Reverse Stings

The reverse sting—also known as a “john sting” or “john operation”— is the most commonly used type of anti-demand tactic, having been used in more than 1,590 U.S. cities and counties. These police decoy operations deploy officers posing as women engaged in prostitution or children who are victims of sex trafficking, awaiting approaches by people attempting to purchase sex. There are three main types of reverse stings:

1. Street-level
Here police officers pose as adult 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 940 U.S. cities and counties, involve police posting online decoy ads and setting up a reverse sting at a hotel or apartment. Some of these operations target predators seeking to purchase sex from minors: online ads placed by undercover investigators mention that the person being sold is young ( without explicitly stating that they are under-age, which is illegal to post and would be flagged or blocked on most websites), and during communications with people responding to those ads, investigators clearly state an age below legal limits (typically between 12 and 16 years).  A variation of this basic approach of police posting ads seeking to draw sex buyers and child predators features having police responding to real online ads and replacing prostituted persons with police decoys, then continuing to take calls from johns on the phone being used to field calls about the prostituted or trafficked person. Another variation involves undercover 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 have been used in approximately 35 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 through 2018 necessary for the maintenance and updating of Demand Forum, we have compiled over 15,000 documents and links that contribute to the empirical foundation of this research and what is presented on this website. We have gathered information on over 5,000 reverse stings occurring since 1964 in over 1,585 U.S. cities and counties, resulting in over 46,000 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

News Reports on Brothel-Based Reverse Stings