WILMINGTON — Sex trafficking, a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry, exists because a significant number of men in our community are willing to pay for sex with people, mostly women but also men, who have been coerced into doing so.
It’s simple economic logic – without demand, an industry falls apart – but it’s often overlooked in conversations that focus on the victims and the traffickers.
In this installment, we look at the Johns, whose demand for commercial sex has driven the trafficking industry. We take a look at who Johns are, the question of the “victimless crime,” how law enforcement treats Johns, and some deeper social questions posed by sex trafficking.
As the name implies, the “customer” in the commercial sex industry remains anonymous: they rarely factor into criminal prosecution, which focuses on the trafficker, and they obviously aren’t the concern of outreach groups focused on the recovery and wellbeing of victims.
Under North Carolina state law for “patronizing a prostitute” the penalty is a misdemeanor, except when it is with a minor or someone with a mental disability. Recent laws have increased the penalties, making subsequent offenses a mid-level felony, but with limited resources, law enforcement and prosecutors alike often can’t pursue cases against Johns, another reason they stay out of the public eye.
So, who are the Johns?
Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan has seen numerous cases in her 20 years, and said in her experience “customers” of the commercial sex industry are exclusively male, whether they’re looking for same-sex or female partners. But beyond that, the Johns aren’t who many people might expect.
“They’re not outwardly seedy, slimy men — who you look at and say, ‘oh yeah, he’s patronizing prostitutes,” Jordan said. “It’s the same type of people who have child pornography on their computer.”
By that, Jordan means – outwardly – Johns can be anyone, even prominent or successful members of the community. The anonymity of the crime, Jordan said, is compounded by the ability to arrange a sexual encounter online.
Consider, for example, the massive sex trafficking bust in Polk County, Florida, where the Sheriff’s Office arrested over 200 Johns who had solicited undercover detectives posing as women online. Among the Johns were a cancer surgeon, a pediatrician, an active-duty Marine Corps Colonel, and two retired law enforcement officers.
Is there victimless prostitution in Wilmington?
There is an argument that anti-trafficking groups like the national non-profit Polaris, and laws like North Carolina’s, fail to differentiate between sex trafficking, which involves coercion, and sex work, which is consensual sex for money. Both are illegal in North Carolina, but for many, there is a clear ethical difference between the two.
Jordan said when North Carolina passed its legislation, she heard this concern.
“I think a lot of people had concerns that you were going turn to something that used to be just misdemeanor activity into this felony, and how bad really is it? They call it the victimless crime, I’m sure you’ve heard it called that over the years,” Jordan said.
Detective Allison Jahreis said her experiences in the Wilmington Police Department have opened her eyes to the complicated story behind each case of prostitution.
“It makes you look differently at prostitution – sometimes prostitution isn’t prostitution, there’s a level of abuse,” Jahreis said.
The more you learn about the commercial sex trade, the harder it becomes to argue for the prevalence of victimless prostitution in Wilmington, according to Dawn Ferrer, director of A Safe Place. Ferrer objects to the term “prostitute,” pointing out that, in most cases, women are prostituted – by a pimp. In other cases, they are what you might call prostituted by circumstances, pushed into situations in which they get access to basic needs – food and shelter – by having sex.
In any case, if there is a utopian form of harm-free prostitution in the Wilmington area, it’s not what law enforcement, prosecutors, or recovery groups are seeing.
And for the Johns in those cases, no deterrent seems to be enough.
Johns and the justice system
One major reason you won’t see Johns arrested, let alone on trial, in the Wilmington area is the way law enforcement attacks sex trafficking. Very often these cases start with an online posting that triggers concerns that the woman is a victim of sex trafficking. Undercover officers respond to the ad, posing as a John, and arrest the trafficker.
In this scenario, there is no John to arrest.
Another reason is that North Carolina’s laws are intended to act as a deterrent – stopping Johns from pursuing sex for money. But from Jordan’s point of view in the District Attorney’s office, the law doesn’t truly make a difference.
“I don’t even believe this . . . what I was going to say, is that men are less likely to engage in that kind of risky behavior if there’s a possibility of being convicted of a felony. I really don’t think that’s true. I think that men want to engage in the activity so badly, if you do engage in that kind of activity, and by that I mean buy sex, versus just have sex with people who are consenting partners, they’re going to do it, because most people feel like they’re never going to get caught,” Jordan said.
As discussed in Part Three of this series, the opioid epidemic has also seriously limited the resources of both law enforcement and prosecutors to go after Johns.
‘Something is wrong’
Part of the story of the Johns’ role in sex-trafficking is also that, regardless of the laws on the books, they often aren’t thought of as the criminal. In fact, it’s a common theme for those fighting sex trafficking: in many cases, the victim gets blamed.
According to Jessica Peck, doctor and chair of the Alliance for Children in Trafficking, the misconceptions about sex trafficking – that it is often a victimless crime, that there’s no abuse, or that women are free to leave the industry whenever they like – are in large part to blame.
“People need to change their paradigm, to overcome some prejudices. People will say, ‘oh, they’re promiscuous,’ or ‘they’re an addict.’ And that’s just not what’s going on,” Peck said.
These misconceptions, added to the stigma of sex trafficking, show up in the courtroom, where Jordan said she’s routinely seen a community side with Johns and traffickers over the victims.
“That’s the biggest disappointment of my professional life – the lack of support these victims have from their families. And their churches. We have church congregations come and sit on the defense side, all the time, even when he’s confessed,” Jordan said.
For Jordan and many others – in law enforcement, in healthcare, in recovery work – social preconceptions about sex trafficking give way to a deeper and more disturbing question. How has society allowed sex trafficking, an industry that generates at least $30 billion annually, to operate in nearly every community around the country?
“Other than the families not supporting the children [victims] of sexual assault, that’s been the number one frustration – that’s such a small word – just complete disappointment and devastation for me, is the knowledge of just how common that is, over twenty years of doing those cases,” Jordan said.
In part, Jordan said, the internet has emboldened people who might otherwise not act; whether it’s child pornography, which she said is just as rampant as sex trafficking in the Wilmington area, or paying for sex, the internet has removed social and geographic boundaries. It also creates communities that justify and encourage their behavior.
“Something is wrong with these men, it’s really sick, but they now have communities online, that reassure them, that makes them think it’s okay,” Jordan said.
Others, like Allysa McKenzie, founder and executive director of Brunswick County’s Stand Against Trafficking, point to the increasing commercialization of sexuality in advertising, and the breakdown of communities, saying people no longer “look after” their neighbors.
“These women fell through the cracks, they were allowed to fall through the cracks, and these men aren’t being held accountable,” McKenzie said. “Something’s wrong here, it’s wrong when communities allow that to happen.”
In the end, neither the justice system or the network of recovery organizations seems equipped to tackle the driving force of sex-trafficking: the desire and willingness of men to pay billions every year to have sex with people who are the victims of the industry. That issue, whether it be considered a personal psychological and moral problem, or a broader social problem, apparently remains too large, too entrenched, for any one group to take on.
(Editor’s note: In our final segment, we will look at efforts to combat sex-trafficking, including law enforcement, education, legislative moves, and recovery efforts.)
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.