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Research in Brief—Putting Sex Traffickers Out of Business: Combatting Human Trafficking and Prostitution by Reducing the Demand for Commercial Sex

Maureen Q. McGough, Esq., Policy Adviser, Office of the Director, National Institute of Justice

In 2012, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) published a national compendium of law enforcement strategies to reduce the demand for commercial sex. The following explores the merits of a demand reduction approach; discusses strategies commonly used in the United States; and provides helpful links to guidance, evaluations, and best practices for implementing demand reduction strategies in jurisdictions.

Human trafficking is a pervasive crime that occurs throughout the United States. While considerable research is still needed to determine the scope and scale of human trafficking, recent developments in determining prevalence indicate that traditionally used estimates are likely very low. Furthermore, given the covert nature of the crime and the rarity of victims who identify themselves as being trafficked, traditional law enforcement interventions and strategies will likely be ineffective in identifying victims and building cases against traffickers. It is, therefore, necessary for law enforcement executives to consider alternative approaches, such as demand reduction strategies, to reduce incidences of human trafficking in their jurisdictions.

Strategies that focus on pimps and traffickers have often had a limited impact. Traffickers may form strong bonds with their victims, who, in turn, refuse to testify against their captors. Traffickers are also skilled at innovation and adapting their business models and locales to avoid detection. Furthermore, in the infrequent cases where a trafficker is apprehended, his or her place is quickly taken by other individuals eager to partake in a lucrative criminal enterprise. Targeting those who sell sex is similarly problematic. In human trafficking cases, the individuals selling sex are victims in need of intervention and services. Taking victims off the street without accounting for their victimization and needs (i.e., treating them as if they are prostitutes and criminals) will likely lead to their re-victimization; with no alternative to their trafficking situation, they will return to the streets from which they came. Additionally, even if a trafficking victim is successfully identified, rescued, and reintegrated into society, there are countless other vulnerable individuals who will quickly fill the void he or she left behind. There is, therefore, a strong argument for targeting the purchasers of commercial sex to effectively combat and prevent sex trafficking and prostitution.

Various approaches and interventions targeting sex buyers have been used throughout the United States, and a significant need exists to share information and collective experiences across law enforcement agencies on strategies and how to implement them, best practices for reducing demand, and common challenges and ways to overcome them.

In response to the need for more information, the NIJ awarded Dr. Michael Shively, a senior research associate at Abt Associates, a research grant to fill the knowledge gaps and create a publically available compendium for law enforcement agencies considering or implementing demand reduction strategies in their jurisdiction.

In a report, A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts, Dr. Shively and his colleagues conducted extensive literature reviews, surveys, and interviews with law enforcement agencies around the United States to identify commonly used and innovative programs and tactics to reduce demand.

They found more than a dozen different types of interventions in use in more than 800 U.S. jurisdictions and were able to obtain key details about how the programs are implemented. They cataloged, for example, the number of officers needed to successfully implement the intervention, approaches to overcoming common challenges, and innovative variations to standard implementation.

By far, the most commonly used intervention is the street-level reverse sting, where a police officer poses as a prostitute (though some departments use non-law enforcement decoys). Web-based stings are also frequent, while brothel-based stings are uncommon. Shaming johns by publicizing their identities via news outlets, police websites, and billboards is another common tactic, as is the seizure of automobiles used in the commission of the crime. Though not as popular, a fair number of jurisdictions reported using “john schools”—educational programs for arrestees where they are instructed on health consequences, impacts on communities, impacts on survivors (at times delivered by a survivor), victimization risks, and legal consequences.

Researchers also compiled available formal evaluations of some demand reduction strategies. It is difficult to precisely evaluate the impact of the strategies, and a significant need for further research exists, but the following examples are illustrative of the promise and potential:

  • A john school in San Francisco, California, appeared to reduce offender recidivism by more than 40 percent. The decrease in recidivism occurred concurrently with the program’s implementation and was sustained for the following decade.
  • In a controlled experiment in Jersey City, New Jersey, a comprehensive approach that included reverse stings appeared to reduce prostitution by 75 percent.
  • In Sweden, criminalizing the purchase of sex while simultaneously decriminalizing the sale of sex appeared to reduce street prostitution by 50–75 percent.
  • A comprehensive approach that focused on arresting and shaming johns was associated with a 24 percent drop in calls for service in St. Petersburg, Florida. Another approach that also focused on john arrest and shaming was associated with a 38 percent reduction in calls for service in Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • The use of reverse stings and john shaming in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, appeared to both remove the jurisdiction from a known trafficking circuit and reduce the number of women engaging in prostitution by 75 percent.

    Dr. Shively and his colleagues have continued to compile data about demand reduction strategies in U.S. jurisdictions and currently have information from more than 1,000 jurisdictions in their database. The database, located online at, can be searched by specific tactics (such as shaming, auto seizure, community service, public education, neighborhood action, SOAP orders, john schools, letters, cameras, web stings, and license suspension). Users may also search the database by location, which identifies and connects users to tactics and interventions in use near their own jurisdictions.

    Researchers are in the process of obtaining similar nationwide information about survivor-focused programs. This growing compilation of entities that serve survivors is also available on, as are a compilation of local ordinances and statutes that cover penalties for sex buyers, a documentary film about preventing sexual exploitation through demand reduction, and a list of organizations and agencies addressing demand for prostitution and trafficked sex. ♦

    Access the full report, A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts, including helpful implementation guidance.

    The study also resulted in a user-friendly, publically available website containing this information and a


From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 7, July 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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