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It's a Screwed-Up World When Prostituted Women Are Arrested More Often Than the Johns Who Abuse and Kill Them

The system continues to treat women in prostitution as criminals rather than as women in need of special services.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois spearheaded the third annual National Day of Johns Arrests, officially called Operation BuyerBeware, in August to address law enforcement’s historic focus on arresting prostituted women, as opposed to their customers, the johns. Twenty law enforcement agencies in 11 states participated in the 10-day sting, leading to the arrests of 268 johns, including 66 in Cook County. Though positive, the effort was largely symbolic, impacting just a small fraction of men paying for sex in Chicago and other parts of the country.

Chicago has been labeled a hubforhuman trafficking; with its major airport, central location, and public transportation infrastructure, there are a minimum of 16,000 women and girls involved in prostitution on any given day, according to a 2001 report by the Center for Impact Research. The same report states that representatives from the Chicago Police Department Vice Squad said that women in prostitution “were getting younger and sicker.” That said, thousands of johns and pimps involved in those transactions go unpunished everyday.

The system continues to treat those in prostitution as criminals rather than as members of a demographic in need of special services. Felony incarceration for women in prostitution in Illinois has risen almost 1,000% since1995, and women make up two-thirds of the 47,096 prostitution-related arrests in Illinois in the past 10 years.

“Johns have been able for many, many years to operate with complete impunity,” said Rachel Durchslag, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). “It’s one of the reasons men continue to buy sex. One john said he’d been doing this for 20 years and this was the first time he had had any contact with law enforcement.”

In response to the imbalance CAASE launched EndDemand Illinois, a campaign to shift law enforcement’s focus from prostituted people to those paying for sex. End Demand has issued a proposal for special services for prostituted people who frequently face system-supported barriers—as simple as getting a job with an arrest record—that keep them engulfed in the sex trade.

According to the Crimes Against Children unit of the FBI, a child lives just 7 years, onaverage, after entering prostitution. What’s more, prostituted girls and women have a mortality rate that’s 40 times higher than the national average. Considering those findings, it’s no surprise that of 222 prostituted women interviewed in Chicago, 44% to 50% said they hand over the money they make to another party, and 79% said they feared that violent action would be taken if they stopped. But statistics and legislative efforts alone cannot change the prevailing attitudes that maintain that these are criminals who have chosen their fates.

On August 13, in the midst of the campaign to arrest johns, 22-year-old Brianna Gardner was found murdered in a hotel room in an upscale neighborhood in downtown Chicago. Her death was reported by local and major news networks, all of which omitted any and all information about Gardner as a person, in favor of discussing her involvement in prostitution and prior arrests.

Gardner’s death was not billed as tragic, but rather, as an unsurprising fact of life, noteworthy for having occurred in a supposedly safe neighborhood. News outlets exclusively used her mug shot, as well as a photo she posted on a jobs listing site for individuals looking for work in the sex trades, to accompany reports. This manner of coverage is standard; in fact, NBC has published a galleryofmug shots of women arrested for prostitution charges as a spectacle with little context.

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