Volume 90, Number 2

May 2015

More Than “Johns,” Less Than Traffickers

Heather C. Gregorio

In Search of Just and Proportional Sanctions for Buyers of Sex with Trafficking Victims

The U.S. criminal justice system currently lacks a proportional, clear, and effective law targeted at individuals who purchase sex with trafficking victims. These “johns” of trafficking victims (JTVs) historically have remained anonymous and unaccountable. More recently, three unsatisfactory approaches to sanctioning this group have emerged. First, they are sometimes subjected to low-level patronization and solicitation misdemeanors alongside johns of consensual sex workers. Second, they are increasingly prosecuted as traffickers under sex-trafficking legislation. Third, they are occasionally prosecuted as statutory rapists and sex abusers if the victim is a minor. This Note argues that none of these first three approaches are an adequate fit for this population. Treating them simply as johns ignores the seriousness of their offense and does not distinguish prostitution from trafficking. Treating them as traffickers is disproportionate on the other extreme, especially with recent strict liability interpretations of sex-trafficking statutes and mandatory minimums, and furthermore dilutes the term “human trafficking.” Finally, treating them as statutory rapists is underinclusive and ignores the commercial nature of the offense. This Note explores a fourth approach being implemented sporadically on the federal and state levels: prosecuting johns of trafficking victims under legislation explicitly addressing this group. This Note argues that targeted legislation is the most appropriate and fair approach. It advocates modified versions of such legislation, with tailored mens rea standards and flexible penalties correlated to culpability.