Harlotry: Men Who Pay For Sex Shouldn’t Be Punished With Public Humiliation

operation flush the johns mugshots

Last week, a friend sent me a link to this article (about Nassau County’s public shaming of sex work clients, a sting so-named ‘Flush the Johns’) and asked if I had any feelings about it.

I’m pretty sure it was a rhetorical question, because like any conscientious sex worker, I have lots and lots of feelings about not only this particular article, but also the practice of criminalizing and targeting clients rather than workers. I also have a lot of feelings about the use of the word “John” for clients, and the general dehumanizing attitude people have when they talk about men who buy sexual services.

Most of my feelings about these things can be summed up with exclamations of “grr,” “argh,” “graagh,” “gurrargh,” and even “YAAAARGH!” but such exclamations do not make for good, thoughtful, or even comprehensible writing.

So… there are a lot of problems with this. Obviously, the main problem is that there is occasion for stories like this to be published at all, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

My first problem is the use of the word “John.” In all my years as a sex worker, I have never once heard a hooker call her client a John. I’ve never really swapped tales of the ho life with outdoor workers, but I’m not sure if those ladies even refer to clients in such a degrading, dehumanizing way. The only people I’ve ever heard use the term were either anti-sex work civilians or police officers, two groups who generally don’t draw distinctions between the individuals involved in the sex trade, either as customers or providers.

I hate the term “John” because it slaps a generic label onto men who buy the services of my co-hookers and myself, as if they aren’t all individuals in their own right. Stripping clients of their individuality contributes to the stigma surrounding my profession: if the men who pay for sexual services aren’t individuals with normal human needs, it’s okay to demonize the legions of women and men who cater to those needs. Clients are people too, and forgetting that (or worse, deliberately ignoring it) does a disservice to everyone.

On a related note, it really, seriously bothers me to see these mugshots publicized. People go to sex workers for a number of reasons–because they are ashamed of their desires, because they don’t have time to pursue relationships in their spare time, because their partners are unwilling or unable to fulfill certain fetishes, because they are too awkward to approach nonprofessional women. Absolutely none of the reasons that motivate most men to patronize sex workers are a cause for public shaming and humiliation, and by publishing photographs of these hopeful clients, publications like New York are essentially putting 13 unfortunate men into stockades and inviting the infamously cruel townspeople of the internet to throw their most rotten tomatoes. I have a problem with this. It’s sordid, tacky, and frankly vicious and so far as we know, none of the men pictured did anything to deserve such punishment.

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    • Erika

      i think you’re brilliant

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate


    • paisley

      I mean this with all due respect and awareness that I am a complete outsider to this industry, but I always assumed that these laws (ineffective as they are) were in place to protect girls who are not working of their own volition. I know that where I live in the Bay Area there is a thriving voluntary sex worker community and there is huge problem with girls being forced into prostitution. Many of these girls end up in juvenile detention centers after all of their abuse. Do you think the only way to protect them is to decriminalize and regulate prostitution? What do you think is a better way to do things? Thanks

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Oh, dear lord. People love to say all the anti sex work laws are to protect the poor trafficked workers who aren’t in the industry voluntarily, but frankly that’s bullshit. There is a disgusting number of cases where young sex trafficking victims have gone to police for help, only to be arrested for being prostitutes. This is one of the main reasons why these girls (and boys! you only ever hear about the girls, but there are far more male victims of sex trafficking than female) The criminalization of prostitution doesn’t help voluntary workers and it definitely doesn’t help trafficked workers.
        Laws against buying, rather than selling sex are equally ineffective. The vast majority of clients prefer to see happy, voluntary workers and if they do patronize trafficked women they do so unwittingly. Penalizing them for patronizing a woman who may or may not have been trafficked is unfair and makes things less safe for clients, voluntary workers, and trafficked sex laborers. No-one wins here, except law enforcement agents who get their arrest numbers up.
        In addition to this, there’s the fact that punishing the many for the safety of the few is the worst possible way of handling the problem of sex trafficking. Fortunately, victims of sex trafficking are in the minority, and most trafficking statistics are blown up by adding numbers from brothel busts in which voluntary workers were organized by, rented space from, and/or gave a cut of their earnings to a non-prostitute (the basic legal definition of pimping). This is not to say that just because most sex workers are there because they want to be, trafficking isn’t a problem, it just means that putting laws in place that penalize voluntary workers in order to somehow protect involuntary workers is wrong on a gajillion different levels.
        The way I see it, the best way to handle sex trafficking is to decriminalize prostitution, and use all the money currently being used for stings, raids, and other anti-hooking activity to do real outreach to locate and help trafficked laborers.

      • http://SommelierinSneakers.blogspot.com/ SomminSneakers

        Always lovely and intelligent, darling:)

        P.s. he’s perfect.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Yes!!! I was going to text you on Friday, but I didn’t want to interrupt your time and then I forgot.

    • Moth Man

      Notice the photos of the women providing the services aren’t published. Welcome to “equality.”

      • http://SommelierinSneakers.blogspot.com/ SomminSneakers

        Oh sush. You just want to see the girls. Missing the point of the program and this article.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Way to miss the point, dude. There have been plenty of photographs of arrested sex workers published, but there shouldn’t be pictures of ANYONE involved in the sex industry.

    • Cee Bee

      Meh. Yes it’s true that people go to sex workers for a number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that EVERY reason deserves equal legitimacy. If a person is married and visits a prostitute then he/she deserves public shaming UNLESS the individual’s spouse is aware of and agreement with the visits. If not, we are condoning adultery and deception, both of which are strong correlates of divorce and lord knows we have enough problems with unstable family structures in this country. As for single people, I don’t see the point of shaming UNLESS the client has some awareness that the prostitute could be trafficked or is there against her will, is supporting a drug habit, etc. That’s not being upset with prostitution, that’s being upset with willful exploitation.

      As for clients who seek prostitutes in order to fulfill a fetish, compulsion, or an abnormal “need” — we probably shouldn’t shame these guys — but we also shouldn’t dismiss what may be destructive psychopathology. This area is more tricky but deserves attention.

      • DreaTheGreat

        I can find a few reasons to shame you too based on my own moral code that you may not share. That is why we don’t base laws on morality, we base them on rights.

      • Cee Bee

        Morality is based on knowledge of harm. If a person knowingly and willfully acts in such a way that his/her behavior brings harm to another person, he or she has acted immorally.

      • DreaTheGreat

        Shaming clients causes a lot more harm to the wife whose harm you are trying to protect in the first place. Do we then get to shame you for being such an insensitive prick?

      • Cee Bee

        the shame comes from realizing you’ve been betrayed and you feel like an idiot. been there. if there was no public record, most wives would never find out the truth directly from their husbands.

        unfortunately the truth always hurts when you’ve been betrayed. but once you find out, at least you can address the problem and work through it or get out. otherwise you can go for years in a dysfunctional mess of a relationship with a man who won’t take responsibility for his behavior, who doesn’t want to leave, but isn’t really there. been there. many women have.

        i don’t think that shaming should mean splashing a story all over the front page of a newspaper. just a public record.

    • DreaTheGreat

      The ones that should be shamed are the ones who do NOT pay their sex worker. When you agree to do something for an exchange and that person fails to pay their end, it is a form of violation and assault. Men should respect women who are sex workers, especially when they are the ones reaching out to them.