Rethinking prostitution

Recent human trafficking stings result in mostly male arrests, but California’s evolving understanding of sex work still has a ways to go to match Canada’s

Sex workers and trafficking survivors gather outside the Sacramento County Main Jail last November to protest enforcement tactics.

Sex workers and trafficking survivors gather outside the Sacramento County Main Jail last November to protest enforcement tactics.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

The trap was set with fake prostitution ads posted to the classified website, which is at the center of a money-laundering probe by the state attorney general’s office. Then came the phone calls between the interested parties and the undercover officers. In one instance, a suspect negotiated $70 for an hour of sex; in another, $100 would buy that hour along with some role-playing.

At different times of the night on October 13, three men drove to an agreed-upon location near Folsom and Sunrise boulevards to find law enforcement waiting.

They were among 15 men who were arrested on a single night last month on misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution. All but one were taken to jail, processed and released with a citation to appear in court at a later date.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department called it a street-level prostitution sting. The FBI credited it as a blow to underage human trafficking.

And for maybe the first time since the federal law enforcement agency began conducting Operation Cross Country, few Sacramento women were snared in an annual sweep that rarely differentiated between predatory traffickers and impoverished sex workers when the press releases were sent out.

In all, last month’s two-day operation resulted in the arrest of 31 people on outstanding prostitution warrants, solicitation, loitering with intent, and supervising and directing prostitution (more commonly referred to as pimping and pandering), the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department states.

The department and other law enforcement agencies were participating in Operation Cross Country XI, a yearly crackdown that the FBI and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children organize every October in various parts of the country.

This year’s sweep resulted in the recovery of 84 children and the apprehension of 120 traffickers, the FBI says.

One of those minors was located in Sacramento County, the Sheriff’s Department says.

“This operation isn’t just about taking traffickers off the street,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a release. “It’s about making sure we offer help and a way out to these young victims who find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of abuse.”

A month before the operation, Sacramento police Chief Daniel Hahn told City Council members that law enforcement’s understanding of the illicit sex trade had evolved over the past decade.

Prior to the first Operation Cross Country in 2006, he said, vice squads concentrated on arresting “prostitutes, johns and pimps.” That focus slowly shifted to the ones causing exploitation, particularly of children, Hahn told council members on September 12.

“The internet has shifted a lot of the street-level prostitution … online and indoors,” he added.

Hahn did quibble with the oft-repeated, rarely-sourced rumor that Sacramento is one of the largest sex trafficking hubs in America. As far as the chief could tell, that line started getting play after 2008’s Operation Cross Country, when Sacramento authorities were responsible for the second-most arrests in the nation.

“Although we don’t believe we’re the second worst, we still believe it’s a critical issue in our city … that we want to pay close attention to,” Hahn said.

During the same meeting, Sacramento County Assistant District Attorney Paul Durenberger credited the 2015 formation of the anti-human trafficking coalition, called Sacramento Together, for shifting law enforcement’s focus to sex buyers, not sex sellers.

“Because if you really want to make a dent in this issue, you have to let the people that are creating the demand know that this is unacceptable,” he told the council. “When people are literally going on the internet and trolling for children, you have to make sure that they know law enforcement is going to make an effort to prevent you and to stop you.”

That goal got off to an imperfect start in August, when a multi-agency sting operation focused on johns also resulted in the arrests and prosecution of several women.

Of the 32 arrests SN&R was able to confirm through booking logs, 26 were of men and six were of female sex workers. As of late October, court records show that 22 men have been officially charged with misdemeanor solicitation or loitering with intent. Five of the six women face formal charges for the same crimes.

Through November 14, authorities made 193 prostitution-related arrests in Sacramento County—140 of those were of women. Most were women of color without identified home addresses.

Hard data made no appearance during the human trafficking presentation at City Hall. Councilman Jeff Harris found the lack of specifics frustrating.

“Before we can take policy decisions, before we can talk about what resources we can allocate, we need to know where we’re at on the street. What is the severity of the problem? How many people are being trafficked? Where are the hot spots?” he said from the dais. “These were some of the answers I was hoping to get tonight.”

“I mean, we know it’s a problem,” he added. “What wasn’t made clear was exactly how deep this problem is, right now, in Sacramento, and what resources are being allocated to it.”

When it comes to a kinder, smarter approach to sex work, Sacramento’s future may lie north in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Police Department has stopped enforcing consensual prostitution altogether in favor of cracking down on predators and abusers.

The unofficial local policy actually runs counter to Canadian law, which came to a Solomon-like compromise of making sex work legal to solicit, but illegal to buy. That means sex workers can advertise their services; johns just can’t take them up on it.

Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer said her city decided to go further than the Crown in the interest of public safety, not in spite of it.

“For some women, this is a choice, a very clear choice, and one that gives them a pretty good economic situation,” she said. “It’s really none of our business.”

Sacramento isn’t there yet.

On November 8, sheriff’s deputies responding to a complaint about a residential brothel found four people attempting to slip out of the back of a one-story home in south Sacramento. Inside the yellow house with the tidy yard and white garage, officers found two bedrooms containing “sexual hygiene items,” lubricant, paper towels, a laundry basked filled with soiled towels and more than $6,000 in cash, an incident summary states.

The one male suspect told officers that he had come to the residence for a massage, and “to possibly engage in some type of sexual activity” in exchange for money, the summary states.

The three female suspects, identified as Asian women in their 40s and 50s, denied operating a house of ill repute, as the penal code refers to prostitution dens.

The three women were arrested; the man was not.