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But in a cigarette-scented hotel room near a Chicago airport, more than a dozen men come and go with wet cheeks and quivering lips. No one had died, no national tragedy had occurred— they had just been caught trying to buy sex. Across the country, cops are implementing a strategy that has long been debated in Europe: targeting the men who buy sex while trying to help the women who sell it. Some police and scholars say that focusing law enforcement attention on sex buyers reduces demand for prostitution, which strangles the sex industry and curbs human trafficking.
But some human rights organizations, most recently Amnesty International, advocate for the decriminalization of all aspects of sex work, including buying sex. While Amnesty International members were considering whether to recommend decriminalizing sex work altogether, I was with a TIME video team on two buyer-focused sex stings in Cook County, Ill.
Watching guys get caught is like watching that fantasy get destroyed over and over. The men are all different races and ages, from all walks of life— the only thing they have in common is shock. Some sit motionless with their hands over their eyes. One, a man so wide cops needed two pairs of handcuffs to arrest him, sat on the bedspread shaking his head slowly.
Another expressed incredulity at his arrest, arguing that cops should be going after rapists and child molesters instead. Until recently, most jurisdictions in the U. Cook county does johns stings year-round, but the national initiative happens a few times a year. Our first sting starts in an anonymous hotel room near a Chicago airport. The bedspread smells like old cigarettes and the air conditioner is acting up. Our room is filled with burly cops in baseball caps and T-shirts, badges hung around their necks, watching TV and joking around.
In the room across the hall are female undercover officers dressed as sex workers. A hot pink tank-top, leopard print leggings. Only a few hours earlier, they had placed ads on a site called backpage.