Are prostitutes and "johns" punished equally?

By , Contributing Author

Until the 1990s, the American legal system punished people who supplied prostitution services, while the customers (or "johns") were largely ignored. Prostitutes (and to a lesser extent pimps, promoters, and panderers) were arrested, prosecuted, and spent time in jail and prison, while the john went on his way unbothered by law enforcement.

This disparity has begun to change, albeit slowly. Increased attention towards human trafficking in the last several decades has shined the light on the moral and practical problem of punishing only one side of a transaction that often involves subjugation of the worker, if not outright trafficking.

Consequently, many states (such as South Dakota) have made both buying and selling sex illegal, and both parties are punished equally. Repeat convictions usually incur harsher penalties. These laws are aimed at bringing attention to the reality that prostitution is a crime that takes two people—the prostitute and a paying customer.

West Virginia's efforts to dry up prostitutionhave gone beyond simply punishing each side equally -- in that state, repeat offenses by johns are punished more severely than repeat offenses by prostitutes. That is, fines and jail time increase for subsequent convictions onlyfor johns. The prostitutes are still punished for subsequent convictions, but only as they would be for a first offense.

With mixed results, other states have experimented with so-called "john schools," which are meant to reduce the demand for prostitution through education, rather than (or in addition to) purely punishing the purchase of commercial sexual services.

Even though we are making progress towards more equality under the law, the fact often remains that prostitutes are still the ones who are targeted for arrest and punishment more than johns. So while most state laws have moved towards equal punishment, it still remains with law enforcement and prosecutors to promote and enforce true equality.

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