As social media and "call out culture" elevate public shaming to a national pastime, many a hot take has been written on how this corrupts our political discourse. But barely acknowledged is the official use of online shaming by law enforcement. So it's great to see Suzy Khimm at The New Republic tackle this topic in depth as it relates to prostitution.
Despite the tenet of "innocent until proven guilty" in American jurisprudence, police routinely release the names and mugshots of suspected criminals before they've been convicted. For some serious offenses, this might make sense, especially when public dispersal of the info could help in an investigation. But most people would probably agree that it's unfair to broadcast it everytime someone gets picked up for a petty offense.
When it comes to prostitution, however, all decorum—and due process—tends to go out the window. Police will release pics of both sex workers and their clients to the media, who are all too willing to publish the photos. Outlets especially love to highlight whenever any of the "johns" works in some profession—professor, doctor, scientist—deemed too respectable for such shenanigans.
"A slew of … cities have embraced john-shaming as a way to combat prostitution," writes Khimm. "Some have published the names and photos of accused johns upon arrest on designated web sites and social media, or in press conferences." (Some johns' mugshots have even been plastered on billboards.)
"Shame isn't just the side effect of catching and prosecuting criminals in an open society with an active press corps," notes Khimm, but an active end-goal of government agents.
Tapping into the new power of the internet, along with our very old obsession with transgressive sex, these officials hope to wield the fear of public judgment in the name of the public good, arguing that prostitution is linked to far more serious crimes than we ever thought. But by taking punishment out of the hands of law enforcement and placing it in the hands of the public, whose emotions and reactions lie beyond their control, shaming campaigns can also be messy and unpredictable. And the resulting stigma can last indefinitely. … Or as Yale law professor James Whitman told me, shaming "allows the general public to do the dirty work."
Of course the debate over government shaming goes way back, with arguments over its sanction as old as our republic. But the Internet changes the nature of public shaming substantially. No longer will an offender only earn the gaze and opprobrium of his community members; now his or her name will long be associated with the offense for anyone anywhere who has Internet access. "The internet has vastly expanded the potential audience for public ridicule and turned the enforcement of social norms into a collective pastime, while Google's enduring memory can allow that infamy to continue without end," writes Khimm.
One man Khimm spoke with, a scientist whose arrest on solicitation charges in Nassau County, New York, made major media headlines, was let go from one job and denied a promotion at another after word got out. He considered fighting the charges, but feared that would only get his name in the press more. But another of the johns arrested at the same time, pizzeria owner Louis DiMaria, is suing the county and several police officers, alleging false arrest, defamation, and a violation of his due process rights.
DiMaria was arrested in a sting after going with his friend to a hotel where—without his knowledge, DiMaria claims—the friend had arranged to hook-up with someone whom he thought was a sex worker but was actually a cop. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against DiMaria, but not before his name and picture were released to the media, he was let go from this position as a high-school wrestling coach, and his wife left him.
Read Khimm's whole piece here for more about the havoc such ploys have wreaked and how police and prosecutors justify them (hint: it involves everyone's favorite moral panic du jour…).