Stung

Men don’t have to agree to sex in order to get busted in a prostitution sting. They just have to seem interested.

It was 6:30 on a May evening, and the friends were on their way to church. The two men, aged 19 and 20, had come from El Salvador six months before. They were taking English classes, but neither of them spoke much English yet. Before the evangelical service, they said, they were planning to stop at the younger man's house in a residential area not far from Mission and 21st streets.

But just half a block from their destination was a corner, and on that corner a woman was waiting. She was pretty, in an unflashy way, in a short skirt and puffy jacket, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She didn't look much like a prostitute. But there seemed to be no reason for her to be standing on that deserted street, her back against a building, smoking a cigarette. A man passed without giving her a glance. She blew out a long plume of smoke.

She had only been out on the corner for 15 minutes when the two friends walked toward her.

"She spoke to us. She said, 'Hi, how are you?' And then we said, 'Hi, fine, and you?' And she said, 'Good,'" the younger man recalled in an interview conducted in Spanish. "For the little we understood, we were speaking back in English."

They would later call what was happening an "ambush."

Across the street, police officers in an unmarked car watched the interaction. They couldn't hear the conversation, but they knew what was coming next. The woman was going to ask the men if they wanted sex. She spoke to them in English, but they got the gist of her message. Sex. $50.

After a minute, the police officers saw the 19-year-old keep walking toward his house. The two men had been clear, the younger man said later: They weren't interested. But his friend lingered, talking with the woman who had offered sex. He claimed that he and his friend asked her only one direct question: how old she was. She said she was 21, but he didn't believe it. She looked at least 25.

The 19-year-old hung back, waiting for his friend. After a few minutes, the 20-year-old walked on.

But as the two men moved down the block, the woman gave the police officers the signal they had been waiting for. Their car zoomed in front of the men and pulled to a stop, blocking their way. Two police officers jumped out. Two more appeared from down the street. "Spread your legs!" one barked. They made the men stand, spread-eagled, while they patted them down and then snapped on handcuffs. The woman from the corner, Officer Jennifer Dickson, hopped into the front seat of the unmarked car to prepare a police report. She had captured the entire conversation on a hidden tape recorder.

Both men would be cited for loitering with the intent to engage in solicitation. According to the police, neither of them had demonstrated their immediate willingness to pay for sex, the legal definition of solicitation. But that didn't matter. They had talked to a cop who was posing as a prostitute. They had heard her prices, and, according to the police, had shown some interest. That was enough to get them arrested. Now they would be drawn into a legal system that would give them a choice: pay a hefty fee to attend the "John School," a re-education program, or risk a misdemeanor conviction, which meant a permanent black mark on their records.

As he was led away in handcuffs to the booking area, the older man was grinning, as if the whole situation were too absurd to take seriously.

In San Francisco, where 41 percent of voters approved a measure that would have essentially decriminalized prostitution and where a sex worker is currently running for the Board of Supervisors, men are regularly arrested just for talking to undercover cops posing as streetwalkers. If a man avoids eye contact and walks on by, he's fine. But if he shows any interest, the decoy will approach him. By the time he knows she is selling sex, he's headed for trouble. After that, any expression of interest — even a sarcastic "Oops, don't have enough cash, guess I'll come back later" — is enough to land him in handcuffs.

The loitering arrests are part of the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP), which mandates eight decoy operations a month, all targeted at men who buy sex from women. The joint effort among the police, the District Attorney's office, and Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), a nonprofit founded by a former sex worker, allows first-time offenders to take a class about the dark side of the sex trade instead of entering the criminal justice system. A study funded by the Department of Justice found the program effective in reducing recidivism; it has been copied in dozens of cities across the U.S.

A decade ago, almost all the men arrested in the program's stings had shown more than interest; they had agreed to sex acts for money, according to statistics from the District Attorney's office. But in recent years, as would-be johns have gotten savvy to police tactics, roughly a third of those arrested in the stings — between 100 and 200 a year — were cited simply for demonstrating, in the eyes of the police, that they had "an intent to commit prostitution." According to the California penal code, there's no "single circumstance or combination of circumstances" that proves this intent; it has to be determined case by case.

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