It's a Screwed-Up World When Prostituted Women Are Arrested More Often Than the Johns Who Abuse and Kill Them
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois spearheaded the third annual National Day of Johns Arrests, officially called Operation Buyer Beware, 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 hub for human 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% since 1995, 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 End Demand 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, on average, 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 gallery of mug shots of women arrested for prostitution charges as a spectacle with little context.
“News coverage like this continually perpetuates victim blaming and fails to see this as a social injustice that needs addressing,” Durchslag said. “It’s appropriate to say, here is another example of how prostitution harms people who are in it. What’s not relevant is to say, this is a person in a high-risk lifestyle—it doesn’t address the system.”
ABC Chicago anchor Chuck Goudie opened his segment on the murder by mentioning Gardner’s multiple arrests in her hometown of Dallas, Texas, and in Chicago. He does not stop there. He goes on to say, “Gardner was also looking for work on West Hubbard Street in River North, standing in the street and on the sidewalk, waving her arms, curbing cars, stopping pedestrians and soliciting single men for sex, according to police.”
By linking the notion that Gardner was inviting attention from potential johns with the story of her death, Goudie suggests that her behavior killed her. This narrative does not account for the behavior of the person who shot her in the head—likely a customer, according to authorities. Goudie goes on to cite Gardner’s appearance on the show “So You Think You Can Dance” when she was just 18, saying, “One of the judges said that she merely ‘squirmed around the floor’ and looked like ‘a very bored stripper,’ a prophecy that came true and may well have lead to her murder.”
The negative anecdote serves no purpose in the report other than to further disparage the character of the young victim. It is significant that the Chicago Sun Times acknowledged that Gardner’s murderer was likely a john because, according to Durchslag, the role of the buyer is seldom mentioned when crimes against people in prostitution are covered.
“The media can help reframe the issue that these are women in need of services, not criminal consequences,” Durchslag said. “If you know law enforcement has no respect for you, why would you come forward? I wouldn’t. We do a real disservice to women in the sex trade because they rarely feel comfortable reporting the crimes against them.”
It should also be noted that although most people who work in prostitution do experience violence, it is not always appropriate or accurate to describe someone who does this kind of work as a victim; some have alternative job options and continue to work in prostitution without being harmed.
Rachel Ramirez works with individuals who formerly worked in prostitution at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless as a SAGE (Survivor Advocacy Group Empowered) organizer. She said that prostituted people often don’t report abuse for fear that they will be arrested. Given that 97% of felony arrests for prostitution in Illinois between 2000 and 2009 targeted women, those fears are not unfounded.
A group of SAGE survivors organized a vigil on August 22, just a few days following Operation Buyer Beware. The evening, which honored survivors and those who have lost their lives while working as prostitutes, was planned long before Gardner’s tragic murder and coincidentally took place near the hotel where she was killed.
“There are always women and men getting killed in prostitution, so when we were planning it things like this would always come up,” Ramirez said.
Many of the survivors with whom Ramirez works were disturbed by the relative lack of coverage surrounding the death of Tiffany Gooden, a transgender woman who was killed one day after Gardner. Ramirez said they attributed this to the fact that Gooden was murdered on Chicago’s West Side, in a predominantly poor black neighborhood.
“The media reflects the realities of our attitudes, and it’s a really big deal for people who live in these communities when the woman killed in the Gold Coast got so much more press,” Ramirez said. “Prostituted people don’t matter to the media, or in the public consciousness. A poor black prostitute in a poor black area matters even less and the people I work with are so acutely aware of that fact.”
Rachael Morgan, a volunteer leader at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and a SAGE survivor, said coverage like that of Gardner’s case effects the way prostituted women see themselves.
“They treat you like you’re less than human,” Morgan said. “It’s unreal. [Gardner] endured a lot of pain when she was out there, and [this coverage] doesn’t symbolize any of that. Nothing positive the girl did in her life was mentioned. I wouldn’t have wanted to be remembered that way.”
Morgan’s story is not at all atypical. She started using heroin at 16, and her family cut her off financially several years later. In eight years on the Chicago streets, she was raped and brutalized numerous times. One of several pimps she paid over the years hunted her down and beat her when she fled. Although she was frequently victimized, Morgan said that virtually all of her interactions with police targeted her as the criminal.
“You get pulled over in a car with a john and you watch him drive away from the back of a cop car,” Morgan said. “It happens all the time. I was tortured in a garage for three hours. It was so sickening, and I couldn’t even think about going to the police because they’d pull up my record and arrest me. Every girl was the same way. You get raped, you go wash up, and go back out there.”
Morgan did approach police once, after she was hospitalized for having jumped from a moving car to avoid being shot by a john who had been holding a gun to her head. She identified the john by his nickname and watched as police retrieved his information, including his full name. Still, the police did nothing to punish this man—one of many who threatened her life over the years.
Morgan’s experience is more common than that of a prostituted 16-year-old girl in Chicago, whose 42-year-old assailant, Adekunkle Adefeyinti, was found guilty of two felony charges—aggravated battery and leaving the scene of an accident—on August 16.
Adefeyinti was convicted by a Cook County judge and stands to serve a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for flinging the girl from his Hummer SUV to avoid paying her. Among her many injuries, part of her scalp was ripped off when her body collided with a parked car.
According to a press release from the State's Attorney’s Office, the conviction is considered a victory in the office’s fight against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that one of every three teenage runaways is pulled into prostitution in the first 48 hours of life on the street, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, most girls are first prostituted between the ages of 12 and 14.
CAASE spokesperson Kristin Claes, who was present at the trial, said the case is groundbreaking because it identifies the prostituted girl as a victim and specifically targets a john for violence against her. Considering that so many children are prostituted all over the country, such a precedent must be set. Claes added, however, that the judge expressed reservations about the victim’s integrity. “They’ve arrested johns before, but it’s groundbreaking to see a survivor of prostitution treated as a victim,” Claes said. Still, “the judge did say he did not find the victim credible because of what she was wearing in court.”
Adefeyinti’s sentencing hearing will take place on September 17, and will mark a success for the State’s Attorney in time for Operation Buyer Beware. It's a small step, however, toward reshaping social perception of women in prostitution.