At around 11 p.m. on May 15, Lauren pulled into the parking lot of a Hilton in Lakeland, Florida. The air was damp and cool, and the 32-year-old was nervous: She was there to meet a couple who had responded to an ad she posted that day advertising sexual services. Lauren was new to sex work. She had a 2-year-old child at home, and money was tight.
Inside the hotel room, Lauren leaned against a dresser. “I gotta be careful,” she remembered saying. “I’m glad you guys are who you say you are.”
At one point that evening, Lauren went to the bathroom to freshen up. But after she finished, she opened the bathroom door to detectives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office who arrested her.
To maintain her privacy, Lauren requested that her real name not be used.
The day before Lauren’s arrest, the sheriff’s office vice unit initiated “Operation No Spring Fling” in which undercover officers posted and responded to ads soliciting sex work. “The primary goal,” Sheriff Grady Judd said at a press conference after the sting ended on May 19, “is to rescue victims of human trafficking and to arrest people that are buying human beings, and that’s what these guys were doing when they were seeking the services of these ladies.”
Yet according to a press release from the sheriff’s office, only three people out of the 154 arrested as a result of the sting were considered possible victims of human trafficking. Of those, two women, a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old, were charged with unspecific crimes.
The vast majority of people arrested, including Lauren, were charged with solicitation, and their mugshots were displayed on a banner during the sheriff’s press conference and subsequently published online by local newspapers.
After officers read Lauren the Miranda rights, she told them she was “down on her luck and needed money to buy diapers for her child,” according to the affidavit for her arrest. Several women caught in the sting also seemed to be engaged in survival sex work. A 22-year-old said she had posted an ad online because she lost her job earlier in the day and needed money immediately to pay her bills. A 45-year-old single mother said she needed money to support her children.
When reached for comment, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office directed The Appeal to video of the press conference, where Judd insisted that many of the women arrested were victims of human trafficking. “I suggest that those that are on social media or any other media saying, ‘Well, it’s just a business relationship by two consenting adults,’ don’t understand or don’t want to understand or don’t care,” he said. “We care. We care about every one of those folks, and we care enough to arrest them if they don’t behave. We care enough to help them if they’ll let us help them. But we will not give up, that’s our promise.”
Operations that purport to target human trafficking but yield mass arrests for prostitution-related offenses are commonplace in Florida counties.
On Feb. 19, multiple sheriffs offices and police departments raided spas across Florida’s east coast—including the Orchids of Asia Day Spa—resulting in nearly 300 arrests. The operation garnered international attention because one of the arrestees at that spa was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was charged with soliciting prostitution. “It’s manifestly obvious to us that this is human trafficking,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said of the massage parlors in late February. But in mid-April, prosecutors acknowledged that nobody arrested in the Martin County raids had been charged with human trafficking. “There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” said assistant state attorney Greg Kridos.
On June 21, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrests of 85 people in “Operation Trade Secrets” which targeted massage parlors, hotels, strip clubs, and adult bookstores. “The only way to get proof of victims of human trafficking is to do an operation like this,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said. “You don’t know who’s there on their own free will and who’s being forced to have sex.” But about half of the people taken into custody were booked on prostitution-related offenses. Only one was arrested for sex trafficking.
Despite the failure of such investigations to identify human trafficking, Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a requirement that spas and hotels instruct staff on how to spot signs of sex trafficking and that law enforcement officers complete four-hour training on how to investigate trafficking. The law also creates a database of individuals who are convicted of soliciting prostitutes.
Florida is just one front in a national targeting of what one anti-trafficking nonprofit calls “illicit massage businesses” that advocates say make women more vulnerable. Womankind, a New York-based service provider for Asian survivors of trafficking, told The Appeal last year: “The reality we still face is that policing, regardless of how creative and collaborative the approach may seem, does not tackle the root causes of vulnerability and exploitation.”
The arrest of Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges is likely to bring a renewed focus to trafficking that could yield even more arrests—not of billionaire predators, said Kate D’Adamo, a sex worker advocate and partner at Reframe Health and Justice, but working-class women.
“Predators don’t get caught in johns stings,” D’Adamo said, because they target people who wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to police. The way to catch these men, D’Adamo said, is to form connections with the sex worker community, but “that doesn’t happen when your connection to them is arresting them for a low-level crime.”
Instead, D’Adamo said such investigations often punish women who have no option but to engage in survival sex work. “What happens when you go in to find a job to try to stabilize your life and your name gets Googled and what comes up is a prostitution arrest?” D’Adamo said. “They’ve taken someone for whom that [sex work] was the best option for meeting what sounds like incredibly basic resource needs … [who is] traumatized by violence, and now [has] a criminal record that’s going to leave them in economic instability for a very long time.”
After Lauren’s mother posted her $2,000 bond at the Polk County jail, she struggled to find transportation to her home in Hillsborough County, about 30 miles away. Officers had seized her phone, and because a search of her vehicle allegedly yielded a pink pouch containing syringes with cocaine, the sheriff’s office also impounded her car.
Lauren now faces two misdemeanor charges for solicitation, a misdemeanor charge for possession of drug paraphernalia and a felony charge for cocaine. If convicted, she could spend up to five years in prison plus probation and have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
“I’m so fortunate that I had my mom to help me get out,” Lauren said. “Some of these girls don’t have that option. They’re literally gonna be stuck in jail, doing time, and they’re gonna come out with nothing. They’re not gonna know what to do but what they did before. They’re literally having to start over.”