Ohio could become the second state in the nation to create an online “johns” registry, listing and identifying men who are caught buying sex.
The proposed registry is meant to make it much more likely that prostitution crimes will be discovered by loved ones, friends, neighbors, co-workers and bosses.
“I believe having a publicly accessible registry may prove to be the deterrent that keeps someone from engaging in illegal behavior,” said Ohio Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.), a co-sponsor of the bill that would create a new registry.
The city of Dayton already has something similar with its Buyer’s Remorse website and targeted online ads, which also seek to publicly expose men who buy sex in the community.
The ads last year reached more than 90,500 users online, and about 10,566 people clicked on the postings, according to data shared with the Dayton Daily News.
Some local police officials and state lawmakers and law enforcement leaders say prostitution and human trafficking are closely linked, and they say better deterrents and tougher penalties are needed reduce these crimes.
State House Bill 431 would create a new Sexual Exploitation Database that the Ohio Attorney General would develop and maintain.
Convicted johns, pimps and traffickers would have their names, addresses, photographs and crimes published on the registry.
This information would be removed from the database after five years if individuals commit no subsequent offenses.
Current law makes it fairly easy for people caught buying sex to keep that information hidden from friends, family and employers, according to Carfagna.
The new registry seeks to change that.
Under the bill, anyone convicted of or who pleads guilty to a prostitution offense will have their conviction record sent by the clerk of courts to the attorney general, Carfagna said.
The easy-to-search state database would mean sex buyers are much more likely to have their mothers, wives, children, bosses and other community members find out what they’ve done, supporters said.
Many sex buyers are married with children. Some are well-respected community members who have good-paying jobs.
People who have been caught buying sex in the Dayton area include teachers, coaches, pastors, former police officers, the executive director of the Montgomery County Fair Board, college professors, government workers and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base employees.
‘Hold each other accountable’
Ohio is the fourth worst state in the nation for human trafficking, and the registry is one of a variety of measures proposed by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to try to address the problem.
“Ohioans need a tool to hold each other accountable for crimes committed largely against young women who are trapped in an inescapable chain of poverty, addition and violence,” Carfagna said.
The vast majority of prostitution is human trafficking, said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who came up with the idea of the registry and would oversee it.
Prostitution is between a buyer and a seller, he said.
But human trafficking means a third party, like a pimp or trafficker, gets some of or all the money or proceeds from the sex transaction, he said.
Overwhelmingly, people engaged in prostitution are not doing it voluntarily, and sex buyers have no way of knowing if a prostitute is a willing participant or is being forced into the acts, Yost said.
“Here’s the problem,” Yost said, “when you are a man offering to buy sex, you have no idea when she says yes to that proposition if she’s doing it freely or whether she’s being coerced by drugs or a knife or a baseball bat by some guy out in the parking lot.”
Years ago, law enforcement primarily combated prostitution by arresting the prostitutes, or sex sellers.
Today, the prostitutes themselves are much more likely to be viewed as victims or involuntary participants in the illegal sex trade. Law enforcement efforts now usually focus on the johns.
“We’ve always focused on what they call the oldest profession,” Yost said. “We really ought to call it the oldest oppression.”
Dayton’s Buyer’s Remorse program
The proposed state registry has a lot in common with the city of Dayton’s Buyer’s Remorse initiative, which launched last year.
The Dayton Police Department, with the help of local digital marketing agency Catapult Creative, started a new website www.buyersremorsecampaign.com, which features a map with the names, addresses and other information of people convicted of prostitution-related crimes in the city.
Catapult Creative also sent out targeted Facebook ads to people who live near the convicted johns and who may know them. The ads direct Facebook users to click on a link to the website to learn more about men in their communities who buy sex.
The campaign’s results are being evaluated, but city and police officials say they believe funding for the initiative will be renewed and the campaign will be relaunched.
The Buyer’s Remorse program has been helpful and may have contributed to a 41% decrease in prostitution-related crimes in the city in 2019, said Dayton police Major Brian Johns, commander of investigations and administrative services.
Crime data can fluctuate from year to year, partly based on enforcement activities and operations, Johns said.
Dayton police might have had less time to focus on prostitution activities because they had their hands full last year after a mass shooting, the fatal shooting of a police detective and other high-profile incidents.
Major Johns also said the drop in incidents may be partly attributable to improvements in battling the opioid crisis and more drug-addicted women getting treatment, because prostitution and drug addiction are closely tied.
Research: Registries good deterrent
Major Johns said he supports the idea of a statewide johns registry.
In fact, years ago, he proposed putting convicted prostitution offenders on a low-level sex offender registry, but the idea did not gain traction.
Major Johns said Dayton’s Buyer’s Remorse initiative will be still valuable even if the state creates a new registry.
He said targeted ads with information about sex buyers will come to people, instead of them having to go looking for names online.
Some evidence suggests registries are an effective way to stop men from seeking sex for sale.
A survey of convicted sex buyers found the top deterrent that would stop them from buying sex again would be having their names added to a sex offender registry, Johns said.
Other effective deterrents included publishing johns’ names or photos in local newspapers or plastering their photos and names posted on billboards or posters, Johns said.
Major Johns said he would like to see stiffer penalties for men who buy sex, as well as more treatment options and resources for women trapped in the sex trade.
He’s in luck: Other legislation introduced in the General Assembly calls for enhanced penalties for johns and traffickers.
House Bill 128 would split prostitution crimes into separate offenses for the sellers (the prostitutes) and the buyers (the johns).
Right now, both are prosecuted under the same state law.
Under the proposal, a buyer’s first offense would be a misdemeanor, carrying a fine and required participation in johns school.
The second offense would be a fifth-degree felony. A third offense would be a fourth-degree felony, which a potential punishment of six months in prison.
Yost and others also support House Bill 415, which would create a new criminal offense for receiving the proceeds of prostitution, similar to receiving stolen property offenses.
“This will make it easier to prosecute pimps without the cooperation of the woman,” Yost said.
Last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 5 that increases penalties for promoting prostitution if the offender had a prior criminal record for the same offense or trafficking drugs.
Support not unanimous
Men buying sex from prostituted women on the streets, in hotels or on the internet certainly are complicit in human trafficking, said Dona Pierce, executive director of Oasis House, which has two residential safe houses in the Dayton area for women survivors of trauma, violence, sexual exploitation and substance abuse.
“When apprehended by law enforcement, (johns) may claim they didn’t know the woman was there unwillingly, but the truth is they didn’t ask and they don’t really care,” Pierce said.
Pierce supports a new registry because she thinks it will increase public exposure and reduce demand.
She said, ““I have been told that one of the first questions a john/pimp asks when arrested, ‘Is this going to be in the newspaper?’”
Not everyone supports johns registries, and a variety of groups say prostitution and human trafficking are very different crimes and should not be confused. They say prostitution is consensual and voluntary, and human trafficking is not.
Most people arrested in prostitution operations are lonely men who went to a massage parlor or hired an escort from an online site, says the Florida Action Committee, a nonprofit that “advocates for sex offense laws based on empirical evidence and best practices instead of fear and myth.”
The prostitutes in these exchanges were very willing participants, and a johns registry will make it hard for the people on the list to maintain jobs, which will only compound the shame and difficulty their families are already experiencing, the group said.
Florida’s database for johns, the first of its kind in the nation, will become a bloated, ineffective mess, much like the sex offender registry, the action committee said.
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