June 18, 2018
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Johns are no less criminal than prostitutes

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Alexis Wright is accused of operating a prostitution business out of her Zumba studio in Kennebunk, secretly videotaping her encounters and keeping meticulous records of her clients. Police plan to release more than 100 names over the next several weeks.


It doesn’t matter if you’re a political figure, businessman or blue-collar worker. If you’re paying someone in exchange for sex, it’s illegal, and you should face a criminal charge. Prostitution cases throughout Maine, in addition to the one under way in Kennebunk, are a reminder, in case anyone needed one, that some are selling sex in Maine, and others are buying it.

So it seems unfair that johns, who are paying for sex with women, are rarely charged. The National Institute of Justice reports that only 10 percent of arrests associated with prostitution are of men who purchase sex. If a woman is convicted of prostitution, you know she wasn’t the only one involved. Justice requires everyone implicated to face consequences.

Of course proving someone had sex with someone, and money was exchanged, may be challenging. But to prevent the crime, police should target all involved and make an effort to go after alleged johns — as police are currently doing in the Kennebunk case where, so far, 21 of potentially more than 100 customers have been charged.

Many police departments in Maine know the importance of stemming demand. Some are taking or have taken specific action, such as organizing undercover reverse stings — where a female police officer poses as a prostitute in order to lure johns. There are other possible ways to address demand, too.

The National Institute of Justice supports a website outlining ways states can prevent prostitution. The following are tactics used across the United States, with varying success, to punish or catch johns:

1. Automobile seizure. Police seize the vehicle in which someone tries to solicit sex. The vehicles may be retrievable after paying a fee; otherwise police may keep the profits of selling the car to further their prostitution-prevention work. In some cases the seizures have been contested in court as imposing a penalty that exceeds the maximum allowed for misdemeanors.

2. Cameras. Cities and towns install surveillance cameras at “hot spots” to both discourage sex buying and provide evidence of it.

3. Community service. In addition to other sanctions, convicted johns are forced to do community service — such as cleaning the streets on which the illegal activity is known to occur.

4. John school. Convicted johns must participate in a counseling and treatment program. The courses may include testimony from those who have been prostituted or trafficked; there is discussion about victimization, anger management and sex addiction, among other things.

5. Letters. If police see a vehicle in an area known for prostitution — or believe someone is a john — they may send a letter to the registered car owner or suspect. The letters may cite health risks associated with prostitution and warn the person about the harm prostitution has on communities. Sometimes the license plate number is recorded not by police but by local residents, who then inform police.

One of the most common deterrents, though, and one that clearly happens in Maine, is shaming. Though names of suspected johns are usually publicized through the normal release of a police blotter — and not through a systematic effort to deter johns — making the names public is a simple way to combat demand.

Not all possible deterrents will or should be implemented in Maine, as they must fit the situation and resources at hand. But they show there are specific ways to target people who buy sex, not just those who sell it.

Pinpointing ways to stem the number of johns is important, too, because it shifts the discussion in an important direction: toward cultural attitudes. Has there historically been less effort applied to prosecuting johns because people believe buying sex is a natural part of male sexuality? Studies show more than 16 percent of men have bought sex. Attempts to prosecute johns will likely encounter the perception that it’s normal for men to want to engage with prostitutes.

But it’s illegal. And it’s clear that women have been criminalized for prostitution-related activities to a degree men have not. If it’s clear police policy to arrest those selling sex, it should be clear police policy to arrest the men buying it.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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