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.

My last, and biggest, problem with all this is its promotion of something generally referred to as “the Swedish model” or “the Nordic model.” In Sweden, it is currently illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. There are a few technicalities about where and how one can sell sexual services, but these laws are not as frequently enforced as the ban on buying sexual services, a practice Swedish police go after with relish and glee.

This law is probably, and not hyperbolically, one of the worst things to happen to the Swedish sex industry. Because of heavy enforcement of anti-sex buying laws, clients are nervous and negotiations are hurried, making it more likely that a sex worker will accidentally agree to see a dangerous or unstable client. When everyone is nervous, it’s hard to tell who’s a murderer and who’s not. This, of course, is especially problematic for Swedish street workers who have fewer screening procedures, and therefore less protection to begin with.

What’s worse, though, is the underlying attitudes towards sex workers–a group seen mainly as being mainly comprised of women–this model betrays. “Let’s not punish these poor women,” suggests the Swedish model, “let’s punish the men who are victimizing and preying on them by buying a service they are freely selling. It’s not the poor, pure women’s fault. If there were no demand they would find nice, normal jobs and be nice and normal and happy.”

That is, quite simply, sexist bullshit.

The idea that women need protection from their own, presumably voluntary, choice is super sexist, but it doesn’t end there. If anything, the Swedish model is more sexist against men. While women apparently need protection from their own choices, all men (especially the ones who buy sexual service) are predatory monsters looking to exploit the poor, deluded sex workers who think they have found a valid source of income. Their work can’t be valid, because they are all, so says the Swedish model, victims.

I don’t see the Nordic model ever completely taking hold in the US, and I hope I don’t live to eat my words, but it distresses me to see places like Long Island, Cincinnati, and even my beloved Chicago focusing more on clients than on workers. I’ve written before about how unjust it is that if I’m arrested I could face up to a year in jail and a position on the sex offender registry (and how the worst thing that’s likely to happen to a client I might be found with is a ticket and a “clean up your act, sir,”) but switching police focus to blatantly entrap the men who pay for sexual services is not the answer. Neither is ruining the lives of men who just wanted to get laid.

Just because I know it’s wrong that my life could be ruined by an arrest, it doesn’t mean I other lives should be ruined. Shifting stigmas and increasing consequences won’t solve anything, it will only drive my industry further underground, making things more dangerous not only for workers, but for clients.