Houston, TX

Tactics Used

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

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.

Community Service

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.

Key Sources


State Texas
Type City
Population 2325489
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