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.

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. For example, in

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.

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.

Key Sources

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

John School:

Auto Seizure:

SOAP Orders and “Prostitution-Free Zones”:

Community Service, Identity Disclosure:

Sex Buyer Fired or Resigned Due to Arrest, 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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