The sex trade is like any other, a matter of buyers and sellers. Except the sex trade is illegal in most places in the United States, including the Sunshine State of Florida, where the traditional approach by law enforcement has been to punish the weakest link in a $3 billion a year commercial chain, the person who is trading sex for money.
She, or less frequently, he is usually charged with prostitution or some legalistic euphemism for supplying sexual services.
The costs to the prosecuted sex worker can include time – either in jail or tied up in court, during which he or she is effectively out of business – and money, not just unearned, but paid out for a lawyer and/or for a fine.
And then, there is the humiliation. No matter what the sex worker’s attitude towards their job may be, the attitudes of police, attorneys, court staff and judges handling their cases are rarely sympathetic. The look these men and women frequently get from those around them in the criminal justice process says, “you are nothing,” or worse.
Sometimes, in the spirit of evening up the score, or it is claimed, to disincentivize the whole sex trade, the demand side of the economic equation is hit. The “Johns” as the customers are known, are caught, charged, and much more often than the sex workers, let off with a small fine and a lecture.
Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County, Florida says, he’d had enough of that, busting the retail buyers and sellers of sex. “Let’s go after the traffickers,” he said, and set about meticulously building a case.
Starting was easy, a health inspector, visiting what called itself a massage parlor in a Jupiter, Florida strip mall found evidence that suggested that customers were getting more than a back rub, and that the so-called masseuses lived like prisoners or slaves. They didn’t go home after their shift, but were actually living on the same premises at which they worked, sometimes sleeping the night on the daytime massage tables, and cooking their meals on hotplates in the back or on the back stairs behind the building.
These sharp observations produced a search warrant and led Sheriff Snyder’s men to – on the pretext of a bomb scare – empty the massage parlor and install hidden video cameras and microphones. Soon there were plenty of recordings showing that what was illegally for sale was sex.
Verifying what the cameras and mics had recorded was even easier. As customers drove away after their sessions at the massage parlor, local cops pulled them over and got them to confess to what they’d just been doing.
After that, a series of raids showed that across at least four counties in Florida there were strings of brothels. Most of them connected into small local networks, themselves sometimes linked to regional, national, and international supply lines that brought in women from China, some to be strictly retail sex workers, but some, usually older women, were imported to be shop or even network managers.
Could all of these links bring down the whole global trafficking network? Sheriff Snyder wishes he could think so, but instead he says, “I know that we don’t even make a dent. I feel, on some level,” he says, “extremely dissatisfied that I can’t do more.”
Frances Robles is a national and foreign correspondent based in Miami. Before joining The Times in 2013, she worked at the Miami Herald, where she covered Cuba and was based in both Nicaragua and Colombia.