Houston is one of the largest cities in the United States, with over 2.3 million residents, located in Harris County. Prostitution and sex trafficking are persistent problems in the city. Commercial sex sales continue to occur in a wide variety of venues, including streets, hotels, and nightclubs, and storefront brothels (such as nail salons and health clubs). The high-volume of prostitution deteriorates neighborhoods and causes tenants to move from office buildings. For many years, restaurants and small retail businesses in the Hillcroft and Gulfton area have complained to police that customers are driven away by visible solicitation for street prostitution in parking lots and sidewalks. In addition to longstanding, documented problems with prostitution, human trafficking has become a growing local concern as well.
The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that 1/4 of trafficking victims brought to the U.S. travels, at some point, through Houston. In late 2013, a sex trafficking ring was dismantled that was estimated to have generated a profit of at least $12.6 million each year by forcing underage girls and women who are illegally living in the U.S. into prostitution. A 2013 study tracking online sex services — such as prostitution — found that Houston was the most active of 15 cities studied. Decoy online ads for the sale of sexual services and prostitutes were tracked in a study conducted by the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and the Phoenix Police Department. The telephone numbers for the voicemail and text responses to online sex ads were collected, and the market data found that more than one-in-five Houston males (21.4 percent) were soliciting online sex ads. In Houston, that translates to an estimate of nearly 170,000 males over the age of 18 that have solicited online commercial sex ads.
The city continues to develop plans, laws, policies, and infrastructure to combat sex trafficking, including efforts to identify and respond to the key factors driving consumer-level demand for commercial sex.
Reverse Stings, Shaming
In response to residents’ and businesses’ complaints, the Houston Police Department has adopted a multi-faceted approach to deterring offenders. In addition to traditional strategies targeting prostituted women, the HPD has attacked the demand portion of local commercial sex markets by conducting reverse sting operations. The first reverse sting known to have occurred in Houston occurred in 1981. In that operation, four undercover decoys were deployed, along with support teams of uniformed and plainclothes officers. The operation resulted in the arrests of 52 johns. The decision to try attacking the demand for prostitution was attributed by a Houston Police Department Vice Division Captain as resulting from the demonstrable effectiveness of arresting women engaged in prostitution, coupled with persistent complaints from the community to do something to reduce or eliminate commercial sex and the array of tangible problems associated with it. Captain Tom Shane said, “I just became sick and tired of getting complaints of prostitutes out there. We arrested an average of more hundred prostitutes among and nearly all are repeat offenders.”
Some of the subsequent reverse stings were very large in scale; for example an operation in 1985 resulted in the arrests of 290 men. More recent reverse stings have yielded more typical numbers of arrests; for example, during an eight-day span in January 2014, 48 sex buyers were arrested in a series of reverse stings throughout the city. In some of the street operations, police arrest prostituted women and replace them with decoys in order to arrest sex buyers. Following most reverse stings in Houston, the names, races, and dates of birth of arrested sex buyers have been posted online in Police Department news releases, and carried by some local news outlets.
In recent years, police have incorporated the use of web stings, resulting in the arrests of scores of sex buyers. A large operation that targeted both the buyers and sellers of sex in May 2013 resulted in 100 total arrests. In 2017, a former Houston police officer was among more than 250 sex buyers and traffickers arrested on prostitution charges during a month-long series of reverse stings by the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The operation in Harris County and Houston was coordinated with similar efforts elsewhere as part of the National Johns Suppression Initiative during June and July of 2017, in which law enforcement agencies in 17 states participated. During the first three months of 2018, more than 120 people were arrested for compelling prostitution or solicitation of prostitution, as part of a larger initiative cracking down on prostitution and sex trafficking by Houston police. In April 2018, an additional 33 male sex buyers were arrested. In September, 2018, Houston police released 54 new booking photos of people arrested in August for either compelling prostitution or solicitation of prostitution. In October 2018, there were 21 people arrested for either pimping or buying sex in Houston.
Neighborhood Action, Public Education
As quoted in an article in Click2Houston.com, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said, “Our aim is for Harris County and Houston to shed the dubious distinction as America’s sex trafficking capital. By focusing our efforts on sex buyers who are seeking to take advantage of sex trafficking victims, we are putting these predators on notice that our community won’t tolerate their behavior.” Neighborhood organizations and other non-governmental groups are actively collaborating with government agencies to combat demand for commercial sex, with some suggesting the development of a john school. Among the community groups seeking to impact the demand for commercial sex is the Texas Sex Trafficking Obliteration Project (T-STOP). Their premise is that victims are the result of demand for commercial sex, and that if demand is eliminated, traffickers would have no market for their “supply” of victims. Since 2011, the organization “Free the Captives” has had a local focus on deterring the demand for commercial sex, and has developed collaborations with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, which also target sex buyers in their efforts combat trafficking and other commercial sexual exploitation. The organization attempts to educating sex buyers and the general public via billboards, radio, TV, and large-event outreach.
