Taking on Men Who Solicit Sex

“Prostitution” is an unfortunate term that groups together a diverse body of sex work, people, practices, ideas, and ideals.  While a majority of the research and public policy focuses primarily on the (mostly) women who work in this industry, since the 1970’s attention has increasingly started focusing on a different population: the clients.  Using economic metaphor, police and public policy officials often discuss this as getting at “the problem” from the demand side rather than focusing all of their attention on supply.

Collectively, these strategies are referred to as “anti-john” initiatives or tactics, and they actually date back to the early 1900s.  But, feminist critiques in the 1970s that called for equal enforcement laws caused anti-john tactics to be taken more seriously.  There are a variety of methods for countering sexual commerce that fall under the “anti-john” umbrella: use of surveillance cameras, seizing the cars used to solicit sex (sometimes taken and sold at auction as part of the penalty), community service, “John School” educational programs for men arrested for purchasing sex, “Dear John” letters sent to the homes of johns, reverse stings involving the use of women officers posing as sex workers, and public and private shaming (sending letters to registered auto owners and publicizing identities of arrested johns in newspapers, police website, and on billboards).

DEMANDforumA Department of Justice assisted research program—DEMANDforum—has mapped where various strategies have been put to use in the U.S. (see left as well).  It’s interesting to see how sex crimes are dealt with differently throughout the U.S.  But, the map is also useful for getting a sense of the states that are making use of these strategies at the greatest rates and where such strategies are less relied upon.  Zooming in on my community, I found that anti-john tactics are employed in both Buffalo (right) and Rochester (left), though Rochester uses more tactics than Buffalo.


Anti-john initiatives recently made headlines because of an interesting case in Kennebunk, Maine.  For a little over a year, police investigated a local Zumba instructor for selling sex out of her studio.  It later came out that she had been videotaping her clients during the sexual encounters.  As a result, the police had a great deal of evidence concerning the local johns who solicited sex.  And police decided to release the names of the men charged with patronizing the facility for, let’s just say, “non-Zumba purposes” (this is what anti-john people call “shaming”).  Many of the men are standing trial over this holiday (2012-2012) season.

The town was and is—as you might imagine—in a state of unrest.  Interestingly, the Times reports a gender gap in support for publicizing her patrons.

Generally, women who were interviewed here seemed to applaud making the list public with as much information as possible.  [There was some initial disagreement concerning whether only names, or names, birth dates, and addresses ought to be released.]  Men, on the other hand, generally thought that the crime was minor and that releasing the names would only harm families. (here)

The gender gap in support for publicizing the patrons is fascinating.  While potentially predictable, men’s defense of patrons’ privacy is a powerful illustration of a defense of men’s collective privileges.  Solicitation of sex is something many men seem to collectively feel entitled to keeping private.  And I’m not necessarily saying it shouldn’t be.  I’m not sure how I feel.  Kennebunk TShirtBut, I’m fascinated by the conviction with which some of Kennebunk’s men seem to feel that it ought to be private and equally fascinated by what seems to be a more unanimous position among Kennebunk’s women that it ought to be public.  Police released the names in batches as they confirmed men in the videos and the community waited to see who’d be on the list.  T-Shirts were sold locally that read, “I’m NOT on the client list.  Are YOU?”

It’s an interesting case.  Yet, whether sex work ought to be illegal, or how we ought to prosecute those participating is a complicated issue.  Much of this research seems to treat sex work as a homogenous phenomenon, but the Kennebunk case illustrates some of the problems with this.  Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she refers to as “middle class sex work” (see here, here, here, and here) highlights the very different issues that women who enter sex work for different reasons and with different kinds of resources face.  These issues seem unrecognized with anti-john tactics.

I also can’t help thinking about the women whose livelihoods are injured as a result of anti-john interventions.  It seems that these kinds of strategies ought only be introduced in tandem with social support programs for sex workers who “want out,” or who may not want out, but will need other kinds of resources as their pools of patrons will shift with these strategies.

4 thoughts on “Taking on Men Who Solicit Sex

  1. And *I* can’t help thinking about the most marginalized women in the various sex industries, who make up the *vast majority* of said industries, and whose needs should *absolutely* be centered before those of johns or of privileged women who have other choices. With privilege, comes responsibility.

    Also, I’m always in favor of women (or men) whose partners deceive them having their deception revealed. Betrayed partners have a right to physically protect themselves from any sexually transmitted diseases or infections that their deceptive partner might have exposed them to… and of course any of these johns who are committing violence against women, as johns are all too often wont to do, should be exposed. Women’s safety before men’s misogyny, and marginalized women’s well-being before privileged and patriarchy-compliant women’s well-being.

  2. There is so much I don’t know how to say here- oh wait, I do. You are writing about sex workers, their persecution and the treatment of their customers. Maybe you could ask a sex worker for their input. If for no other reason, there is a well, established and reasonable explanation as to why the women in the town referenced are acting that way. Hit- it has nothing to do with dissembling the patriarchy, or helping sex workers.

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