Washington, DC

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

Washington, DC is the capital city and federal district of the United States. It is located on the east bank of the Potomac River and shares a border with Virginia and Maryland. It has a population of approximately 713,000 residents and is one of the most visited cities in the U.S. Like most large cities, Washington DC has a long history of commercial sex activity. For example, on July 25, 1989, the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, frustrated by their inability to “clean up” the prostitution problem in the city’s 14th Street red-light district, attempted to remove 24 prostituted women by forcing them to march from the Thomas Circle area (an area plagued by significant commercial sex activity), down 14th Street to Virginia via the 14th Street Bridge. A Washington Post photographer who happened to witness the march on his way back from an unrelated assignment began taking photos of the women and police officers as they approached the bridge, causing officers to flee the scene. According to reports,

“The women never crossed the bridge, but their presence on the approach ramp suggested the police officers’ intent to make them march into Virginia. After the police left, the women were driven back to Thomas Circle by men in vans, which had been following the parade at a distance, and were back on street corners within half an hour. The next day, after politicians from Virginia complained, others noted that Virginia police had sent homeless people across bridges into D.C.”

Local prostitution and sex trafficking continue to be persistent and visible problems, driving numerous complaints to police from residents and businesses. There has been more than one serial killer in DC who specifically targeted prostituted and trafficked persons. Since 2010, evidence of gangs sex trafficking teenage girls for commercial sex has been documented and arrests have been made. Additionally, there have been cases of child sex trafficking, including one in 2016, where a DC police officer was charged with running a prostitution ring involving a 16-year-old girl. Child sex trafficking cases have also involved the production of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in criminal codes).  For example, in 2015, two Washington, D.C. residents were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges alleging they engaged in sex trafficking of children and transported them for paid sexual abuse. One was also was indicted for child sexual abuse and production and possession of “child pornography.” The men were arrested and charged in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. According to the indictment, they trafficked three children for sex and transported them between the District of Columbia and Maryland for the purpose of prostitution. The indictment also alleges that one man sexually abused two of the children while they were under the age of 16, and charged him with the  production and possession of “child pornography” depicting one of the children.

The local ordinance for prostitution in Washington, DC may be found here. In 2019, legislation to decriminalize prostitution was introduced. This bill would have eliminated law enforcement’s ability to arrest and deter sex buyers and sex traffickers/pimps. However, the full decriminalization of prostitution effort failed and prostitution remains illegal in the city.

Washington, DC was one of the first cities in the U.S. to target the demand side of commercial sexual exploitation. Law enforcement has done this by implementing tactics to reduce demand for commercial sex such as reverse stings, identity disclosure, opening a “John School” program, SOAP orders, public education, and neighborhood action. The first reverse sting in Washington, DC occurred in 1970, and similar operations have occurred regularly since the 1980s. For example, in October 2013, a large-scale reverse sting was conducted over a 36-hour period resulting in the arrest of 60 individuals as part of a program called “Operation Off the Streets.” In November 2014, police carried out a two-day operation targeting prostituted persons and sex buyers, making 19 arrests between 2:30 p.m. one day and 6:30 a.m. the next day. During a one-month period in July and August, 2015, police said they had made 224 arrests in an effort curb an increase in street prostitution in downtown Washington, DC.

In addition to street-level reverse stings, law enforcement has also conducted web-based reverse sting operations. The city’s first web-based reverse sting was conducted in 2007 via Craigslist. Since then, web-based reverse stings have occurred more frequently. In 2015, officers arrested over 50 male sex buyers during a two month period in a set of web-based operations.  More recent web based reverse stings have focused on arresting buyers seeking to pay to sexually abuse minors. Police reported that occasionally, a high-profile figures are arrested as a result of these stings. For example, one of the arrest sex buyers during the series of web-based reverse stings in January 2015, was a 47-year-old former NBA player turned CBS sports commentator, who allegedly agreed to pay an undercover female D.C. police officer posing as a prostituted woman on Backpage.com, $80 for sex, “and said “oh yeah” when the officer asked [the former NBA player] if [he] wanted the officer to ‘dress up.'” The CBS commentator was scheduled to announced the Michigan State-Maryland men’s basketball game the day following his arrest in nearby College Park, Md. In February 2015, the charge was dropped under the condition that the sex buyer completed 32 hours of community service and stayed “out of trouble” for for months. This was part of a deferred prosecution agreement between the sex buyer, his attorney, a prosecutor, and a D.C. Superior Court judge. The sex buyer was permanently suspended by both CBS and Turner Sports following his arrest. His identity and image were included in reports by local media outlets.

