From Worcester to Brockton, Lawrence to New Bedford, police officers last year arrested vastly more women than men for prostitution-related offences, new state police data shows. The steep – and in some towns, growing – gender divide continues despite state and national reform efforts to focus on the demand that fuels the often violent and lucrative commercial sex industry. Among new efforts, Massachusetts’ lawmakers passed a law in 2011 that increased fines and jail time for sex buyers. But the ratio of prostitution arrests by gender remains relatively stagnant statewide.
Nearly 70 percent of the 920 arrests on prostitution-related charges in 2013 were of women, according to an analysis of state data obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Last year, police arrested 642 women compared with 278 men, according to data provided by the Crime Reporting Unit of the Massachusetts State Police. Examples of the lopsided enforcement include Worcester, where 14 men were arrested on prostitution-related charges compared with 157 women; Springfield, with 3 men and 50 women; and Lawrence with 8 men and 16 women, according to 2013 state and local data.
Massachusetts arrest numbers – similar to national trends – haven’t budged much since the mid 1990s, says Michael Shively, founder of the Cambridge-based Demandforum.net, a website that tracks actions against sex buyers across the US. That’s because it is easier and less costly to focus on the supply side of the sex trade equation, Shively says.
For example, a “John sting’’ requires police to set up a decoy woman with a support team of fellow officers, while police can simply arrest women who are soliciting sex on the street. “This crime requires both a buyer and a seller, and it still makes no sense that only half the group is held accountable,’’ Shively says. “Really, ratios should be flipped. There are stronger arguments for arresting more men than women.”
State laws impede police efforts to go after men, says Marianne Sarkis, an assistant professor of international development and social change at Clark University in Worcester. For example, a woman can be arrested while standing on a corner for being a “common night walker.” A buyer, however, must discuss the exchange of money to be arrested for soliciting sex, she explains. “The laws aren’t working,’’ Sarkis says. “They don’t allow the police to arrest Johns at a higher rate.”
In Worcester, long troubled by prostitution problems, the arrests of women nearly doubled from 87 in 2012 to 157 in 2013, state records show. Arrests of men in that same period dropped from 31 to 14. That trend appears to be continuing this year with only 5 arrests of men compared with 113 of women by early September, according to the Worcester Police Department.
The lack of buyer arrests has so bothered community activists along troubled Main Street in Worcester that they are planning a rally Oct. 8 to urge law enforcement to do more. The group, End Demand Worcester, says so-called Johns drive up and down Main Street from early morning to late at night trolling for women – even calling out to college students and young mothers pushing strollers. “Johns really affect the quality of life of our neighborhood,’’ says Casey Starr, 29, a community activist who works at Main South Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit focused on improving the community. “Johns can be shamed and arrested out of this.”
Worcester Police Chief Gary J. Gemme, declined to comment specifically on arrest numbers. However, he said in a written statement to NECIR that law enforcement generally focuses its resources on “reducing the visible presence of prostitution related activity that negatively impacts the quality of life in our neighborhoods.” There are “significant investigative challenges” to making an arrest of both men and women, he said.
For their part, some women who sell their bodies on Main Street in Worcester describe life stories that defy the deterrent effect of repeated short arrests. Their stories build on advocates’ arguments that most women need social services not short jail stints. Several women interviewed on a warm September evening said they were looking for buyers to fund addictions to heroin and crack cocaine. They told stories of homelessness, despair, and decades of abuse from relatives, pimps, and buyers. Many started in what they call “the life” in their teens.
Kim, who declined to provide her last name, says she’s been selling sex since she was 17, when she had a newborn and needed money for diapers and baby formula. She says she can’t shake her drug addiction and has no job skills to look for another kind of life: “My body just screams narcotics. I despise everything I have to do to get money.’’
Another lanky long-haired woman, age 45, says she’s been selling her body since she was 15 after getting hooked on heroin: “I have to support my habit. I sell my soul on a day-to-day basis. Without the men, how am I going to make money?”
