Reverse Stings

Reverse stings—also known as “john stings” or “john operations”—are the most commonly used anti-demand tactic, having been conducted in over 1,050 U.S. cities and counties.  These police decoy operations deploy women officers posing as women engaged in prostitution, awaiting approaches by people attempting to purchase sex.

There are three main types of reverse stings:

1. Street-level
Here police officers pose as women engaged in street-level prostitution. On average, the law enforcement support team is comprised of about seven officers for each decoy. Smaller departments may borrow female officers from another department if they don’t have enough officers to serve as effective decoys. Locations are usually chosen on the basis of complaints from residents or businesses and sometimes from police observations about problem areas. Some police departments conduct reverse stings near venues that draw large numbers of men, such as truck stops or male-oriented events (such as business conventions, sporting events, or during hunting season). The average reverse sting runs about four hours and results in about one to two arrests per hour, per decoy.
2. Web-based
Web-based reverse stings, used in over 440 U.S. cities and counties, involve police posting online decoy ads and setting up a reverse sting at a hotel or apartment. A variation of this approach is police responding to real online ads and replacing prostituted persons with police decoys, then continuing to take calls from johns on the survivors’ phone. Alternatively, some web-based reverse stings involve women police decoys responding to online ads placed by johns seeking to buy sex. To learn more about web reversals, click here.
3. Brothel-based
In this type of reverse sting, police investigate brothels, make arrests, replace brothel staff with decoys, and continue fielding calls and walk-ins from johns in order to make arrests. This is not a widespread tactic, known to be used in approximately 25 locations in the U.S., so we have not devoted a separate webpage to it. The tactic is described in the basic reverse sting overview below.

Resources for Reverse Stings

In our National Assessment project we observed reverse stings in several cities, interviewed or surveyed nearly 200 police officers about these operations, and collected over 5,000 documents from local experts and through web searches. From the original study, which ended in April 2012, and the subsequent research necessary for the maintenance and updating of Demand Forum, we have compiled over 10,000 documents that contribute to the empirical foundation of this research and what is presented on this website. We have gathered information on over 4,000 reverse stings occurring since 1964 in over 1,070 U.S. cities and counties, resulting in over 41,000 arrests of sex buyers.

Overview of Reverse Stings in the U.S.

Police Magazine” Articles on Planning and Safety for Reverse Stings

Reverse Sting Tactical Plan

Police Department Press Releases on Reverse Stings

Research and Police Department Reports About Decoys and Reverse Sting Operations

News Reports on Early Use of Reverse Sting Operations

  • News report on 1974 reverse sting:
    • “Prostitution police focus on the men.” July 13, 1974, the Baltimore Sun. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

 News Reports on Contemporary Reverse Stings