Cities turn to humiliation to fight prostitution

Police are posting photos of 'Johns' on websites or billboards, but critics say the tactic ignores causes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Anyone who's ever wondered just who the men are who cruise this city's seedier strips looking for sex can now satisfy their curiosity.

Starting last month, the Chicago Police Department has been posting the names of "johns" arrested for engaging or soliciting prostitutes - along with their photo, address, age, and place of arrest. A recent sample included men from low-income Chicago neighborhoods and relatively well-to-do suburbs, of all ages and ethnicities.

It's part of a tactic more and more cities are using, cracking down on prostitution by focusing on demand, often using tactics of humiliation - like Chicago's website or billboards in Oakland, Calif. - to try and convince potential customers to stay home.

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It's a trend that some applaud, saying the men who drive the trade have been overlooked too often while prostitutes get arrested. Others question its effectiveness, suggesting that websites and "john schools" that educate customers about the realities of prostitution accomplish little.

"The first thing you have to ask is why are people involved in prostitution - overwhelmingly it's related to economic issues," says Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. Focusing on demand, Thukral says, won't reduce the amount of prostitution; rather, more resources should go toward supportive housing, job training, and legal services - "programs that teach people how to get mainstream jobs that will provide a living wage."

Still, others involved in the issue say that efforts like Chicago's are an encouraging sign that cities are both waking up to the problems around prostitution and are recognizing that customers play as important a role as the prostitutes.

In Chicago, the website has been up for only a month, but has gotten more than 497,000 hits, says David Bayless, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly counted the traffic to the police website.]

"If we can get them to think twice about coming here, if they think they're at risk of being arrested and having their picture online, then the website's done its job," he says. "It's an acknowledgment that customers are contributors to the problem."

In addition to getting their photo online and having their vehicle impounded, arrested men have to attend a local "john school" run by Genesis House, an organization that helps Chicago sex workers.

The men pay $500 to attend the eight-hour class, and the money goes to support Genesis House's programs. During the day, they learn about the law, the health risks of patronizing prostitutes, and the reality of what life is like for prostitutes.

"This is not a victimless crime," says Patti Buffington, director of Genesis House. "There is a victim here, and it's the women performing this. About 95 percent of these women were abused."

For the men who attend john school, the biggest impact often comes when they learn more about the women themselves, says Norma Hotaling, a former prostitute who founded The Sage Project in San Francisco and started the nation's first john school about 10 years ago.

Midway through the class, she often reveals her own background. "You see them turn to Jell-O," Ms. Hotaling says with a laugh. "They say, 'You're smart, and you have power here, but you're' " a prostitute.

She's helped numerous cities around the US, including Chicago, launch their own john schools, and says the programs are remarkably successful; in San Francisco, she only sees about two percent of the men a second time.

Hotaling also has sympathy for the men who come through her classes; most, she says, simply don't have all the facts to make good decisions. As a result, she's not a fan of humiliation tactics.

"You don't tear down their support system and humiliate them," she says. "Do you want them to be total outcasts?"

Advocates at the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a San Francisco organization that favors legalizing prostitution, have also been outspoken against the humiliation efforts, such as the new campaign in Oakland that has billboards springing up with customers' faces - blurred in early versions - saying "Don't John in Oakland." "It's not going to stop the problem," says Robyn Few, director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. "It's just going to move the problem from one place to another."

Still, many advocates of the efforts say the crackdown on customers is just one piece of an overall effort to reduce street prostitution and help sex workers move on to other jobs. In Chicago, where police estimate the number of prostitutes at anywhere between 16,000 and 25,000, Mayor Richard Daley has jumped with vigor on the new initiative. He cites not just the harm prostitution wreaks on neighborhoods and their quality of life, but also the harm done to the prostitutes themselves - a sign that politicians are starting to look at sex workers as victims rather than simply criminals.

"Once they become prostitutes, they're subject to even more violence, abuse, and possible death from their pimps and their customers," Daley said at a press conference to announce the new Internet site. "It's a terrible life, and a caring society has a responsibility to help these women turn their lives around, and to keep other young women from entering the profession."

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