Boston, MA

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Boston is the capital of (and the largest city within) Massachusetts, and has a population of approximately 600,000 in the city proper (and about two million in the greater metropolitan area). Prostitution and sex trafficking have been identified by residents, businesses, service providers, and police as substantial problems in the city.

To address consumer-level demand for commercial sex, which drives both prostitution and sex trafficking markets, the Boston Police Department began conducting street-level reverse stings in 1976.  By the mid-1980s, city officers were among the most proactive and aggressive departments in the nation to utilize the tactic. Police began conducting frequent and large-scale john stings as part of an ongoing initiative known as “Operation Squeeze.”  The operations, which deployed one or more undercover female officers as decoys, were conducted on a near monthly basis. When asked why BPD strategy targeted sex buyers over sellers, one officer noted “[prostituted women] are not doing it because they enjoy it, they’re doing it to support [themselves]… and they wouldn’t be walking the streets if there were no customers” (Boston Globe, May 1994).

At the same time, local officials and law enforcement furthered efforts by testing several new policies designed to deter johns from soliciting in the first place. In the early 1980s, the city experimented with sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of offenders, notifying other residents and family members of the arrest. In 1994, city officials (led by Mayor Thomas Menino) endorsed the airing of johns’ court arraignments on public access cable. Though both failed to gain traction, similar shaming techniques are still employed. As of 2012, sex buyers may have their names released to local media outlets and/or posted to the BPD’s official website.

The landscape of Boston’s commercial sex market has also changed substantially. Once concentrated in the city’s “Combat Zone” (a stretch of the downtown area historically associated with adult theaters, pornography shops and street prostitution), Boston’s prostitution activity has become much less centralized in recent years, as increased policing and city ordinances have successfully “cleaned up” areas once favored by solicitors. In response, the BPD has expanded its strategy to incorporate new areas for targeted surveillance, such as Dorchester Avenue. In their efforts, officers have engaged with community members and frequently utilize residents’ tips about suspected prostitution activity.

In 2012, the BPD stepped up its enforcement efforts targeting johns.  The department began to charge some of the men with felony-level violations of the state’s new human trafficking statutes that raised the level of offense and the maximum fines for sex buyers.  They conduct operations targeting buyers of sex from both adults and children, and conduct both street-level and web-based reverse stings.  In addition, they have begun to leverage johns to make cases against pimps and traffickers.  Arrested johns that have arranged to buy sex through pimps are sometimes asked to become “confidential informants,” and to provide evidence that can be used to make cases against pimps and human traffickers. This is a promising tactic, since most cases against pimps and traffickers rely upon evidence supplied by survivors (prostituted women or sex trafficking victims), who are seldom in a position to cooperate with prosecutors effectively, willingly, or without placing themselves are risk of retaliation.

In February 2014, over 20 men from Boston and nearby suburbs were arrested by the Boston Police Department and then charged with seeking sex for a fee and other crimes after recent online prostitution stings, done in collaboration with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. Some of the men resolved their cases by paying a $1,000 fine and watching a brief “john school” video about the risks associated with prostitution.

Online Prostitution Prevention Class (John School):

An online education program for sex buyers has been developed by the North American Learning Institute for availability in Massachusetts.  Men may be asked or required to complete the Prostitution Prevention Class, or john school, by a judge, court, parole officer, probation officer, or a state, county, or city official. This first offender prostitution program is often required as part of a prostitution intervention or diversion program. The Prostitution Prevention Class is offered in minimum time requirements of four (4), eight (8), twelve (12), or sixteen (16) hours. The course cost ranges from $25 to $85 dollars, depending on its length.  A timer is provided to help keep track of time spent within the course. Users may start and stop the Prostitution Prevention Class as often as needed, and their progress will be saved each time. The entire Prostitution Prevention Class can be completed online and does not require a call to a staff member or visit an office to complete the program.  The Prostitution Prevention Class is presented in 10 separate sections, and a certificate of completion will be provided when all the modules have been finished.

  1. Introduction
  2. Prostitution
  3. Legal status
  4. Health risks
  5. Financial consequences
  6. Effect on prostitutes
  7. Procuring (pimps/traffickers)
  8. Associated community problems
  9. Sexual addiction
  10. Resources and references

Key Partners

  • Boston Police Department
  • Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office
  • Demand Abolition
  • North American Learning Institute

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings (with Shaming since at least 2016):

Neighborhood Action:


John School:

Community Service:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Massachusetts
Type City
Population 599351
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