When a client arrives at the hotel, the undercover officers text their colleagues to make sure everyone’s out of the hall. The cops gather by the door, looking Ohlala mobile Website through the keyhole and waiting for a sign from the undercover officer. For a few seconds, all joking stops, and everyone is absolutely silent. Once a deal has been made for sex, the undercover officer gives an electronic signal and the other cops rush in and cuff the buyer. The whole process usually takes under a minute. (To protect the safety of the undercover officers, we’ve agreed to use pseudonyms.)
After they’re cuffed, the johns are quickly taken to a third room, where they’re searched for weapons. If they’re unarmed, the officers take off their handcuffs and explain the situation. They’ll get an ordinance violation, which is at least a $500 fine, and in many cases their car will be towed, which is another $500, plus a towing fee that’s usually between $200-300. This won’t result in a criminal record, nor will they serve any jail time, unless there’s an open warrant for their arrest on a different charge.
Every john that got caught said it was his first time, but the cops don’t buy it. “You’re either the unluckiest guy in the world, or you’re lying,” says Deputy Chief Michael Anton, who led the stings. His logic is that the cops are out there so infrequently, only people buying regular sex are likely to get caught. “It’s gotta be humiliating for these guys.”
A college student came in sobbing, “my parents are going to kill me.” He explained to the cops, and to TIME, that he had a girlfriend, but their relationship had recently gotten more serious and she’d said she wanted to abstain until marriage. He says that’s how he found himself seeking out a prostitute. “I’m going to fail at life now,” he told us, dejected.
Under the Nordic Model, which has also been adopted in Norway and Canada and endorsed by a non-binding European Parliament resolution, sex workers themselves don’t face arrest, only their clients do
Deputy Chief Anton rolled his eyes and made a crybaby face, but let the kid off with just the ticket, without towing his car. “I always say it’s never their first time, but this might have been his first time,” he said.
Seattle has seen some early success in its “Buyer Beware” program, and in 2014, Seattle police arrested more sex buyers than prostitutes for the first time
Dart’s team isn’t the first to target guys who buy sex. Sweden criminalized pimps and buyers (but not individual sex workers) in 1999, in a policy now known as the “Nordic Model.” Government reports says this policy may have led to a reduction in street prostitution and trafficking of young and vulnerable girls from poor countries.
Versions of this approach are slowly spreading across the U.S., but most jurisdictions continue to arrest prostitutes even as they turn their focus to sex buyers. New York established a special court system in 2013 to process sex workers and trafficking victims, with the goal of offering them counseling and social services, the same year Nassau County, NY caught more than 100 johns and posted their pictures online in a controversial sting called “Operation Flush the Johns.” Orange County, Calif. is cracking down on pimps and johns instead of prostitutes, reducing arrests of women as they increase arrests of men.
“We make it very unpleasant for the person who’s out there purchasing the sex,” says Captain Eric Sano of the Seattle police department, “Because we believe there wouldn’t be as much supply if there wasn’t a demand.”