As one john explained to Mr. Malarek: “The GFE means that for the duration of the encounter, the provider does not make you feel like you are participating in a business transaction.”
Some of Ms. Gristina’s clients are said to have paid $25,000 for weekends in Europe, or $800 an hour. One of her employees, “Lizzie,” told the Daily News that she was flown on a private jet to Europe to help a john shop for a mansion. “I’m not a typical escort,” she said in a wide-ranging sit-down with reporters. “I don’t have big implants, I don’t dress [like a prostitute]. I don’t do drugs. I don’t even smoke … Did I travel first-class? You don’t understand. These are men who have their own jets. They have collections of cars.”
She thought of herself as a kind of well-paid surrogate. “I’m the companion, the therapist,” she said. “I can hold a conversation. I’m the person to whom they go when they need a retreat, when they want to get away from their wife.”
Reading those words, Ms. Ramos scoffed: “What I would ask Lizzie is, how did you get started in this business?”
Abolitionists advocating the prosecution of buyers point to the success of what is called “the Swedish model.” Since Jan. 1, 1999, it has been illegal in Sweden to purchase or attempt to purchase sexual services, punishable with fines or up to six months of imprisonment. Those who are prostituted risk no legal repercussions.
By 2004, the number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped 40 percent, and by 2007 the nation was estimated to have the lowest number of victims of human trafficking in Europe. At the time of the change in legislation in 1999, it is estimated that one in eight men bought sex. In 2009, it was down to one in 14. The numbers aren’t particularly surprising: Johns tend to have more at risk—their reputations, careers, families. The surprise, perhaps, is that they’ve been protected for so long.
Norway, Iceland and Finland have copied the approach and it is under consideration in Israel. Even free-wheeling Amsterdam has begun to crack down. In 2008 the mayor started a campaign to close the brothels in the red-light district, contending that the workers in it were trafficked. The city set up a hotline for buyers to call to verify whether an independent prostitute (a prostitute who does not work in a licensed brothel) is legal.
The NYPD’s new human trafficking squad consists of eight experienced investigators and a sergeant supervisor, all handpicked by Mr. Kelly with the involvement of antiprostitution coalition members.
Since the beginning of 2012, NYPD has run two citywide stings, one in January and one in February, dubbed “Operation Losing Proposition”—in which a total of 360 johns were arrested and 102 vehicles were seized. Mr. Browne said the new focus on the johns will continue. “While we have had Losing Proposition arrests in the past, they have been small in scope, not citywide like these,” he explained. “It’s a new policy in that the focus has switched to johns.”
In a statement to The Observer, Commissioner Kelly noted that “women are victimized by prostitution, often forced into it by intimidation and other forms of exploitation. It makes sense to focus on those who are creating the demand, and for them to realize that they face being arrested and having their cars seized.”
Mr. Ramos welcomes the developments as evidence that she and her cohorts have made a dent in police culture that generally abides the trade, or even participates in it. “These girls often say they know cops from the waist down,” she said.
The fact that Mr. Spitzer was never prosecuted not only reinforced the notion that the law enforcement apparatus in New York is not just casting a benign eye on the trade, but partaking of it as well, Ms. Ramos added. “You know, Spitzer apologized to a lot of people, to his family, his wife, the people of New York, but he has to this day withheld the one apology that would get him redemption. He has yet to apologize to the decade of women he bought, for using them as disposable things. He should have been prosecuted and the first one charged under the bill he signed.”
The NYPD’s new focus on johns began long after the five-year investigation that netted Ms. Gristina was initiated. The only male names that have turned up so far are those of two cops and a banker. Sergeant Richard Wall was seen entering and leaving the brothel building, and NYPD has asked for his log book, which presumably will explain the frequency of his visits. A former cop who worked in the Manhattan DA’s office, Sly Francis, was outed in the press as one of Ms. Gristina’s personal bodyguards. And a Morgan Stanley banker, David S. Walker, was meeting with Ms. Gristina in his office when she was arrested. He was reportedly discussing financing her planned expansion into online dating. Mr. Walker denied wrongdoing, but has been placed on leave.
The NYPD has run only two citywide john stings, and Ms. Ramos believes the police may be reluctant to continue because of tepid public support, especially from The New York Times, which covered the stings with critical comment from pro-sex worker advocates. “It is not a sound policy,” Audacia Ray of the Red Umbrella Project told The Times. “I don’t think we’ll see a big drop in prostitution because of these arrests.”
Ms. Ramos disagrees. “You don’t need to arrest them all,” she said. “But you need to arrest enough so you change the cultural and community standards and people realize that it’s not O.K. to buy sex and if you do this there will be consequences to the victimizer.”
Ms. Ramos plans to bring feminist icon Gloria Steinem with her to a meeting with the editorial board of The Times to discuss its coverage of prostitution. “Two men reported on the change in police policy, and quoted only the sex workers project,” she pointed out. “There is a huge problem at The New York Times.”
Besides The Times, the media response to sensational arrests like Ms. Gristina’s tends to be more winking than thoughtful. The tabloids kept the story on page one for three days, teasing out sensational tidbits. Ms. Gristina and her employees were variously described “mantraps” and “high-class hookers” satisfying “the sexual appetites of high-flying clientele” in “an uncut, XXX version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Amorous.” Even the Daily Beast, run by women’s empowerment maven Tina Brown, advertised the story with the headline “The Best Little Whorehouse in New York.”
Now sitting behind bars while her well-heeled johns go about their usual business, the “McMadam” appears determined to protect her clients. Whether prosecutors will do the same remains to be seen.