Just before Christmas last year, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly hosted a small, cosmopolitan group of pretty young women in his office at 1 Police Plaza. Most were immigrants to the city, having come from Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe and around the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of what they would discuss, only two other officials were present—the NYPD’s chief counsel and the commanding officer in charge of vice.
The women spoke different languages but had at least one thing in common: they had all been brought to the city to labor in the sex industry. The non-natives’ first English words were “blow job” and “fuck.”
They told harrowing stories of being kidnapped, imprisoned and forced to sell their bodies. One immigrant without legal status in the U.S. described being shuttled around in a livery car, the driver delivering her to various “customers” one after another. “She was basically a prisoner,” said one participant at the meeting.
Mr. Kelly spent two hours with the women, an unusual investment of time for the commissioner. “He has a lot on his plate,” NYPD counsel Katherine Lemire told The Observer. “It was very, very moving. You could tell these women have been through a lot, and for them to come in to the NYPD and have them tell their stories was intimidating for them. That’s why the Commissioner kept the attendance on our side pretty low.”
Shortly after that meeting, which antiprostitution advocates had long been requesting, Mr. Kelly created a new antitrafficking squad, believed to be the first of its kind in an American city. And in the next two months, the NYPD shifted its focus for the first time to arresting johns rather than prostitutes. In two sweeps, one in January and one in February, 386 men were arrested. Many have since been arraigned, and fined between $150 and $250. Some are completing community service and have had their cars impounded. In exchange for leniency, the DA’s office has interviewed many of them, seeking information about trafficked women.
Deputy NYPD Commissioner Paul Browne told The Observer that Mr. Kelly has now “directed commands citywide to respond to complaints about prostitution by identifying locations and then arresting the johns through the use of officer decoys and their back-up teams.”
“We are very much in agreement with how the NYPD is handling these cases, in terms of their stepped-up efforts in johns cases,” executive assistant DA Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief of the trial division, told The Observer. The DA’s office has a number of human trafficking cases in the works, she said, including one against a New York City pimp who has “branded” his girls with tattoos.
The new law enforcement emphasis on the demand side was not apparent last week, as Anna Gristina, the “soccer mom madam,” was carted off to Rikers Island, where she remains, unable to cover a $2 million bond (despite being charged with only one count of promoting prostitution). Instantly, the mother of four became a tabloid cover girl, as law enforcement sources dangled leaks about her business. Ms. Gristina was sitting on a fortune, sources said. Her clients were rich and powerful. City officials had made it known that they had her on tape bragging about her well-heeled customer base. The Daily News, hard out of the gate on the story until it got beat on the first jailhouse interview, characterized the johns as “a roster of bold-faced names including royalty, state politicians, CEOs, club owners and members of the boards of city hospitals and art institutions.”
Clearly the authorities know who many of those johns are. No names have been forthcoming, however. Rather the “curvy strawberry blonde,” who had a soft heart for orphaned pot-bellied pigs, used the New York Post to assure her regular patrons that her incarceration wouldn’t alter the discretion for which some had paid the equivalent of the median American annual income.
“I’d bite my tongue off before I’d tell them anything,” she declared, in her Scottish brogue.
If history is prologue, the men have little to worry about. Like 90 percent of the johns in the United States, New York’s most famous prostitution customer, the notorious Client Nine, was never charged with a crime. Client Nine’s favorite rental girl, Ashley Dupré, was never aware that the square-jawed, important-seeming guy who fucked her bareback without ever removing his black socks was the governor of the state of New York, or that he helped write and then signed into law the nation’s toughest anti-human trafficking statute.
In New York State, patronizing a prostitute is a Class A misdemeanor. Theoretically, offenders can get up to a year in jail, but most are issued a desk ticket and walk away with a small fine and maybe some community service. (The crime becomes a felony only if the prostitute is under 14.)
Among Eliot Spitzer’s one-time comrades in the effort to shut down human trafficking is Norma Ramos of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Ms. Ramos, who works out of a serene, unmarked office not far from the Korean brothels in the 30s, is a self-described “product of the New York City foster care system” who equates prostitution with slavery and calls herself an “abolitionist.”
Ms. Ramos was one of the advocates who arranged for Mr. Kelly to meet with what they call “prostituted women”—placing the responsibility on the traffickers and customers, a distinction that has rankled advocates for the rights of “sex workers.”
“I say to them, ‘Why should anyone have to give a blow job to eat a sandwich?’” Ms. Ramos said. “They stopped inviting me to debates, because they can’t answer how that is empowering.”
For their part, supporters of sex workers, like the writer Melissa Gira Grant, assail the new abolitionists as prudish “moralists” who don’t get that sex work is just another part of the service industry. “There’s nothing feminist or new in the current wave of antiprostitution reformers who say … that all sex work is ‘sexual enslavement,’” she wrote last year in The Guardian.
Ms. Ramos and her fellow abolitionists frame prostitution as a gender-bias issue. “We live in a world where the whole enforcement apparatus around prostitution is constructed in a hugely, chokingly gender-biased manner,” she said. “Those who are sold are overwhelmingly female. And the buyers and sellers are overwhelmingly male. And resources always go toward arresting the victims. But if we stand a chance of putting the trafficking industry out of business we have to end the demand.”
Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education in San Francisco, produced a 2003 study based on interviews with 854 prostituted women around the world. She found that 68 percent of them met the criteria for PTSD. “The most severe damage of prostitution is not physical, it’s psychological,” she said. “The rates of PTSD are among the highest of any group ever studied.”
Prostitution, Ms. Ramos argued, has created “a class of human beings that are not allowed to say no.”
Former diplomat and Texas oil heiress Swanee Hunt has poured millions into the antitrafficking movement. Her Demand Abolition project surveyed 202 johns in Boston and found some disturbing attitudes. “I’ve never had emotional encounters with a prostitute,” said one unnamed survey respondent. “You tell a girl, like, can I put it in your ass and she’s like, ‘Oohh, I really like that.’ That has a good physiological effect.” More crucially, the survey found twice the level of criminality among the sex buyers it interviewed as among the nonbuyers.
The study recommended that police departments like Dallas, which have started to take DNA swabs of prostitutes they arrest—claiming that such women are more likely to be the victims of homicide—should start swabbing johns instead, since they are more likely to be involved in criminal behavior.
The “50 beauties” employed by Ms. Gristina, as the New York Post put it, were said to be a different type than the women enslaved by sex traffickers. They weren’t hookers, they were “escorts,” who come at a higher price and provide services that go beyond sex. Chief among such premium services is what Canadian journalist Victor Malarek, who has written a book on the john culture, calls the “Girlfriend Experience” or GFE (the basis for the Sasha Grey movie).
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.