Sex Work

'Sex Purchasers' to Be Branded Online Indefinitely in Orange County

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robbrucker/Flickr

In Anaheim, California, anyone convicted of buying sexual services will have their names and mug shots indefinitely posted to a city web page listing "Sex Purchasers." The Anaheim district attorney's office says the scarlet HTML is meant to deter sex traffickers, which makes about as much sense as posting jaywalker mugshots in order to deter car theives. No, let's call this for what it is: straight-up, old-fashioned, puritanical public shaming.

Anaheim, in Orange County, unfortunately isn't the first Cali city to implement this online shaming tactic. Fresno and Oakland also post the pics of those arrested on prostitution-related charges to Facebook, those these photos are then deleted after two weeks. Richmond, California, started doing similarly earlier this fall—until people's propensity for digging up and sharing the addresses, employers, and other personal info of exposed sex workers and clients caused the Richmond police department to reconsider the parameters of the plan. 

"Public shaming as a form of punishment goes back to the days of Puritan colonists," writes Los Angeles Times' Emily Foxhall. "In recent years, it's become a strategy for police departments targeting the sex trade….Orange County's move is expected to heighten debate over whether public shaming is effective at reducing prostitution and whether it exposes johns to too much scrutiny." 

While public shaming may be a historic practice, there's undeniably something different about exposing someone in a town square or local bulletin than in a medium where the exposure has potential global reach into perpetuity. For supporters of such measures, however, I guess that's part of the appeal—the chance to serve up potential lifetime humilitation and punishment for those who would dare to seek sexual satisfaction in the marketplace. And if that sounds like a harsh assessment of their motives, consider this paragraph from the Times article: 

Publicizing the identities of johns is not considered part of the punishment and would not be up for negotiation in a plea deal, (DA cheif of staff Susan Kang) Schroeder said. Asked if concern for solicitors' personal lives factored into the decision to identify them, her response was unforgiving.

"Give me a break."

Yet even many who want to banish prostitution aren't keen on the idea that publicly shaming those who get caught will make much of a dent on the sex trade. Melissa Farley, executive director of the anti-prostitution group Prostitution Research and Education, told the Times she's unaware of any evidence that this kind of shaming results in long-term behavior change.

Peggy McGarry, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, has said that public shaming punishments have "no record of efficacy in turning someone away from crime," especially when it comes to low-level offenders.