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Getting the prostitutes, but not the johns

Aaron Selbig
Law enforcement says part of the reason prostitutes are arrested more than people buying sex is because prostitutes are more explosed on the Internet and on the streets.

This week, six people were charged with soliciting a prostitute after allegedly attempting to buy sex in Wexford County. They were caught in a sting operation by the Traverse Narcotics Team. 

That’s a new tactic Up North. Strategies are shifting in part because concern about human trafficking has brought more attention to prostitution. But, generally, in Michigan and across the country, police go after the prostitutes. 

Grand Traverse County

Grand Traverse County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Cooney says since 2000, 12 prostitutes have been charged and four johns in the county.

"I would like to add that anecdotally," he says, "I have heard that prostitution is more of a problem in Grand Traverse County than maybe these numbers show."

One woman charged by Cooney this January had an advertisement on Backpage.com using the pseudonym Amber AKA Exotic Beauty. She came to Traverse City from downstate on a Monday. She was arrested on a Wednesday. She told law enforcement she’d had sex with multiple men for money, and that she charged between $110 to $190 per session. By Wednesday she had made over $1,000.

"I have heard that prostitution is more of a problem in Grand Traverse County than maybe these numbers show." - Bob Cooney

  Catching her was made easier because law enforcement could contact her through her ad. But law enforcement says catching the people who purchase sex – often called johns – is not easy. Unless they catch the johns in the act, they’d have to go through a lot of numbers on the prostitute’s phone. 

"If you got 100 phone numbers, do you do 100 search warrants?" asks Lieutenant Chris Barsheff with Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office. "What if you just did search warrants on a hundred friends and family, and they had no involvement in the activity?"

If police happened to track down a john, the john would probably deny involvement. And prostitutes often don’t want to rat out their customers. Because the odds of catching johns through phone records are slim, law enforcement often doesn’t do that search.

Why arrests are unequal statewide

Grand Traverse County is a small sample group. But a much larger pool of data from the Michigan State Police suggests over 300 prostitution arrests were made in 2014 and just two johns were arrested.

Detective Sergeant Edward Price is with the Michigan State Police, assigned to an FBI task force that goes after crimes of sexual exploitation, and a commissioner on the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. He is skeptical of those numbers.

"I think you do see at times more stings going after the prostitutes than johns," says Price, "but I can tell you it’s not that huge of a gap as you just mentioned."

He says law enforcement sometimes incorrectly reports arrests; they code them wrong. Tthat makes it look like there’s a bigger gap than there actually is. On the other hand, he says it makes sense more prostitutes are arrested.

 "Just because the johns aren’t standing on the street corner, says Price. "The johns are not for the most part advertising on websites for escorting and for prostitution."

But Lynne Johnson, Policy Director at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, says the idea that it’s 

"It's a lot easier to or obvious to see girls out prostituting more than johns buying the sex just because the johns aren't standing on the street corner. The johns are not for the most part advertising on websites for escorting and for prostitution." - Detective Sergeant Edward Price

  harder to arrest johns is just not true. And she says communities that use creative investigative techniques have proved it. Johnson thinks the unequal numbers are in part about sexism.

"People who engage in prostitution are mostly women," Johnson says, "and they are viewed with a tremendous amount of hatred and revulsion and stigma in our community."

Johnson says cops have less interest in arresting johns.

"What we hear from women who are being arrested in prostitution is they watch law enforcement turn to the customer and say, 'What are you doing in this neighborhood? You know, just go on home to your family.' And what do men learn about that? Men learn that it’s ok to buy sex, and that they won’t be held accountable and what they’re doing is normal and accepted."

Sergeant Edward Price responds, "I’m sure sexism always plays a role in life in general," but he says they don’t lets johns go in Michigan. 

 He says it’s harder for law enforcement to catch johns than prostitutes because it takes more investigative work and more resources.

"With time has to come resources," Price says, "and a lot of local police departments, they just don’t have those resources to dedicate manpower to dig deeper."

Lieutenant Barsheff from Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office agrees.

"If you had a person that you could say your job is to watch social media traffic for prostitution activities," says Barsheff, "we would do that. But … with tight budgets, budget constraints – every department feels it – it’s difficult just to assign a person to that task, and that’s where it would all start."

Going after the johns

Some law enforcement agencies – particularly in larger cities in Michigan – do have the resources to go after johns. And now northern Michigan law enforcement is doing it too. In the recent sting operation, they went after the johns by posting a fake advertisement on Backpage.com.

"Once we posted the ad," says Lieutenant Dan King of Traverse Narcotics Team, "it was an overwhelming phone calls and contacts and inquiries on that ad that was posted by individuals. At least 70 different phone numbers were used to contact our undercover officers."

"Men learn that it's ok to buy sex, and that they won't be held accountable and what they're doing is normal and accepted." - Lynn Johnson, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation

  That means around 70 different people in northern Michigan were interested in buying sex from this one fictitious woman.

Lieutenant Barsheff says even with limited resources his office is trying.

"We’re just trying to be more creative with what we have than we ever had in the past to help deal with these issues," Barsheff says.

He says they’re reaching out to business owners and teaching them how to spot signs of prostitution and human trafficking.

And to some extent, it seems like it’s working. One recent post in an online forum where johns communicate with each other read: "I think TC hotels are pretty hot right now. I don’t know that I would do an in-call there right now. Word is that several of the hotels are cooperating with [law enforcement]."

That comment was made before the recent sting operation was made public.