Prostitution in Ohio: A new state system could shame male customers

For years, since trying to locate a missing Middletown woman, Jeri Lewis has dedicated a portion of her life to educating women, men and children about the dangers of human trafficking.

“It’s not as black and white as some people think,” Lewis said. “It’s not like all those in human trafficking started out as prostitutes. Sure they made bad decisions, whether that was someone they met online, or they were left behind at a party and told to sleep it off. Then they’re drugged, abused and held against their will.”

She said it takes 10 to 14 days before those associated with human trafficking become “broken.”

Lewis, executive director at the Center for Hope, Health and Healing, and Beth Bullock, advocacy director from Reach For Tomorrow, are presenting a Human Tracking 101 seminar Saturday morning in hopes of changing peoples’ perspectives through education and real-life stories from two survivors.

Those who attend the free seminar will learn the definition of human trafficking, how to spot those impacted and how to protect those trapped by human trafficking, child trafficking and sex trafficking, Lewis said. A large portion of the three-hour seminar will concentrate on how to understand victims of trafficking through the trauma lens.

The seminar comes as Ohio could become the second state to create an online “johns” registry, listing and identifying men who are caught buying sex.

The proposed registry is meant to make it much more likely that prostitution crimes will be discovered by loved ones, friends, neighbors, co-workers and bosses.

“I believe having a publicly accessible registry may prove to be the deterrent that keeps someone from engaging in illegal behavior,” said Ohio Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.), a co-sponsor of the bill that would create a new registry.

Some state lawmakers and law enforcement leaders say prostitution and human trafficking are closely linked, and they say better deterrents and tougher penalties are needed to reduce these crimes.

State House Bill 431 would create a new Sexual Exploitation Database that the Ohio Attorney General would develop and maintain. Convicted johns, pimps and traffickers would have their names, addresses, photographs and crimes published on the registry.

This information would be removed from the database after five years if individuals commit no subsequent offenses.

Current law makes it fairly easy for people caught buying sex to keep that information hidden from friends, family and employers, according to Carfagna.

The new registry seeks to change that.

MORE: Veteran Hamilton policeman retired after bust in Dayton prostitution sting

‘Hold each other accountable’

The registry is one of a variety of measures proposed by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to try to address the problem.

“Ohioans need a tool to hold each other accountable for crimes committed largely against young women who are trapped in an inescapable chain of poverty, addition and violence,” Carfagna said.

The vast majority of prostitution is human trafficking, said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who came up with the idea of the registry and would oversee the program.

Prostitution is between a buyer and a seller, he said.

But human trafficking means a third party, like a pimp or trafficker, gets some of or all the money or proceeds from the sex transaction, he said.

Overwhelmingly, people engaged in prostitution are not doing it voluntarily, and sex buyers have no way of knowing if a prostitute is a willing participant or is being forced into the acts, Yost said.

“Here’s the problem,” Yost said, “when you are a man offering to buy sex, you have no idea when she says yes to that proposition if she’s doing it freely or whether she’s being coerced by drugs or a knife or a baseball bat by some guy out in the parking lot.”

‘A whole rewiring of their brains’

Lewis, 42, said some prostitutes are drug addicts “living a life they don’t know how to get out of.”

As time passes, Lewis said, through the drug use, physical and mental abuse, those caught in human trafficking suffer through “a whole rewiring of their brains.”

Eventually, she said, they “start believing” everything they’re told.

Other legislation introduced in the General Assembly calls for enhanced penalties for johns and traffickers.

House Bill 128 would split prostitution crimes into separate offenses for the sellers (the prostitutes) and the buyers (the johns).

Right now, both are prosecuted under the same state law.

Under the proposal, a buyer’s first offense would be a misdemeanor, carrying a fine and required participation in johns school.

The second offense would be a fifth-degree felony. A third offense would be a fourth-degree felony, which a potential punishment of six months in prison.

Yost and others also support House Bill 415, which would create a new criminal offense for receiving the proceeds of prostitution, similar to receiving stolen property offenses.

“This will make it easier to prosecute pimps without the cooperation of the woman,” Yost said.


WHAT: Human Trafficking 101

WHEN: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday

WHERE: Kingswell, second floor, 1124 Central Ave., Middletown

MORE INFORMATION: Call 513-649-9699