While much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the controversial new abortion law in Texas, a lesser-known law has been implemented to further criminalize what has been called the world’s oldest profession.
That much became obvious to Nnamdi Dibia, (not his real name) on Sept. 18 when he set out from his base in Brownsville, Texas, to visit a friend in Houston. Arriving in Houston after a five-hour trip, the Nigerian noticed something different along Bissonnet Street, a 19-mile-long and often notorious stretch of road in the state’s largest city.
On this night, the portion of Bissonnet running between Beltway 8 and the Southwest Freeway looked quite different, and at first he couldn’t think why that was so.
The change was far fewer prostitutes roaming the street in a section — called The Track — that had become well-known for the sex trade. And then he could have looked up and seen one of the new signposts installed in the area: “Solicitation of prostitution is a felony. Punishable up to two years in jail. Cameras are recording. Violators will be prosecuted.”
That sign, and the underlying effort behind it, are the products of Texas House Bill 1540, which was passed into law earlier this year and made Texas the first state in the nation to declare prostitution or solicitation of prostitution a felony offense.
In addition to prostitution, the law seeks to crack down on human trafficking.
“We are all aware of the human trafficking problems we’ve got on Bissonnet … from Beltway 8 to 59 has been a problem for decades,” said Tom Ramsey, Harris County commissioner for Precinct 3. But with a new tool from the Legislature, he added, “there’s something we can do about it.”
“Crime has never been a bigger problem in Harris County than it is today,” the commissioner said. “Whether you talk about murders, burglary, it doesn’t matter, but we are not gonna allow what’s happening at Bissonnet any longer. I call this a great first step. This is the first step to deal with the problem.”
According to a May 2019 Houston Chronicle report, “In the past five years, nearly 1,500 people have been arrested in the area for engaging in prostitution — many repeatedly.”
Houston City Council member Edward Pollard, who represents a district that includes The Track, also spoke about what led to the new law.
“Several months ago, I received a letter from a young girl who attends school in the area. She said it bothers her to leave school and see prostitutes walking up and down the street,” he explained. “She questioned if I cared about the area, and if I did, what am I going to do to make a change. That letter really touched me, and I vowed to my staff that we would make this issue a priority.
“I also received an email from a concerned constituent with a link to a video that showed how rampant the prostitution was on this street every night. The video depicts the women barely covered, walking the street and cars stopping to solicit. I was so disturbed by what I was seeing I immediately reached out to Commissioner Ramsey to show him the video. We both looked at each other and understood it could not continue like this under our watch. So no matter how complex and complicated the problem is, we have to try and find a way to resolve it.”
This was a pleasant surprise to many residents of the area who suddenly spotted billboards prohibiting prostitution along Bissonnet.
“It had made a mess of this place to the point that when you tell people you reside around here, they think you could be one of them.”
One resident who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said the rate of prostitution seen along Bissonnet had become alarming: “For some of us who have been living here for a couple of years, it’s a common sight, especially in the evenings and during the weekends. It had made a mess of this place to the point that when you tell people you reside around here, they think you could be one of them. So when I heard of the bill and billboard erected, I was very happy because it’s a positive development to clean up the area and make it more visitor friendly for the residents.”
Despite a significant reduction in the number of prostitutes working the Bissonnet hot spot since Sept. 1, as investigations show, some residents believe it’s too early to judge whether this will be a lasting change. These nearby residents report an initial decrease in sexual solicitation that already appears to be coming back.
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian-born freelance journalist who currently lives in Houston.