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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)

This is bad news for the john at Kim's parlor, who lumbered out the door 37 minutes after he entered. His smile had relaxed. He looked as though he had just won a long-odds bet. Squinting in the afternoon light, he got into his car to drive home to Virginia, as he does every month after having sex, he said. Then he heard about the legislation.

"Do I look like a criminal?" scowled the man, who gave his name as "John." "I'm a middle-class, law-abiding single white professional. Let me have my fun."

"John" said that the women offer a service to the community, that it is a victimless crime and that lawmakers should concentrate on more important issues, such as the war in Iraq.

"It's like going to a doctor. A love doctor," he said. He spread his fingers, as if to show his hands were clean: "Is this a problem?"

Focusing on Demand

Though far apart politically, Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.) and Republican Pryce were in Pryce's office, conferring on an issue they could agree upon.

"I don't think pimps care if a customer is a Republican or Democrat, do they?" quipped Maloney.

On a recent afternoon that Pryce called "one of the worst politically partisan days I have ever spent on Capitol Hill in 13 years," Pryce smiled as she talked with Maloney about the measure they introduced in April. Commercial sex, said Maloney, is about supply and demand. Women are the supply; men create demand. "We want to crack down on the demand," she said.

While the approach enjoys political support, some in the Justice Department have objected to referring to women engaged in an illegal activity as "victims" and have resisted federalizing what has been a local issue, proponents said.

Also, some nongovernmental organizations that advocate for the rights of sex workers question the effectiveness of focusing on demand. "It's punitive rather than preventative," said Ann D. Jordan, who directs the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at Global Rights. She said the measure fails to address the causes of prostitution, such as poverty. Federal money would be better spent on job training, said Juhu Thukral of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York.

Penelope Saunders, director of Different Avenues, which works with marginalized communities, said that "according this bill, all the men who are buying commercial sex are monsters -- and that's simply not true." Some johns help sex workers by reporting violent pimps, she said. Scaring away regular customers would force prostitutes into riskier behavior. Saunders said that calling these women "victims of sexual slavery" is inaccurate, patronizing and a "thinly veiled effort" to promote a conservative moral agenda.

But to Barrett Duke, a coalition member and vice president at the Southern Baptist Convention, the comparison to slavery is apt. He draws inspiration from 19th-century Christians. They fought the slave trade in England by working with "people of good will, who were not Christians, who understood that trade of human flesh was an abomination."

In Duke's coalition, the people of good will include Orthodox Jews, abortion-rights feminists and gay-rights liberals. At meetings, Duke said, they ease political tensions by joking: "One of us will say, 'Oh, you're out there working on that judges stuff!' We'll get a chuckle. Everyone sheathes their swords, but they're never very far from reach."

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