By Anna Bisaro
Paying money for sex can earn a person up to one year of incarceration in Connecticut, and a prostitute is subject to the same level of punishment.
But, prostitutes in Connecticut are more than twice as likely to be arrested and almost seven times more likely to be convicted than their customers, according to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
“Why aren’t’ we looking more at the primarily men who are going into cities to buy sex?” said Jillian Gilchrest, senior policy analyst for the PCSW and chairwoman of the Trafficking in Persons Council.
Culturally, many tend to think that prostitutes are the only criminals in a money-for-sex exchange, “when in fact, buying sex is a crime too,” Gilchrest said.
Based on data obtained from the Connecticut Judicial Branch for the period from 2005 to 2014, Gilchrest said the PSCW found there were 1,841 prostitution convictions vs. 269 convictions for buying sex from a prostitute. The data collected was of the number of arrests and convictions for prostitutes and patrons of sex workers who violated state laws.
Officer David Hartman, communications officer for the New Haven Police Department, said he could not comment specifically on the statewide statistics because every city and town in Connecticut is plagued with prostitution in different ways. He said sting operations targeted at sex workers or their customers do not occur often in New Haven. The most recent sting in the city, in September, brought 27 arrests. No customers were charged as the officers were undercover as “Johns.”
Hartman said that prostitutes may end up being arrested more often because they are more visible in the community. For example, sex workers are more often seen walking down the streets looking for customers than “Johns” are seen patrolling street corners looking for sex workers.
Arrest statistics “might have nothing to do with who’s targeted and have more to do with who’s visible,” Hartman explained.
Both prostitution and patronizing for sex are classified as Class A misdemeanors under Connecticut state law.
The data reveals a potential “presence of systemic sexism in how sex workers are viewed and treated,” the PCSW said in a recent press release calling for changes to Connecticut laws to reflect harsher punishments for those who purchase sex.
Federal and state laws recognize sexually exploited minors as victims, but according to the release from the PCSW, that victim status may also apply to older women engaged in sex work.
“We’re learning a lot from the victims of minor sex trafficking,” Gilchrest said. “Many of these adults are those same children.”
Many women who fall into sex work have histories of abuse, Gilchrest said, and may fall prey to pimps promising to be a good boyfriend and take care of them. Many may also struggle with substance abuse problems and it “doesn’t seem so odd to sell yourself for the same abuse you experienced as a child,” she said.
Gilchrest said the results found in the data may also be a reflection of the social status of the prostitutes and those buying sex.
“Many of these (buyers) have the means to obtain a lawyer so they can get the charges dropped,” she said.
In addition, buyers also may be harder to track down because so many of the money exchanges are done via the Internet now, Gilchrest said.
“I would say there are more buyers out there than we know of,” she said.
The PCSW leads the Trafficking in Persons Council, a group dedicated to developing recommendations to state and local authorities to prevent trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute traffickers.
The recommendations for 2016, presented in the TIPC 2015 Annual Report, focus mainly on eliminating the demand for sex work by asking for harsher punishments for those who are buying sex.
Connecticut law currently requires a forfeit of money and property upon arrest for prostitutes and pimps, but the same financial penalties are not imposed on patrons. The TIPC has recommended an amendment to the law to reflect financial penalties for those caught patronizing a prostitute or patronizing from a motor vehicle.
According to a PCSW report, Connecticut law also allows for a “mistake of age” defense for patrons who have engaged in sexual acts with a minor. The defense allows patrons to avoid a felony conviction, if argued successfully.
“The ‘mistake of age’ defense completely contradicts our efforts to protect children from predators,” Tammy Sneed, of the state Department of Children and Families, said in a press release from the PCSW about the recommendations. Sneed is a TIPC member and a co-chairwoman of the Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team.
“Connecticut’s current law allows those caught purchasing sex with a minor to avoid a felony charge if they can successfully argue that they were unsure of the child’s age,” Sneed said. “Having sex with a child is sexual abuse, plain and simple.”
The TIPC is also recommending policies be put in place that limit the renting of hotel or motel rooms at an hourly rate and that places of lodging be required to keep records of persons renting rooms for a minimum of six months.
The TIPC reports annually to the Connecticut General Assembly with recommendations for limiting sex work and human trafficking in the state.
In the battle against human trafficking, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with police departments across the state, DCF and other anti-trafficking groups launched the Connecticut Human Trafficking Task Force in November. The primary focus of the task force is preventing human trafficking among minors.