Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
You might’ve seen pictures of men, who have been charged with solicitation for prostitution, on billboards or newspapers. This name and shame technique is typically utilized by the end demand sector within the anti-trafficking field which believes that public condemnation of those who purchase sex discourages others from buying sex. Those who want to end demand typically have the following goals:
The logic behind the push to shame and to criminalize buyers is that if there is no demand, then there would be no need for a supply. However, solely targeting demand fails to address root causes, and this tactic affects people beyond the Johns themselves.
Paints one villain
The buyer is stereotyped as an older man exploiting young girls. While child sex trafficking does occur and arrested Johns typically fit the buyer stereotype, young girls aren’t the only ones trafficked (older women, men, boys and LGBTQ people are also trafficked for sex), and these consumers are not the only ones exploiting people in forced prostitution. There have been cases where governments and law enforcement officials have directly caused or facilitated the abuse of sex workers and trafficked individuals. Just search the terms “prostitution,” “solicitation,” “sexual assault” or “trafficking” in the CATO Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.
Primarily blaming Johns for sex trafficking, furthermore, shifts the focus away from structural issues such as gender-based violence, poverty and other inequalities perpetuated by state policies that make people vulnerable to human traffickers. By painting the buyer as THE bad guy to go after and eliminate, sex workers and trafficked people are still left with the same state institutions and agencies that may have been complicit with their exploitation in the first place.
Public shaming is nothing new. In colonial times, perpetrators had to spend time on stocks and pillories, facing humiliation and receiving the scorn of the general public. However, as cities urbanized and people became more mobile, public shaming stopped working. Perpetrators could simply move to places where they were not recognized.
Furthermore, Cole Stryker — author of Hacking the Future and Epic Win for Anonymous — posits, “It’s common to argue that a perpetrator “deserves” to be shamed, but in fact human psychology doesn’t work this way. Many pedophiles, for instance, recognize that that they are inexorably — even biologically — bound to impulses that they themselves loathe. Does the shaming — through public registries for example — cause the pedophile to reform? Unlikely. Does it deter others from engaging in pedophilic acts, or does it drive them to darker corners and sneakier tactics?”
Riddled with negative effects
A concentrated effort to stop the demand includes surveillance and sting operations meant to net Johns. However, if the police don’t find trafficked people in the stings, what happens to the sex workers that they do find? Selling sex is still illegal in the United States, so they’re likely to be charged with prostitution, asked to pay a fine or even face jail time. The way that John shaming initiatives play out inevitably keeps individuals in prostitution because with a mark on their criminal record, no other viable work option and a requirement to pay fines, people return to the sex industry — an industry that end demand supporters say is inherently violent.
Additionally, there have been cases where trafficked people have been treated as criminals as a result of these stings. Moreover, the shaming of a specific John may do more to punish and humiliate his spouse and children.
To close, let’s think of John shaming in a different light. Are you reading this post on a cell phone? Do you buy food at grocery stores? Are you wearing non-fair trade certified clothes? Well, would you want your face on a billboard? Does the thought of having your face on a billboard or a newspaper keep you from buying all of the slave labor tainted goods in your cart?
Or, would it be more effective to inform you of unfair trade policies and labor rights abuses, to empower you with actions you can take to combat forced labor and to encourage you to pursue a slave free lifestyle?
This post does not excuse nor sympathize with buyers who exploit trafficked individuals and sex workers. Nor is this post meant to put down people who are trying to fight child sex trafficking. However, putting faces on billboards and conducting raids that traumatize and criminalize trafficked people and sex workers are not the most effective ways to pursue this fight.
The Violence Against Women Act expires at the end of September. Demand its reauthorization.
Mark your calendars, January 11th is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Help raise awareness by participating in an anti-trafficking action.