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Stopping the Sex Trade, One Buyer at a Time

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SARASOTA, Fla.  Across the country more than 1,000 towns and counties are stepping up tactics to deter men who buy sex. They include seizing vehicles, community service, "john" school, license suspension, public shaming and reverse stings. 

Research shows that strategies like the reverse stings can reduce prostitution in a city by as much as 75 percent. 

To learn more, CBN News rode along with police in Sarasota, Florida, on one of these operations. Sitting in the back of one of the undercover cars, we watched as a female undercover officer, posing as a woman for sale, began walking up and a down the sidewalk in a commercial part of town early on a Thursday afternoon. 

Within minutes she had attracted two buyers and for the next couple of hours a steady stream of customers kept her and another undercover female officer busy. 

How "Reverse Stings" Help Trafficking Victims

Sarasota police only conduct these stings once a month as they require anywhere from 10 to 15 officers. But local authorities believe that the stings in combination with other strategies are making a difference.

Kindsey Pentecost, a consultant with the Sarasota-based anti-trafficking organization Selah Freedom, works with trafficking survivors in the city and sees how the reverse stings help. "It's been a complete turn in how they deal with demand," she told CBN News, "They used to let them go, be a little easy on them. Now, no way. They say 'this is not going to happen in our city.'"

Tactics to Deter Sex Buyers

Like many other communities, Sarasota employs several tactics to deter sex buyers. They're taking advantage of a new state law that raised the penalty for conviction of soliciting a prostitute from $500 to $5,000. Sgt. Rob Armstrong oversees the sting operations and says the higher amount is helping. "When the five thousand fine came into effect we saw a very large increase in actual trials," he said.

Those arrested for soliciting a prostitute must also attend a "john school," says Craig Schaeffer, chief assistant state attorney in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The one-day class emphasizes direct consequences like sexually transmitted diseases as well as the suffering of trafficking victims.

"If you see a survivor of prostitution/trafficking come in and explain why they were doing it and how they were forced into it," said Schaeffer, "it humanizes them so they're not an object just for sex."

Sarasota also impounds the cars of the men police arrest on these stings. It publishes press releases with their pictures and even sends a letter home. The letter is addressed to the vehicle's owner and states that someone in the car was interacting with a prostitute or with an undercover officer posing as a prostitute.

Why Social Shaming Works

Experts say men fear this social shaming far more than other penalties.

"A lot of times they're married and the wife sees it," says Pentecost, "Putting them in the paper, social media, putting them in jail those are things that people take seriously."

Sweden first developed the concept of punishing the buyer while rehabilitating the victim instead of punishing her. Canada and France have adopted the model and the U.S. is well on the way.

Benjamin Nolot, the founder of the anti-trafficking group Exodus Cry, is a strong believer in what's often referred to as the "Nordic model.

Rehabilitation of Victims Not Punishment

"How you define prostitution will determine your laws regarding it," he told CBN News, "so Sweden goes 'no this isn't about girls choosing this and making money the easy way this is about a system of violence and exploitation.'" Research shows that a 1999 law in Sweden that criminalized buyers while decriminalizing the women they bought has led to a decrease in male sex buyers from 13.6 percent to 7.9 percent.

In the U.S., law enforcement agencies across the country are teaming up to coordinate john sting operations. Under the guidance of Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Thomas Dart, founder of the National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI), more than 80 agencies have coordinated reverse stings in 23 states since 2011. Over a four-year period the NJSI found that sex buyers more often than not are Caucasian, college-educated, middle-aged and married.

As CBN News found out firsthand, these buyers can be desperate to evade the law. While riding with police we followed the vehicle of one buyer who had agreed to meet an undercover officer in a hotel parking lot. As police moved in on his car in the parking lot, he suddenly drove over a curb and sped out into the street, resisting an attempt by officers to pull him over. Later, officers involved in the sting found his abandoned car in a nearby neighborhood, but no sign of the suspect.

At times, police in Sarasota admit that their work feels like a drop in the proverbial bucket. But if research is any indication, the known strategies to reduce the demand for trafficking do make a difference.

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About The Author


Heather Sells covers wide-ranging stories for CBN News that include religious liberty, ministry trends, immigration, and education. She’s known for telling personal stories that capture the issues of the day, from the border sheriff who rescues migrants in the desert to the parents struggling with a child that identifies as transgender. In the last year, she has reported on immigration at the Texas border, from Washington, D.C., in advance of the Dobbs abortion case, at crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts, and on sexual abuse reform at the annual Southern Baptist meeting in Anaheim