By Greggory Moore
If I telephone a woman and arrange to meet her at a motel for sex, that’s legal. If I telephone a woman and arrange to meet at a motel so I can give her a dollar, that’s legal, too.
But put the two together and it’s a crime. A crime supposedly so harmful to life in Long Beach that recently the Long Beach Police Department placed fake Internet ads of women offering sex for money, with the purpose of luring the would-be johns to a local motel, where undercover officers arrested them.
“Operations of this type have been due in large part to community concerns regarding quality of life issues in the area,” says the pertinent LBPD press release, which promises that the Department will continue such anti-prostitution activity.
Put aside the question of whether consenting adults should be allowed to make between them whatever sexual arrangements they like. Put aside the question of the LBPD mounting an operation that actually brings what many (including the LBPD) consider an undesirable element out of their homes and into town (the press release notes that six of the 12 arrestees were attracted by the ad to Long Beach from neighboring cities). Put aside those questions and simply consider whether such police actions are anything but letter-of-the-law distractions from doing what a lot of us would call “real police work,” such as getting violent offenders off the streets and curtailing gang activity.
The LBPD would have you believe that such an anti-prostitution operation is meant to “curtail this nuisance activity and the negative effects it has on the community.” And while there may indeed be situations in which prostitution is legitimate “nuisance activity,” the scenario the LBPD set up here is not one of them. Think about it. Two people meet in a motel room, inside of which they exchange sex and money. If the exchange takes place in the privacy of the room, what is the nuisance: that they met at all? If so, someone should be lobbying to criminalize the “nuisance” of consenting adults meeting in motel rooms.
That the recent prostitution sting was conducted by LBPD’s Vice Detail gives you a clue to what this is about. “Vice,” after all, is generally defined as immoral behavior—though not the sort that harms others. No one talks about murder or rape as vice, right? Gambling, drinking, drug use, sex—these are among vice’s greatest hits. What we’re talking about is sin. If police activity were confined to efforts to protect the citizenry from actual harm, prostitution in and of itself would not be on their radar. But in the United States, we still police morality.
Such is the status quo. And until the LBPD chooses to better prioritize their (by their own reckoning) insufficient resources, they will not only enforce the status quo, but spin their doing so, in the hopes that media organizations will play along in the effort to police your morality. “The Long Beach Police Department would like to remind those inclined to patronize prostitutes that they run the risk of being arrested should they engage in this type of activity,” the press release says, right before providing information on how you can inform against your fellow adult citizens should they make the choice to engage in a consensual exchange of sex for money.
One such media organization that played along is my former employer, the Long Beach Post. “Online Prostitution Sting Nets 12 Arrests,” the headline proclaims, as if this were a newsworthy event. The article is little more than a regurgitation of the press release (though properly attributed), including the bit at the bottom on how you can help their puritanical quest.
But the Post adds a bit of spin that even the LBPD Media Relations Detail didn’t have the temerity to include:
The Vice Department has made several other arrests this year related to prostitution and human trafficking, including one in which a 17-year-old girl was forced into prostitution by a 40 year-old [sic] she met through a friend. He supposedly used online services to find her clients.
There’s a good reason Media Relations failed to include this information: because the sting memorialized by the press release had nothing at all to do with either statutory rape (the technical name of the crime of having sex with anyone under 18) or human trafficking. From time to time, the police do conduct operations designed to punish child molesters and human traffickers—crimes that cause genuine, undeniable harm. This operation simply was not of such stuff, and to suggest otherwise, even implicitly, is disingenuous.
In all things, we should speak honestly of our doings. Regarding their recent anti-prostitution operation, the LBPD did nothing related to human trafficking, nor even to genuine nuisance activity. They created an online ad that attracted a dozen men who wanted to have consensual sex with a woman who was charging a fee for the privilege, then tied up the resource of a few undercover officers for a few hours so these men could be arrested.
If that is really how we want our police to spend their time, so be it. Let’s just tell it like it is.