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‘John Shaming’ Is Actually Putting Sex Workers at Risk

Sex workers are criticizing a Nova Scotia newspaper's decision to run the names of 27 johns facing charges.

by Brigitte Noël
Sep 29 2015, 4:28pm

Photo via Flickr user Seluryar

Earlier this month, a Nova Scotia newspaper published a story about a "prostitution crackdown" in Cape Breton, a laudatory summary of law enforcement's efforts to curb the "growing presence of female prostitution" in the city center.

At the end of the article, the reporter (or their editor) found it necessary to include a list of the 27 alleged johns facing charges, complete with name, age, and place of residence. VICE has decided against linking to this piece, as sex workers rights' advocates warn this type of public client shaming does more harm than good.

"When you criminalize clients, when clients are less visible, women are out on the streets longer," says Audrey Garcia (not her real name). Garcia, who now works as a community organizer with Montreal sex worker support group Stella, says that rather than protecting vulnerable women, law enforcement's crackdown on johns forces sex workers into isolation.

An environment where clients are trying to avoid police means sex workers are more likely to meet up with johns in dangerous areas, or get into cars without properly negotiating their terms, she explains. "When you're hiding, you're not accessing the information you need to do things safety, with consent, with communication."

Client shaming isn't a new tactic: In the US, police have taken to sharing johns' mugshots on Facebook or with the media. "And back in the day, police would show up on clients' doorsteps and out them in front of their families," Garcia says, "or they would send them letters that would be opened by their loved ones."

"If you look at the laws, they're actually rooted in client shaming and the idea that if you see a prostitute you must be a bad man, you must be a criminal."

This approach is part of what led to a 2013 Supreme Court challenge of Canadian prostitution laws. A group of women, led by former dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, fought to strike down the laws on the basis that they were unconstitutional. They won their case and forced the Conservative government to create new legislation—known as Bill C-36.

Yet as C-36 took shape and it became evident the Tories' new plan would be even more restrictive, Bedford threatened to publish a list of sex workers' prominent clients. This, she said, would "show the hypocrisy of those who want to impose their will on others while themselves engaging in the very behavior they want to others to stop."

Before going through with her threat, Bedford surveyed sex workers to get their thoughts on the controversial gesture, eventually deciding to respect worker-client privilege.

While Garcia wouldn't comment on Bedford's motivations, she says that for sex workers, shaming one's own clients is not only dangerous but a form of career suicide. Most importantly, she says, "shaming" perpetuates the notion that sex work is inherently bad.

"The government takes for granted the impact of that stigma on the client but also on the people who sell sex," Garcia explains. She says this is why C-36—which criminalizes pretty much every aspect of sex work—is so problematic. "Prostitutes are considered victims no matter what, which means clients are perps." This, she says, is a flawed stereotype. "Clients are your neighbor, your dentist, they're literally everybody."

In the case of the Cape Breton arrests, she points out that two thirds of the men listed are over the age of 60. "I don't know who these men are, so I can't make an assumption," Garcia says, "But this list shows us the clients are older, they're not 20 or 30-year-old yahoos just running around. That's a big risk to take for someone that's 80, so we have to ask ourselves why they're taking these risks."

This doesn't mean men over 60 are incapable of violence or exploitation, "but the fact that people are seeking out sexual services is really important, and the fact that they're seeking them at different ages is really important."

Dr. Ummni Khan, a Carleton University professor whose research focuses on the stigmatization of sex trade clients, says that in many contexts, access to sex work is not about exploitation. "It's one of the problems that the anti-prostitution view doesn't see the incredible value of sexual services, the need for intimacy and touch that many clients have."

She says the relationship between worker and client isn't always that different from what happens in a non-commercial relationship. "We can't realize the importance of sexuality for some people," she says. "It can be your life circumstances, you can be a client with a disability or not very good on the courtship market." Some men might simply want to experience something beyond what their wives or girlfriends are offering, "and there is also interesting work on male clients of male sex workers, and on female clients," Khan adds.

"There's a value in sex work, which is not talked about very often because of this construction of the client as an abuser," Garcia says.

While rhetoric that positions clients as exploitative criminals neglects the positive side of sex work, Garcia admits some johns are in fact abusers. However, she says the police's approach tends to dissuade more "good" clients than predators.

"Predators are few and far between, but they exist because we provide a legal context of desperation where sex workers will take those people as clients," Garcia says. "At the end of day, [sex workers] are taking clients they don't want to see."

Khan points out that clients can sometimes be a resource for police. "Another issue that clients have talked about is that because they're directly criminalized, they're less likely to go to the police if they become aware of violence or coercion."

She points to a case in Ottawa, in which a ring of teen girls were forcing classmates into prostitution. "Police were alerted to it by a client who realized the person he was seeing was actually underage."

For Khan, law enforcement's current approach does little to help sex workers' social welfare issues. "What we need is better housing, cheaper housing, free housing and education," she says. "For people it feels easier to go with a criminal law approach and lock up perpetrators, but that doesn't help the person who is on the street or has addiction issues, it just puts more money into law enforcement instead of social programs."

Garcia hopes the upcoming election will lead to a revision of C-36. So far, the NDP and the Green Party have both come out against criminalization, although Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been rather silent on the issue.

"There's a way to do things that makes this safe, but if you can't talk about it, you can't do the things you need to do, and people suffer," says Garcia. "That's a really big piece of the work we need to do, undoing the myths around the clients."

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