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Shaming Johns and Criminalized Prostitution

On June 30th the Oakland Police Department announced the launch of a website that displays the names and photos of “pimps and purchasers,” individuals arrested for soliciting prostitutes or benefiting from prostitution. This is not the first time that a city decided to shame customers as part of its fight against illegal prostitution, and it won’t be the last.

There are numerous examples of an increasingly popular trend to attack the purchasers of sex. As mentioned in a previous post, Canada’s latest prostitution Bill has similarities to the “Nordic model” of prostitution legislation, outlawing the purchase of sex but not the sale. Additionally, websites like exposingjohns.com have been popping up, schemes that gather and post the names, phone numbers, and in many cases photos of men who respond to fabricated escort advertisements created by the website’s operators. (Want your name and photo removed? Pay them $500.00.)

Shaming the people who attempt to purchase sex is a fear tactic, usually employed with the intention to reduce sex trafficking by removing the demand. It is a controversial approach that has sparked a great deal of criticism and debate, primarily because soliciting a prostitute is a relatively minor crime in most parts of the USA. The humiliation and reputation damage that may result from aggressive public shaming, however, could lead to dire personal and professional consequences for the solicitor.

Is Customer Shaming Becoming a Best Practice?

There is material that supports the shaming of johns as an effective weapon against illegal prostitution. A study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that 200 police departments nationwide believe that johns fear publicity about prostitution charges more than fines or even jail. The study cites numerous instances where shaming proved an effective deterrent. In Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, a comprehensive approach emphasizing arresting and shaming johns was associated with a 38% reduction in calls for police service.

If this trend continues to yield results, john shaming just might become a standard practice in the ongoing fight against sex trafficking, which is bad news for any person seeking the services of an illegal prostitute.


Legal Prostitution: Shame vs. Respect

Because “prostitution” is an umbrella term that not only encompasses a sex-for-money transaction between consenting adults, but also child trafficking, sex slavery, and other despicable practices, it’s not difficult to understand why johns are so often stereotyped as predators or lowlifes. The shady world of street walkers, erotic massage parlors, and even high-end escort agencies serve to propagate this stereotype. These unprincipled industries incorporate their customers into the stigmatized realm of criminalized prostitution, where everyone involved operates in constant fear of law enforcement. Even a well-intentioned customer, who is simply looking to pay for an enjoyable, consensual sexual encounter, is forced to play the role of the paranoid prevaricating punter.

In Nevada, where prostitution has been legalized, an entirely different dynamic exists. Because Nevada’s licensed brothels are legitimate businesses operating within the law rather that against it, customers have no need to fear legal repercussions or humiliating publicity.

There are three key items that need to be understood with regard to the legal brothel customer experience:


Legal brothels are actual licensed businesses that openly sell sex. They don’t illegally sell sex under the guise of “companionship” like an escort agency does – they lawfully sell sex. These establishments are held to the highest standards of health and safety and only employ adult women who willingly practice their trade. Customers entering these establishments, and partaking of the services offered therein, can be confident that they are not unknowingly contributing to illegal sex trafficking.


Legal brothels have been operating in Nevada for nearly half a century. In that time, these houses have earned an excellent reputation for their discreetness. While brothels openly provide sex services, bordello employees are acutely aware that brothel customers prefer to keep their private lives private. Unlike illegal prostitution, no customer has ever, or will ever, be “outed” or shamed for visiting a legal brothel.


Customers of legal brothels have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they are not perpetuating criminal activity and that their most intimate secrets will remain safe and sound, but there is another aspect to the customer experience that is rarely mentioned but ever-present: respect. Legal courtesans understand that prostitution is an inescapable societal reality, and that the clients of prostitutes are, overwhelmingly, decent people. At legal brothels, these customers are treated with the respect and courtesy they deserve.

While shaming and other fear tactics continue to be implemented by law enforcement in the fight against sex trafficking, it’s worth mentioning that there is another side to prostitution, where good-natured adults seek sexual fulfillment from willing service providers. Not all johns are predators and not all prostitutes are victims. Perhaps a key tool in the fight against sex crime is not only shame, but also respect – and a willingness to enter into a dialogue about the benefits of legalizing sex work across the United States.

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