The town of Kennebunk, Maine, recently made headlines for releasing the identities of men charged with patronizing a Zumba instructor-turned-prostitute named Alexis Wright. Despite all the attention, the strategy of "john shaming" is far from unique. It's just one of several tactics city and county police departments across the country routinely use to target the men who pay for sex, rather than the women who sell it.
Michael Shively of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, research firm Abt Associates has spent the past several years gathering loads of information about strategies that aim to reduce the "demand" side of prostitution. Shively and his colleagues have compiled a database of at least 825 cities that employ at least one of these tactics. The work has produced comprehensive reports for the Department of Justice [PDF] as well as a new website called DEMANDForum that tracks the "anti-demand initiatives" occurring across the United States:
Shively's work has shown that targeting demand can be much more useful than arresting the so-called "supply" side of prostitution: the women themselves, or the pimps trafficking sex. Most communities begin by sweeping the streets for the suppliers of sex, but ultimately find the approach ineffective, he says. The women are often victims themselves who've been forced into the trade for various reasons, and the pimps are easily replaceable once they're taken off the street.
"Focusing on the supply, the supply of sellers of commercial sex, is not found to be effective," says Shively. "Police never find it to have any lasting or substantial effects other than short-term displacement or moving the problem around."
Isolated anti-john initiatives date back to the early 20th century, says Shively, but the trend really took off in the 1970s when groups began calling for equal enforcement of prostitution laws. Since that time a number of strategies have emerged: from the "reverse sting" (undercover female officers solicit buyers) to "john schools" (programs designed to educate men about the risks of prostitution) to shaming. Shively's latest D.O.J. report charts the first cities of anti-demand:
Shively credits St. Petersburg, Florida, for implementing some of the strongest early programs, back in the mid-70s, aimed at both reducing demand for prostitution and providing social support for female victims of it. A pioneering john school started by San Francisco in 1995 reduced recidivism rates by nearly half, Shively reports, and became a global model for other cities. A sustained program of reverse stings in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, established in the mid-1980s, led to a 75 percent decline in prostitution.
Other cities have turned to shaming because it's much cheaper than running schools or deploying undercover officers. Several places in addition to Kennebunk publicize names of johns on billboards, over the internet, or through press releases. There are legitimate ethical concerns about the tactic — some argue that it unfairly maligns men who haven't yet been convicted of a crime — but from an effectiveness standpoint, police interviews and community surveys suggest it's a strong behavioral motivator.
"Cities have gotten themselves into position to pursue these tactics for many different reasons," says Shively. "In some cases, it's been a nonprofit organization that maybe heard something or was looking for something. … In other cases the police have said, what we're doing isn't working, what else is out there."
Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, is doing the best overall job targeting demand today, says Shively. The county is part of a wider statewide anti-demand campaign called End Demand Illinois, driven largely by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, with an aim to shift the attention of law enforcement onto patrons, not prostitutes, and create support networks for victims. Nashville, Tennessee, also deserves praise for its aggressive john school, he says, which generates about $100,000 a year for survivors.
Budget is a major obstacle for some cities when it comes to fighting prostitution, but criminal priority is also significant, says Shively. Some police departments or district attorneys choose not to emphasize the crime because it's only a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Still many officers recognize that most of the felonies targeted by cities — from weapons offenses to murders — are found in high concentrations around prostitution rings.
"Police that connect the dots and that connect all the crimes together, they think it's time well spent to focus on prostitution," says Shively. "They know they don't get anywhere with supply and distribution, so the ones that are consistently aggressive about demand see that they're attacking the market that drives many of their other problems."
Shively hopes DEMANDForum will give cities the information they need to pursue whatever tactic they deem best for them. (The site is live but still being updated, he says, with an official public release planned for the coming weeks.) He's especially hopeful that some places will be able to learn from the efforts of others. Cities that have given up on john schools because they couldn't get support from a district attorney, for instance, might follow the lead of Waco, Texas, where program leaders turned to the city attorney instead.
"One of the reasons we put the information together was so that people would not have to reinvent wheels if they're interested in a wheel," he says. "We want to make the information about what communities have done accessible, so others can get new ideas they haven't thought of, or find solutions to problems that have been solved elsewhere."
Images: screenshot of demandforum.net (map), "A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts, Final Report" (chart).