What Prostitution Looks Like: Public Shaming as a Crime-Fighting Tool
Last month, a Las Vegas newspaper published the names and images of locally-convicted “prostitutes” who were so frequently in trouble with the law that they’d earned spots on the vice squad’s list of top offenders. (Most were charged with trespassing, not solicitation, but this distinction was unimportant to police and the paper’s editors.) The women were astoundingly young. Of the twenty-four convicts featured on the paper's website, only five were over thirty years old. More than half were twenty-six or younger.
Feminist bloggers were incensed by the Las Vegas news story, and seized on it as a platform to promote the cherished tropes that prostitutes are victims, johns are victimizers, and therefore only johns deserve public humiliation and arrest records. There was also the occasional erroneous claim that johns would not or do not receive similar treatment, when in fact such public shaming techniques have commonly focused more on men than women here in the USA.
Just two weeks ago, the Minneapolis police department launched a webpage to identify accused johns, although officials said that a page for prostitutes would be forthcoming. In 1995, Pennsylvania’s state legislature passed a law requiring that names of individuals convicted of patronizing a prostitute for a second time be published in the local paper. Chicago, Miami, Nashville, and several cities in Texas have also tried to publicly shame their johns. Communities are generally less critical of highlighting johns given the aforementioned assumption that all prostitutes are victims, an idea that gained considerable traction during the most recent Bush years, when “trafficking” was pushed as the lens to which to view all prostitution.
As Americans, our willingness to publicly shame johns before prostitutes also stems from our love of scandal. Prostitutes are often young and disadvantaged, so there's little to savor in their unveiling. The man we want punished for patronizing prostitutes is a white, married, moneyed individual who maintains a public persona of conventional morality. He is someone who has something to lose, someone like Eliot Spitzer.
In a recent Associated Press article, author Larry Neumeister described a disturbing john-shaming situation in Kansas City. Pictures of accused johns were featured on TV and were "quite effective, especially initially," according to the Kansas City police captain, because the vice squad managed to snag local lawyers and ministers. But as affluent community members stopped patronizing prostitutes, the police were left with only "street people" (Neumeister's words) as targets. Public shaming works best when there's a public reputation to ruin. A man who is homeless or drug-addicted will be less obviously affected by an arrest for patronizing a prostitute than will a university chemistry professor.
Most feminists would be loath to call any john a "victim," even if that john were in similar circumstances to the classically-imagined prostitute (low-income, of a minority, drug using, etc.), but they may be equally disinclined to call him a predator. When Feministing.com posted about Minneapolis's accused john site, commenters expressed concerns over the large number of minority men represented there. They were understandably concerned about racial profiling (the overwhelming majority of sex worker clients are white) but it seems they were also responding to a glitch in the most common feminist understanding of prostitution, which relies heavily on class. The typical equation is as follows: the man has money/class privilege/race privilege/etc., the prostitute has none of those things; therefore, the man has power over the prostitute. This power dynamic doesn't exist when her john is essentially her peer.
The idea that johns should be penalized while the women should not, or that white johns should be penalized while non-whites should not, is indicative of a bizarre ability to entirely ignore the fact of our current laws, which deem it illegal to sell sex. There's no judgment call on the part of the legal system; prostitutes are criminals because selling sex is a crime. Arresting and convicting both sellers and buyers in perfectly parallel numbers, or only arresting and convicting privileged johns, doesn't preclude public shaming of prostitutes.
Moreover, while many campaigns kowtow to the idea that the johns are the true criminals, they still disproportionately feature prostitutes' information. On Wichita's official city site, which displays photographs of offenders on both ends of the transaction, johns are accused of making it "difficult for prostitutes to break the cycle of crime." The site also emphasizes that prostitutes are often users of illegal drugs. Yet while the women look uniformly unhealthy, tired, or confused, a mere three of the thirteen prostitutes currently listed were charged with possessing drug paraphernalia. The site features only five pictures of accused johns.
Public shaming as a government tool for regulating adult behavior is incredibly problematic in any arena, but particularly that of sex, and this is a situation in which semantics matter. When the desired outcome is a change in behavior, it's far more effective to rely on remorse, which stems from guilt, than it is to invoke shame, which cultivates rage, secrecy, and self-hatred. Guilt is related to responsibility and behavior. Guilt is useful because actions can be changed. Shame is a far less constructive emotion, one that's notoriously hard to alleviate, because shame is about who you are—something far less easy to change. Perhaps it's easier to use shame than guilt in this situation because the truth is that it's difficult to convince adults to feel bad about something they attempted to do with another consenting adult.
Given our country's track record with shaming homosexuality, masturbation, female orgasms, and oral sex, we would all do well to pay close attention when our government deals with sex in the public square. These posted photos and names have the power to break apart marriages, humiliate family members, and lead to firings or lost job opportunities. Their publication flouts the methods of educating and offering alternatives that are well established as the best way for deterring recidivism. This technique does not eliminate the demand for prostitution nor does it place prostitutes in other jobs. Why, then, do we tolerate it? The answer has more to do with the way we indulge our most petty and judgmental instincts than it does with true community improvement.