Few people in our communities are more vulnerable than sex workers. They’re often trafficked, frequently abused and highly susceptible to deadly disease. Most operate under the thumbs of coercion, pimps or addictions.
A moral inconvenience of the business is that the choice to work in the sex industry is rarely an empowered, healthy, voluntary one.
On Long Island, police could arrest scores of sex workers every night if they wanted to. That this doesn’t happen isn’t a function of the problem’s scope, but of law enforcers’ acknowledgment that doing so would do little to curb the trade. Because sex workers don’t fear prosecution, it’s difficult for us to induce them out of the marketplace.
So we’re turning the tables on the equation. Instead of going after only the resilient, often victimized sex worker, we’re turning up the heat on the part of the industry that can be deterred: the johns.
Johns fear prosecution. They’re willing to think twice about committing a crime if they believe the risk of detection is great enough. They are mostly men with jobs, families and social networks vulnerable to the fallout of criminality.
Our strategy started with the arrest of more than 100 suspected johns, each of them videotaped and each of their names released to the public.
The case has its critics. Some think prostitution is a victimless crime. To think this is to have never met a sex worker. Whether it’s from the Dark Ages or the glamorous tales of Ashley Dupre, the prostitute at the center of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation, or the film “Pretty Woman,” this view is more conscience-convenient than realistic.
Other critics — including Newsday’s editorial board — question whether the scope of Long Island’s sex industry warrants our attention. A few detectives making 104 arrests in eight days suggests otherwise. And have they already forgotten the bodies discovered at Gilgo Beach?
Some say the demand for prostitutes is an undeterrable force. But this argument requires you to ignore the role price — that is, risk — plays in establishing demand. It requires you to believe that the same number of people were trolling the Internet for sex the night after this sting as the night before.
There are critics of our case upset the accused weren’t afforded anonymity. Apart from the public’s bedrock right to know who’s been criminally charged by their government, this outrage would be much harder to ignore if it were delivered with even a shred of consistency. Why does nobody complain about disclosing defendants’ names and faces when stings target financial scams, corruption or gang activity — as they so publicly and frequently do? Why are assumptions of anonymity, accusations of “shaming,” and concerns about humiliation only relevant when discussing financially and socially affluent defendants?
I have great sympathy for the families of those accused. But I also have sympathy for the families of the 25,000 other people publicly accused of crimes each year who never receive the same advocacy.
I refuse to pretend that the sex industry is a victimless one, that it doesn’t exist on Long Island, and that it’s a marketplace immune to influence. I’m certainly not going to shield arrests that can deter future crime in our community.
Critics’ double standards are features of a policy discussion too focused on minimization and qualification, at the expense of uncomfortable truth and practical solutions. Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, but the apathy fostered by this adage is keeping us in a cave from which we must emerge.
Kathleen M. Rice, Mineola
Editor’s note: The writer is Nassau County district attorney.