In February 2018, a Houston Chronicle analysis of more than 300 arrest records from 2017 provided insight into what happens after men are arrested in Harris County for soliciting a prostitute. They found that of the 178 men arrested in Houston that year during a crackdown on prostitution, charges were dismissed or are on track for dismissal in nearly 70 percent of the criminal cases a year later. The high rate of dismissals for men arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute prompted the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to scale back use of a pre-trial diversion program that allowed many defendants to avoid convictions. Of the 178 men arrested, more than 95 enrolled in the diversion program, which typically offers a six month to one-year probationary term approved by the district attorney’s office for first-time offenders. Defendants agree to undergo drug testing, pay fees and complete an AIDS awareness course, among other things. Once the probationary terms are fulfilled, the charge is dismissed. That allows those arrested to seek expungement, which leaves no evidence of the arrest or diversion. About 14 percent of all the February 2017 cases stemming from the sheriff’s office sting were expunged by February 2018, according to the Houston Chronicle’s analysis.
- National Assessment Survey and Interviews
- Street-Level Reverse Stings and Shaming:
- “Vice Squad Nabs Trick”, Bonham Daily Favorite, November 25 1981.
- “Houston Officers Arrest 300 at Police Operated Studio”, Bonham Daily Favorite, December 12 1984.
- “Judge Blasts Police for Prostitute Sting Operation”, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, April 13 1985.
- “Worthy Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, Lewiston Sun Journal, November 16 1990.
- “Police Nab 55 in Two-Day Prostitution Sting”, Houston Chronicle, May 28 2004.
- Brewer, D.D., Roberts, J.M., Muth, S.Q, & Potterat, J.J. (2007a). Prevalence of Male Clients of Prostitute Women in the United States. Final Report to the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice: Research Grant #2003-IJ-CX-1036.
- “HPD Vice, Tac Team Arrest 10 in Prostitution Operation”, Press Release, Houston Police Department, March 12 2008.
- “HPD Deploys Decoys in Prostitution Sting”, Houston Chronicle, March 13 2008.
- “Southern University AD Arrested on Charge of Soliciting a Prostitute”, USA Today, April 5 2011.
- “17 Arrests Made in Prostitution Sting”, CBS/KILT-TV, August 22 2012.
- “HPD: More than 100 Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, CBS/KHOU-TV 11, May 13 2013.
- “Prostitution Sting in SW Houston”, FOX/KRIV-TV 26, May 13 2013.
- “Houston Sheriff Arrests 18 in Prostitution Sting”, Houston Chronicle, November 17 2013.
- “Harris County Deputy Constable Arrested in Prostitution Sting Arranged by His Agency”, ABC/KTRK-TV 13, January 30 2014.
- “61 Nabbed in Harris Co. Prostitution Sting”, Houston Chronicle, January 31 2014.
- “Deputy, 60 Others Arrested in Prostitution Sting Operation”, Houston Press, February 3 2014.
- “At Least 5 Arrested in Prostitution Sting Have Extensive Criminal Records”, Cypress Creek Mirror, February 4 2014.
- “HPD Cracking down on Prostitution,” NBC/KPRC-TV 2, March 20 2015.
- “Undercover Officers Pose as Prostitutes, Johns to Bust Illegal Activity,” NBC/KPRC-TV 2, October 16 2015.
- “Houston Police Arrest 8 Men, 1 Woman on Prostitution Charges,” Houston Chronicle, November 13 2015.
- “Month-long Prostitution Sting in Southeast Houston Nets 25 Arrests,” NBC/KPRC-TV 2, December 18 2015.
- “Former HPD officer among those arrested in prostitution sting.” Click2Houston.com, August 19, 2017.
- “Former HPD officer caught in prostitution bust previously charged with theft.” Houston Chronicle, August 19, 2017.
- “Over 250 sex buyers, traffickers arrested on prostitution charges during sting.” Click2Houston.com, August 18, 2017.
- https://abc13.com/houston-police-arrest-54-for-prostitution-in-a-month/4327505/ (2018)
- https://www.click2houston.com/news/these-are-the-21-people-accused-of-prostitution-during-october (2018)
- Web-Based Reverse Stings and Shaming:
- “Seven Arrested in Online Prostitution Sting”, ABC/KTRK-TV 12, October 12 2012.
- “10 Arrested in ‘Reverse’ Prostitution Sting”, Houston Chronicle, October 29 2012.
- “Prostitution Sting Nets Twelve Arrests”, ABC/KTRK-TV 13, May 8 2013.
- “12 Arrested in Houston Prostitution Bust,” Houston Chronicle, November 16 2015.
- “Former HPD officer among those arrested in prostitution sting.” Click2Houston.com, August 19, 2017.
- https://www.khou.com/hpd-arrests-over-100-in-latest-prostitution-crackdown (2018)
- https://www.chron.com/houston/article/houston-police-sex-trade-pimp-mugshots-march-2018 (2018)
- https://www.click2houston.com/33-men-arrested-in-hpd-human-trafficking-bust (2018)
- https://www.click2houston.com/dozens-of-arrests-made-in-human-trafficking-operation (2019)
- Auto Seizure:
- Community Service:
- Report on Study of Online Commercial Sex Buyers in Houston:
- Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:
- Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition’s Panel Brochure
- “Houston Called Major Hub for Human Trafficking”, Houston Chronicle, October 28 2007.