Victim advocates say refocusing enforcement on sex buyers is slow going. Among good news, they say, the city of Boston last spring launched an initiative to reduce demand for prostitution by 20 percent in two years – part of an initiative being launched in 11 cities nationwide. But for every step ahead, there’s another one behind.
Last year, prompted by the new human trafficking law, a task force chaired by state Attorney General Martha Coakley filed recommendations to reduce demand for commercial sex calling it a “critical element” in combatting trafficking. “Arresting prostituted women and trafficked girls is inefficient at best, and leads to re-victimization at worst,’’ the report said. “If demand is not addressed, thereby shrinking or destroying the market, traffickers will continue to victimize their prey for profit.’’
The task force recommended new initiatives to address demand – including exploring ways to help police arrest buyers through so-called reverse stings. The committee also urged the state to expand and replicate the state’s only sex buyer education program, or “John School” in Worcester, a court-ordered class meant to deter demand.
But recommendations haven’t been pushed into action. And the “John School” – which aims to hold four programs a year – hasn’t held a class since September 2013 because not enough men have been sent to the program by local courts. Maureen Casey, who runs the program through the nonprofit Spectrum Health Systems, Inc. in Worcester, hopes to have enough students to run a class in October.
Victim advocates like Lina Nealon, founding director of the Cambridge-based Demand Abolition, a nonprofit focused on fighting prostitution, worries that too much time is passing since the task force submitted its recommendations in August of 2013. “We have a strong law on the books and specific, actionable recommendations ... but the law is worthless if it's not used," she says.
Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer says a volunteer committee is working on concrete proposals to push forward the task force recommendations. Meanwhile, he says the attorney general’s office has provided dozens of police trainings across the state to educate law enforcement about human trafficking and its relationship to prostitution.
The state agency also has successfully convicted sex traffickers under the new law and has several other cases pending, he says. The 2013 state arrest data also highlights the wide swing in efforts among cities and towns to shift the focus from troubled women and girls to the men who buy their sexual services. The city of Lynn is one of the few municipalities last year reporting more arrests of men than women. Police hauled in 92 men – or 63 percent of prostitution-related arrests – in 2013, state records show.
With mounting complaints and crime caused by prostitution, Lynn added resources to “John stings’’ last year, says Rick Donnelly, a Lynn police public information officer. Already this year, the city has arrested 32 male offenders for soliciting sex in hope of discouraging buyers from coming to Lynn, he says. “There aren't that many [women],” he says. “There are a lot more Johns.’’
But the majority of cities and towns still focus largely on arresting women. While data could include some men arrested for prostitution, largely arrest numbers are divided by gender: Men are arrested for buying and women for selling, police say. In Lawrence, for example, police last year arrested 8 men for soliciting and 16 women for prostitution, according to Capt. James Fitzpatrick.
The city does not usually track prostitution-related arrests and had not submitted numbers to the state. Fitzpatrick says police aim to carry out at least one John sting a year – to address what he says is half the prostitution problem. Many of the women are addicts, he says, drawn to the streets for money.
But, he adds, “If it wasn’t for the customers, they wouldn’t be out walking.’’ But, in New Bedford, Capt. Steven Vicente explains the difficulty of shifting enforcement focus to men. While police will always arrest both men and women if they are caught in a sexual act, he says, police most often are called to a community following complaints about known prostitutes.
Last year, New Bedford police arrested 10 men and 17 women for prostitution-related charges, state data shows. “It's the oldest profession in the world and it is still going to keep going after I hang up the phone with you,’’ Vicente said. Lowell Police Capt. Kevin Sullivan says his police department understands the importance of going after buyers to curb prostitution and help troubled neighborhoods. But it’s expensive, he says, because arresting men requires more time and resources.
Last week, Lowell police arrested seven men in a prostitution-related sting, police said. “Obviously, if you are able to arrest the Johns and you are able to put their names in the paper – where they work and they live – that should be a deterrent to future activity," he says.