Washington gets serious about role of 'Johns' in juvenile prostitution
Pimps and the youth they abuse are well-known elements of juvenile prostitution. Guest columnists Terri Kimball and Sean P. O'Donnell note a new Washington law that cracks down on the too-often overlooked role of "Johns" involved in the commercial sex abuse of minors will help.
Special to The Times
LAST month in New York, police arrested 51-year-old former NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor for allegedly paying a 16-year-old girl $300 to have sex with him. He is charged with statutory rape. Taylor allegedly claimed he did not know her age.
"I thought she was 18" is an excuse voiced too often by men caught having sex with underage girls involved in prostitution.
Taylor's status as a football star made this a story worthy of the headlines. The sad truth is that incidents of commercial sex abuse of minors occur regularly here in Seattle and greater King County.
In 2007, the city of Seattle commissioned a study by Debra Boyer, Ph.D., to examine the incidents of commercial sex abuse of minors. The statistics in her study were startling: There were 238 youth, 24 of whom were boys, involved in prostitution, as documented in criminal-justice and service-provider records.
These figures did not count those youth who had no interaction with the "system." We estimate there are more than 500 youth in King County who are involved in this lifestyle.
While pimps and their juvenile victims are usually the focus of investigative stories or headlines, the "John" tends to fly under the public radar. (Even the label "John" flows from the anonymity of being a "John Doe.") Taylor's alleged conduct, however, has lifted the rock on an insidious industry and illustrates the "demand" side of juvenile prostitution.
So it begs the question: Are the reported facts in Taylor's case typical of cases involving so-called "Johns" and the youth who are their victims?
From anecdotal accounts of the investigation and prosecution of pimps, the answer is a resounding yes. As is too often the case here in Seattle, the underage girl in the Taylor case supposedly had a pimp who abused her. She reportedly did not want to prostitute herself and had visible injuries — yet that had no impact on Taylor's alleged decision to have sex with her.
"Johns" are not a closely examined group. Recent studies, however, using sound methodology and nationally representative samples, indicate that about 18 percent of U.S. men have paid a woman prostituting for sex. The average "John" is in his late 30s, and while many are married, they are less likely to be married than the general population. Historically, "Johns" have neither faced the harsh punishment meted out to pimps or the stigma associated with selling one's body for sex.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the facts reported in the Taylor case are true, how would a "John" case involving a juvenile be handled in our community?
Starting June 10, Washington state will become a national leader with respect to the penalties for "Johns" who pay to have sex with minors. Upon conviction, a first-time offender will go to prison for 21 to 27 months, as opposed to the current maximum of merely 90 days. The "John" will face thousands of dollars in new fines for his conduct.
And perhaps most significantly, it will no longer be a defense for the "John" to rely on the belief that the girl or boy was over 18. A conviction for commercial sex abuse of a minor (i.e., paying a juvenile for sex) will continue to mandate registration as a sex offender for 15 years upon release from custody.
Washington's elected officials are to be commended for tackling the demand that often drives juvenile prostitution and doing more to hold "Johns" accountable for the sexual exploitation of prostituted youth.
Our community is also stepping up to the plate in some meaningful ways. We are fortunate that a residential recovery program for prostituted youth just started here in King County. This program is operated by YouthCare through a contract with the city of Seattle and through the support of more than 200 very generous donors.
This is not to say that the new law will be a panacea to the problem of juvenile prostitution. There remains a dearth of social services to assist these troubled, frightened and frequently abused youth. But the harsher punishment for individuals paying to exploit these youths may serve an important dual role in tackling the all-too-common conduct as alleged in the Taylor case: punishing those who buy sex from minors and warning would-be "Johns" that there is no safe haven in the defense of "I thought she was 18."Terri Kimball, left, is director of the Seattle Human Service Department's Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Division. Sean P. O'Donnell is a King County senior deputy prosecutor assigned to the office's Special Assault Unit.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.