John School

In another effort to combat the demand for the commercial sex industry, Washington, DC established a John School between 1998 and 2001. The program ran for the next several years. However, it was suspended, restarted, and discontinued by 2010. The program was modeled after the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco. The fee for the program was $300. This money was used to support programs for survivors of the sex industry. The John school was a diversion program which meant that successful completion resulted in a dismissal of charges.  Key partners in this  program were the Metropolitan Police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the DC Department of Health, sex industry survivors, and NGOs such as My Sister’s Place and the Polaris Project.  According to some reports, the program had problems with its implementation which contributed to its later discontinuation.

Employment Loss

Loss of employment is another consequence of buying sex that has occurred in D.C. For example, in April 2017, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department fired one of their officers after he was arrested on robbery and prostitution charges. The officer had been arrested in Maryland after meeting a 15-year-old girl online, with the intention of exchanging money to sexually exploit her, and then taking the money back while holding the girl at gunpoint.

Sex buyers have also been discharged from branches of the military.  For example, a 2011 report found that of 16 Navy COs “deatched for cause” in 2010, seven were relieved for conduct that included soliciting prostitution, inappropriate relationships, public drunkenness, cruelty, assault, indecent language and sexual harassment. Detachment for cause is an administrative action, as opposed to a punitive action, although a subsequent investigation may determine that disciplinary action is appropriate. It almost always marks the end of an officer’s career and retirement usually follows. In 2019 a Navy lieutenant commander was convicted in connection with a Bahrain-based sex-trafficking ring, and was found guilty of unauthorized absence terminated by apprehension; conduct unbecoming an officer; and “patronizing prostitutes.” A Naval Criminal Investigative Service bust in 2018 publicized the news that sailors deployed to Manama, Bahrain — headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet — were accused of participating in a scheme to patronize and traffic Thai prostituted women.  The Lt. Commander was the only officer to be charged among at least nine sailors accused of sex crimes and human trafficking during a 2017-2018 deployment to Bahrain. He was sentenced to forfeiture of pay for four months and dismissal from the Navy.  Other sailors convicted in the Bahrain prostitution scandal included a chief petty officer who received 30 months in the brig for charges related to patronizing prostitutes; in 2020, he was charged with raping a woman in Virginia Beach in 2019. Navy Times reported that the Navy has worked to implement new training regarding human trafficking in the wake of the criminal investigation.

In addition, at least six Secret Service members had resigned their jobs in the wake of a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, which occurred while they were on a security detail in advance of President Barack Obama’s trip there for the Summit of the Americas. The agency also announced that a 12th Secret Service employee had been implicated, after having previously said 11 were under investigation. Five employees were on administrative leave and had their security clearances temporarily revoked. All the employees were accused of bringing prostituted women to a local hotel ahead of the presidential visit to Columbia. They had arrived earlier that morning as a part of the “jump team” that flies in on military transport planes with vehicles in the president’s motorcade. According to sources, the alleged prostituted women — the youngest of whom were in their early 20s — signed in at the hotel, where Secret Service members apparently stayed, flashing their local ID cards. One of the women allegedly was later involved in a dispute about how much she was to be paid for the night, which brought the entire incident to light and sparked controversy in the United States and Colombia.

Key Sources

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

John School:

Auto Seizure:

SOAP Orders and “Prostitution-Free Zones”:

Community Service, Identity Disclosure:

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure, Cameras:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Local Prostitution Ordinance:

Background on Local Sex Trafficking, Child Sexual Exploitation, Prostitution, Related Violence, Drug Offenses, CSAM:

State District of Columbia
Type City
Population 712816
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