Bloomington Police arrest 23 in prostitution sting; experts question strategy

Bloomington Police hailed the arrests of nearly two dozen men in a prostitution sting Monday as a blow against human trafficking, though experts in the field caution that there is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of that approach.

Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges said in an afternoon press conference that detectives had created a fake profile of a sex worker using a photo of an undercover officer and posted it on websites known to be used by people seeking to purchase services from sex workers. The resulting stings netted 23 arrests, which occurred over two days on March 15 and March 16.

Hodges said one additional case is still under investigation.

"The business of selling people's bodies for money. It's something that we don't take lightly here in this city.. so we're going to do whatever we can to eradicate human trafficking," he said.

Targeting demand, not traffickers 

However, the operation did not target traffickers directly but rather "johns" or potential customers of sex workers.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of the Human Rights advocates, a 40-year-old Minneapolis-based nonprofit that has worked closely with Minnesota to develop the state's response to human trafficking, says the distinction is important.

"It didn't go after that trafficker, that third party controller, the person who would be charged with human trafficking, if went after people who would be charged with something else, with the purchasing and sale of sex. Those are different things," she said.

Hodges acknowledged that the stings were targeting demand. "You have to really make sure that if you're going after the demand, you're going to lessen the likelihood of people wanting these types of services," he said, adding that the suspects could provide police with information about victims of sex trafficking.

Garnett McKenzie said it wasn't clear what the impact of law enforcement operations targeting demand for sex workers is on human trafficking. "This is just getting after one aspect of the issue of human trafficking. Is it really going after human trafficking? You know, that is a debate that I think law enforcement is wrestling with all the time," she said.

The Nordic model 

Academic researchers on sex workers call the law approach by law enforcement to particularly decriminalize sex work by focusing on the demand side or "Johns," the "Nordic Model," as it first began in Sweden in 1999. 

Jayne Swift, the managing editor of the University of Minnesota’s Gender Policy Report and researcher whose focus has been on commercial sexual culture and economics, says studies indicate that the "Nordic model" is ineffective because:

  1. There is no evidence it deters demand.
  2. Studies have shown (see here and here) that it can have unintended consequences that put sex workers, including victims of human trafficking, in more danger.

"What happens is that it creates the conditions for a buyer's market to emerge because there's so much risk that the buyer presumably takes on that it can lead to rushed negotiations between the sex worker and the purchaser that, therefore, decrease the power that the sex worker might have in that exchange," she said. 

Decreasing the leverage or relative power of sex workers has real consequences, she explained, including increases in unsafe sex and STI transmission rates, as well as increased rates of violence against sex workers.

In her view, a smarter strategy for combating human trafficking would be for the state to enact policies that would benefit current and former sex workers, such as expunging their criminal records and passing "reporting" laws making it easier for them to step forward then they are victims of abuse and trafficking.   

"There's just it's a lot of money and a lot of attention and a lot of effort being poured into really fruitless arenas," she said.

Missing from the narrative 

Garnett McKenzie also noted that while many sex workers either are or have been victims of human trafficking, it's important to recognize they still can have agency.

"Not every individual who is selling sex in Minnesota, not every person who's engaged in transactional sex is a victim of sex trafficking... People can claim and really live in different identities as they're doing this work. And that means that agency is missing from this narrative today," McKenzie said.

Over the last decade, law enforcement has shifted away from charging sex workers with crimes, as many are or have been victims of human trafficking. Garnett McKenzie praised the Bloomington operation for following that trend, noting that by putting up a fake profile, officers avoided involving re-victimizing sex workers.

"That doesn't use the victim again. That's something that really is something to be avoided," she said.

In the press conference, Hodges said the tactic of targeting potential customers was just "one aspect" of his department's overall strategy against human trafficking. In response to a follow-up question, a police spokesperson added that future operations would target people seeking to purchase sex from underage victims, as well as people directly involved in trafficking.