a sting operation “National Day of Johns Arrest” such was the number of Johns arrested.

The shift has been by the evolving view of the social acceptability of paid for sex and in part due to the emerging data on human trafficking. Studies have revealed a staggering 20.9 million victims of trafficking worldwide. In the US 1 in 6 of endangered runaways become sex trafficking victims.

The Commander of the Narcotics and Special investigations Division of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington DC Inspector Brian Bray explained the shift: “When I first started, I didn’t really understand how many of these girls have been trafficked. Now our mindset has changed from assuming the girls are criminals to trying to rescue the victims, providing them the services they need, and get information to lock up their traffickers. Most of our arrests used to be female prostitutes, but now we arrest more johns that we do prostitutes.”

Operations known as “Reverse Stings” are becoming increasingly common. In such operations law enforcement publish a fake profile on websites such as to lure in unsuspecting customers.

Santa Barbara County is leading the way in reverse sting operations having conducted them at such a rate of almost one a month since the start of the year. Helped in part by a $1.34 million dollar funding grant from the US Department of Justice to assist in combatting human trafficking the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s department has arrested over 100 individuals in reverse sting operations so far this year.

Kelly Hoover of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department explained how a recent sting operation was undertaken . Santa Barbara Law enforcement posted a notice on announcing the availability of a female willing to engage in sexual acts for money. An undercover detective then negotiated with “johns” for a sexual act for an amount of money. After the negotiation had taken place the undercover detective gave the person the location to meet for the sex act. Once the person arrived at the location the person was arrested for solicitation of prostitution.

The offence of solicitation of prostitution

The offence of the solicitation of prostitution in California is contrary to Penal Code 647(b).

To successfully prosecute a case the prosecution must prove the following:

(1) the defendant agreed to engage in an act of prostitution with someone else;

(2) the defendant intended to engage in an act of prostitution with that person; and

(3) in addition to agreeing the defendant did something to further the commission of an act of prostitution

Worldwide, prostitution is legal in 49 countries and of limited illegality in 12 countries (i.e. these countries have taken the stance not to prosecute the offence of solicitation of prostitution) .

Proponents of the legalization of prostitution argue it makes sense from a public heath and crime reduction perspective and point to arguments that it would encourage better working conditions and encourage reporting of violence and offences perpetrated against sex workers. Furthermore, proponents argue that the potential tax revenues available could be utilized to combat human trafficking. Prostitution is a $14.5 billion dollar a year industry.

A recent study in Canada showed the strong potential for decriminalization of prostitution to greatly reduce the spread of HIV.

In the United States the stigma of selling sex remains firmly in place and the movement for legalization is tepid at best. Eleven counties in Nevada have led the movement in legalizing prostitution.

The American Civil liberties Union (ACLU) voiced its support for the legalization of prostitution in a 2016 article. Most recently on August 11, 2017 international human rights powerhouse Amnesty international voted to recommend the complete decriminalization of prostitution both for buyers and sellers.

What is clear is that the upsurge in reverse sting operations brings the issue of legalization sharply into focus.

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