Madison, WI

Tactics Used

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

Madison is a city of over 200,000 residents in southern Wisconsin that has had visible prostitution problems for well over a century.  Problems associated with commercial sex include the murder of at johns.  Recently, the city has experienced internet-based prostitution, and has had sex trafficking and child sex trafficking networks operating locally, but prostitution in Madison can be traced back to the frontier era before Wisconsin statehood.  Throughout, commercial sex has triggering numerous complaints to police.  In the early 1970s, massage parlors expanded in the area. By 1976, Madison had 42 massage/escort services (Rath, 2013), and community groups began pressuring the city government.  The resulting increase in enforcement directed toward the sellers of sex increased city enforcement pushed prostitutes to outlying hotels and truck stops. County enforcement pushed them back downtown. “It was like the Whack-a-Mole game,” says MaryAnne Thurber, a retired Madison police officer who worked sting operations as part of the city’s war on prostitution in the late 1970s and early ’80s. “There was no eradication. It was just redistribution.” (Rath, 2013).

In more recent years, sex trafficking continues to be a persistent problem.  The director of Madison’s Project Respect reported in March, 2014 that she encounters between 50 and 75 cases a year involving force, fraud or coercion. In July, 2019, a Madison man was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for sex trafficking in Madison. Evidence presented at trial established that between 2015 and 2017, the man had engaged in sex trafficking by force, coercion and fraud, and transported individuals across state lines to engage in prostitution. The trafficking was uncovered in 2017, when a victim at a Madison hotel ran from her room bleeding and hid behind the front desk, and the hotel clerk called police.  The victim told a nurse at a Madison hospital that the trafficker strangled her to the point of unconsciousness when she told him she wanted to leave.

Seeing no benefit in attacking “supply,” in 1983 police began combating “demand” by conducting reverse stings, and a new city ordinance afforded easier prosecution.  Through the present, various agencies and organizations in Madison have targeted the demand for commercial sex in their efforts to reduce the prevalence and impact of prostitution and sex trafficking in the city.  A number of tactics have been used, including public education/awareness efforts, reverse stings, shaming, sending “dear john” letters to the homes of alleged sex buyers, and a john school program for men arrested for buying sex.  Much of the police attention to prostitution is driven by community member complaints.

John Schools

Madison has a one-day john school program. Media reports make reference to a john school session held in Madison in 2005, attended by eight men. Most other sources point to 2008 as the year that the program was implemented. It is possible that in 2005 a pilot program was implemented, or that a john school was started but was not sustained. In any event, most reports suggest that a john school was being considered by police and other stakeholders in 2007, and sessions of the still ongoing program were held in 2008 – if not before.  A 2008 “Weed & Seed” program report included the following description of the john school:

The Community Coordinated Response to Prostitution (the prostitution workgroup) continues to meet and evaluate the success of their initiatives:  the Badger Wellness Workshop and The JOHN (Joining and Organizing Healthy Neighborhoods) School.  Badger Wellness Workshop subcommittee has planned an expansion of services with support from the Emerging Neighborhood funds, and they are working with neighborhood residents to identify high “traffic” areas so that they can more effectively target their outreach for the Saturday evening activities.  The JOHN school was held on May 21st with 9 participants.  They class included information about the health risks involved with soliciting prostitutes, personal statements of former prostitutes, and a session about male culture and the relationship between male identify and prostitution.  Initial feedback from the participants looks promising.

In the current john school program, men arrested in reverse stings are provided the option of attending the 3-hour class. The program stresses one major point; prostitution and pandering are not victimless crimes.  The men are provided presentations on the legal and health risks of prostitution, and hear formerly exploited women speak about negative impacts of commercial sex for “providers.”

Madison’s john school began operating in 2010. RESPECT Project on Prostitution, a nonprofit organization providing services for sexually exploited people, is a leader of the program. The Madison Police Department participate, as part of their Community Coordinated Response to Prostitution (CCR-P) program.  The City Attorney’s Office is the other primary partner:  The john school is structured as a diversion program; If they do attend the program, they can have the charge kept off their records.

The John School is just one part of a response to a local surge in prostitution, intended to prevent sexual exploitation and prostitution by addressing both the demand side of the issue as well as the supply side.


While identities of arrested sex buyers have been released to the media, Police have discussed a more proactive “shaming” effort including posting offenders’ photographs in a “John Hall of Shame” on the police department’s Web site.

Community Service:

Madison police conducted a reverse sting on the 1100 hundred block of Badger Road at Catalpa Road, using undercover police officers posing as prostitutes, and cited thirteen men. The citation carries a fine of nearly $700. The people who were cited in the sting were given an opportunity to avoid paying fines by staying crime free for at least six months, doing community service and attending the john school.






Key Partners

  • Madison Police Department
  • Respect Project on Prostitution
  • Madison City Attorney’s Office
  • Truckers Against Trafficking

Key Sources

State Wisconsin
Type City
Population 228775
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