- “National Prostitution Sting Puts 2 Houston Men in Jail”, Houston Chronicle, October 28 2008.
- “Nationwide Prostitution Sting Leads to Houston Arrests”, KCBD-TV, February 24 2009.
- “Another Sex Trafficking Case Tied to Cantina in E. Houston”, Houston Chronicle, June 8 2009.
- “Advocates for Sex-Trade Victims Call for ‘Safe House'”, Houston Chronicle, August 6 2010.
- “Human Trafficking: Houston’s Hidden Problem”, Houston Public Radio/KUHF-FM 88.7, October 4 2010.
- “Houston Woman Accused of Forcing Teen into Life of Prostitution”, KHOU-TV 11, July 6 2011.
- “Man Who Says He’s Running for City Council Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, ABC/KTRK-TV 12, August 12 2011.
- “Big Push to Fight Human Trafficking in Houston”, ABC/KTRK-TV 12, September 19 2012.
- “A Tour through Human Trafficking Hell”, FOX/KRIV-TV 26, September 20 2012.
- “Police: Alleged Houston Pimp Forced Runaway to Have Sex for Money”, Houston Chronicle, June 24 2013.
- “Lake Charles Man Accused of Coercing 16-Year-Old into Prostitution”, Houston Chronicle, June 27 2013.
- “Feds: Houston Sex Trafficking Ring Prostituted Undocumented Girls”, Houston Chronicle, October 11 2013.
- “Organized Prostitution in Houston Thwarted; 13 Arrested”, Latino Post, October 14 2013.
- “Sexually Oriented Businesses Still a Problem”, Cypress Creek Mirror, October 14 2013.
- “Louisiana Woman Wanted for Child Sex Trafficking in Houston”, NBC/KETK-TV 22, January 18 2014.
- “4 Charged with Sex Trafficking of Minors in Houston”, KHOU-TV 11, March 12 2014.
- “Authorities Bust Prostitution House Disguised as Spa”, ABC/KTRK-TV 13, July 1 2014.
- “Killeen-Area Man Convicted of Sex Trafficking a Minor”, ABC/KXXV-TV 25, July 18 2014.
- “Psychiatrist with East Texas Ties Arrested, Accused in Prostitution Ring, Longview News-Journal, July 28 2014.
- “Juvenile Probation Takes on Child Trafficking in Houston”, Houston Press, September 15 2014.
- “Fort Smith Man Charged in Sex Trafficking Case,” CBS/KFSM-TV 5, March 18 2015.
- “Houston Man Heads to Federal Prison for Sex Trafficking of Children,” West University/River Oaks/Bellaire Examiner, June 6 2015.
- “Houston Man Gets 14 Years for Sex Trafficking of Girls,” Brownsville Herald, June 23 2015.
- “Two Suspects from Texas Arrested for Human Trafficking in St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 17 2015.
- “Guilty Plea in Sex Trafficking and Prostitution Case,” Houston Chronicle, July 21 2015.
- “Man from Mexico Pleads Guilty in Texas Sex Trafficking Ring,” ABC/KTRK-TV 13, October 13 2015.
- “Arkansas Man Sentenced for Sex Trafficking Two Minors to Prostitute in Houston,” ABC/KTBS-TV 3, December 2 2015.
- Neighborhood Action:
- Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “Details of Prostitution Ring Leave Houston Speculating”, New York Times, March 18 2009.
- “Texas Rethinks Law Making Repeat Prostitution a Felony”, Austin Statesman, August 25 2012.
- “Two Arrested for Allegedly Running Prostitution Ring Out of Massage Parlor”, KHOU-TV 11, September 13 2012.
- “Thirteen Arrested in Undercover Sting at Club Fetish in SW Houston”, ABC/KTRK-TV 13, October 19 2012.
- “To Curb Prostitution, Houston Tries Rehab Instead of Jail”, New York Daily News, June 26 2013.
- “After Prostitution Charges, a Rehab Course in Self-Esteem”, New York Times, July 27 2013.
- “Former Prostitute Works to Keep Women Off the Streets”, NPR/WBUR 90.9 FM, August 15 2013.
- Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:
- “Alexander Martinez Executed for Killing Houston Prostitute”, Associated Press, June 8 2005.
- “Man Who Fatally Stabbed Prostitute Is Executed”, Associated Press, June 8 2005.
- “Houston Police Hunt for Possible Serial Killer in Slayings of 7 Prostitutes”, FOX News, November 12 2007.
- “Serial Killer in Texas? Steven Hobbs Charged with Murders, Rapes”, ABC News, October 22 2011.
- “Cops: Houston Man Lured to His Death After Showing Up for Prostitute”, CBS/KIKK-AM 650, November 21 2011.
- “‘If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us'”, Texas Monthly, December 2011.
- “Houston Police Make Arrest in March Slaying of Prostitute”, Houston Chronicle, January 24 2012.