While the focus of this week's National Prostitute Diversion Conference was Dallas's collaborative approach to treating prostitutes as victims and diverting them to programs that include drug treatment, counseling and job training, many of the attendees repeatedly asked what was being done to enforce laws against men who pay for sex.
"I just have to ask because it's the elephant in the room: What is being done in the demand area?," a female police officer from Massachusetts asked during the Q&A session of one panel, expressing concern that while women with a third prostitution offense in Texas face a felony that remains on their record and makes it difficult to find employment for years to come, the men who buy their services may go without punishment. "We're going to examine this model. We're importing this [approach] to the rest of the country by having you here talking to us today, and so I'd like to know how you're dealing with the johns."
Sgt. Louis Felini, the Dallas police officer responsible for creating the city's Prostitute Diversion Initiative, was quick to answer. "Right now we're targeting mostly the female population, but that's going to change sometime in the next year," he said. New ways to enforce the law -- which prohibits prostitution for both the seller and buyer -- against johns are under discussion, he added, including the possibility of yanking truckers' licenses if they're caught soliciting.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"What we're going through is a philosophy change in law enforcement," he said. "We have to prove this program can sustain itself and that these women really want help, and I think we've been able to accomplish that, so we're moving in the right direction." He stressed that since most prostitutes were sexually and physically abused as children and didn't enter the "profession" by choice, johns play into the cycle of abuse by paying for the end result.
Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher with the non-profit Prostitution Research and Education, addressed demand-side enforcement in her keynote address. While some cities such as Los Angeles have begun "john schools," or educational and counseling programs for men arrested for buying sex, she said that approach doesn't work as a deterrent.
"I only believe in counseling as part of tough legal consequences," she said. Prison time, a letter to their family (most johns are married with children, according to researchers and former prostitutes) or posting their photo online or in the media works best, according to Farley, who has questioned numerous men arrested for buying sex. "They really don't like the letters to their family," she said.
In a police ride-along in South Oak Cliff during the conference, a Dallas vice officer who works under cover told Unfair Park there are so many men out looking for prostitutes -- even in broad daylight -- that if they had the resources the department could run sting operations around the clock. (His unit arrested around a dozen men in a recent sting operation.) His partner, who also works under cover, confirmed Farley's description of the typical john, saying the fact that they usually have a lot to lose can make them dangerous. "Most of these guys have never been in trouble, they're married with kids," he said. "They're facing losing their family, their job -- so those operations can go bad real fast."