In a Shift, Anti-Prostitution Effort Targets Pimps and Johns

New task forces could make arrests of johns, like this one on L Street NW, more common.
New task forces could make arrests of johns, like this one on L Street NW, more common. (2002 Photo By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

The john peeked into the massage parlor.

"Hi, sweetie," said Kim, the manager of the Korean-run club in downtown Washington.

The john, a tall man in his fifties, stepped inside, smiling anxiously. He wore a chaste white shirt and sharply parted hair, and he smelled as if he'd had a drink.

"Look at his face -- very tired," Kim said as he went inside. "Sad people come. Stress people. This customer stay 30 minutes, then happy. Everybody happy."

Not everybody. A national campaign against prostitution has intensified in political, nonprofit and law enforcement circles, so much so that yesterday the House unanimously passed novel legislation, with the Senate expected to follow.

In the past, police sweeps have focused on the women. The new federal law would grant state and local law enforcement agencies funds to investigate and prosecute the men -- brothel owners and pimps. It would also target for arrest customers like the one at Kim's parlor lurching toward a girl in a bikini.

"You're out of luck," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), summing up the bill's message to the customers.

"The johns use and abuse these young women," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). "And pimps -- you can call them slaveholders, the masters out in the field."

The attitudes of Pryce, who introduced the legislation in the House, and Cornyn, a sponsor in the Senate, reflect a shift in how the government and the public respond to the sex industry. Traditionally, women have been blamed as the source of the problem. But Pryce calls prostitution "modern-day slavery" in which teenage girls are exploited and men fuel the crime.

Behind the scenes, an unlikely coalition of evangelicals, feminists, liberal activists and conservative human rights advocates are pushing the issue. They are trying to reframe the way people talk about prostitutes, calling them "survivors" and signing off e-mails with the slogan "Abolition!"

On a local level, in the past three years, 12 states have passed anti-sex-trafficking legislation, which says that women who are prostituted through coercion, and minors who are sold for sex, are victims. In 15 other states, similar bills have been introduced. Although prostitution is illegal nationwide except in certain Nevada counties, advocates for the legislation said that enforcement and penalties for pimps and johns have been weak, including a tolerance for brothels that advertise as massage parlors.

"We want to drive a stake through the heart of these venal criminals," said Michael J. Horowitz, a coalition leader and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "This is pure evil."

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