Sex trafficking legislation calls for ‘John schools’ and making ‘happy endings’ illegal, among other policy changes

By: - December 4, 2018 6:01 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

Members of the Virginia State Crime Commission endorsed a package of anti-sex-trafficking legislation Monday that would open victim-restitution funds to former prostitutes, create “John schools” for people caught buying sex and make it illegal to charge for “masturbatory services,” as one local sheriff recently described them.

The commission, made up of lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees, has spent the past year studying ways to address the issue. The legislation now goes to the General Assembly, which will consider it during the session that starts next month.

Outlawing ‘happy endings’

“Happy endings,” as they are sometimes euphemistically referred to in the context of massage parlors, are currently not included in the state’s prostitution statutes, but local governments can individually act to define the transactions as illegal sex acts.

Stafford County took that step last month after the sheriff said he identified 11 parlors offering “masturbatory services,” according to Potomac Local.

The parlors commonly rely on immigrants from China and South Korea who “carry debts or are otherwise under extreme financial pressure,” according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization that estimates there are 9,000 in the United States that bring in a combined $2.5 billion in revenue.

A curriculum for ‘John schools’

Another piece of legislation approved by the commission would create a statewide sex trafficking response coordinator, who would be tasked with creating a response plan when a trafficking victim is identified and guidelines for treatment programs.

The coordinator would also oversee the creation of the proposed “John schools” for people convicted of soliciting prostitution.

The school, which they would be ordered to attend by a judge, would teach “the consequences and the background of what they’re really buying,” said Colin L. Drabert, the commission’s deputy director.

The training, education and awareness programs would be funded by new fines assessed on people convicted of either soliciting prostitution ($100) or trafficking ($500).

“Our thought process was, if an individual has money to purchase sex, they’ve got money to pay this fine,” Drabert said. “And for the traffickers themselves, they’re making a lot of money in this deal.”

Protection for underage victims

Another group of bills approved by the commission aims to specifically help underage victims.

One would increase the penalties for a range of offenses if the victim is a minor. Another would allow victims and witnesses under age 14 to testify in court via two-way closed-circuit television.

A third proposal would define pimps and traffickers as caretakers of minors and allow social service agencies to take emergency custody of victims, which the commission said has been a point of ambiguity for some local agencies.

Opening the Virginia Victim Fund to trafficking victims

The legislative package also includes a tweak to state law that would allow trafficking victims to apply for compensation for medical care and other expenses as long they are cooperating with law enforcement.

“We need to clarify the fund statues to make it clear these people are victims,” Drabert said. “Even though they may have engaged in prostitution, this was not a willing engagement.”

The committee also endorsed a non-legislative recommendation to request that the state allocate a portion of the Victims of Crime Act funding for treatment and services for sex trafficking victims.

Expungement proposal shot down

The only proposal that drew significant debate would allow a trafficking victim to petition to have criminal convictions for prostitution expunged “when the person was induced to engage in prostitution through the use of force, intimidation or deception by another.”

The commission voted against it, with all of the Democratic lawmakers on the committee supporting the measure and all of the Republican lawmakers opposing.

“Often in sexual abuse, the victim does not even realize they’re a victim until they’re free from the situation,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I thought we had some sort of understanding here that … we want to get people help, get them services, whatever they need to make their lives whole. Now we’re taking that option away from them because we don’t understand the cycle of sex abuse.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, cited testimony in past years from a woman who had been trafficked and arrested multiple times. She changed her life, but could not get a job because of her criminal record of prostitution offenses.

“I think we should show compassion for these victims,” she said.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, countered that many convicted criminals reform their lives and remain haunted by their records and expungement is not offered as an option.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, hypothesized that the possibility of expungement could become “a tool of the psychological game of the abuser, that they could say to this person, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, don’t cooperate and later you can get all this off your record.’”


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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.