It’s Sex Week, so it seems a fitting time for a crime column to turn to a discussion of sex crimes. “Argh! Isn’t there anywhere we can escape discussions of sex?” you might groan to yourself. I sympathize, but nope, sorry, not this week. The least I can do is offer up a one-liner to ease you into it.
As the comedian Steve Martin once said, “I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy.”
Prostitution. It’s the subject of many jokes and for most of us quickly conjures up historical and cultural references: It’s the world’s oldest profession. It’s Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” or Thomas Jane in “Hung.” It’s Las Vegas.
But that is not the reality of prostitution. The selling and buying of a person’s body should be a relic of a more unjust past. And, Thomas Jane aside, let’s be clear that prostitutes today are overwhelmingly women and thus the thriving of the sex trade constitutes a serious obstacle to gender equality. A society that accepts women as just another commodity is one that has let the usually healthy forces of capitalism go too far.
Tens of thousands of women sell their bodies every day in this country. Are there call girls who sell themselves willingly and safely? Yes. But they are the exception. Most prostitutes get hooked into the trade early in life because of domestic abuse, drug addiction, poverty and desperation. Consent loses its meaning under such coercive circumstances.
Prostitution is also inherently tied to human trafficking, even in the United States. Thousands of young girls, American and foreign, are sold by traffickers to pimps around the country to fulfill the demand created by the buyers of sex. The sex business is built on misery and hardship, and it always has been. As Victor Hugo wrote in 1862, “They say that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. That is incorrect. It still exists, but now it weighs only on women, and it is called prostitution.”
Prostitution is illegal practically everywhere in America, even Las Vegas (it’s only legal in rural Nevada). But in the campaign against modern-day slavery, we have somewhat incomprehensibly decided that the best way to fight it is to target the slaves. Thousands of women are arrested for prostitution every year. But they are the victims of the sex trade, not its perpetrators. The real criminals — the pimps and traffickers who organize the business and the men who purchase sex — are arrested much less frequently. The sex trade goes on, free to find new slaves.
It’s the same story here in New Haven. Police have not arrested a man for buying sex — a “john” — in the past 18 months, but they have arrested several dozen women (and a few men) for selling it. New Haven Police Lieutenant Jeff Hoffman coordinates the department’s antiprostitution efforts. He told me that about once every other month, officers set up a sting to catch street prostitutes, usually arresting roughly four to eight by the time the sting is over. Virtually all the women arrested are addicted to drugs, usually heroin or crack cocaine. Some will be diverted into mandatory drug treatment. Others, who have already failed treatment from a prior arrest, will be headed to jail.
The type of prostitution the NHPD is working against — streetwalking — is among the worst. Like outdoor drug dealing, it signals to a neighborhood’s residents and criminals that moral standards have been lost and the police are not in control. Most residents welcome the stings as a way to reclaim their streets. But the success is usually temporary. As Hoffman noted, the areas plagued by street prostitution — certain parts of the Dwight and Fair Haven neighborhoods — have stayed the same for the past few years. Hoffman said that just as police target drug dealers more than drug users, they target prostitutes because they’re the ones selling the illicit product and creating the supply side of the problem.
But if no man were willing to buy sex, supply would have no demand and prostitutes would be forced out of business. If the NHPD redirected its stings to ensnare johns, as it has done in the past, and established a real and lasting deterrent, streetwalkers could soon find a dwindling number of customers. That’s what happened in Sweden in 1999 when the country criminalized the buying of sex and decriminalized its selling. Over a decade later, experts estimate that street prostitution has dropped by half and the country has become a much less attractive destination spot for human traffickers. Things are as they should be: Victims get help and criminals get jail.
Police can already choose what to aggressively target and what not to, as demonstrated by their toleration of johns for far too long. “We reserve the right to do it,” Hoffman said when asked about targeting johns. It is time for police in New Haven and all over America to exercise that right.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.