8 reasons why journalists shouldn’t name a prostitute’s clients

I will be the first to admit that when I heard the phrases “Zumba instructor” and “prostitution” and “Kennebunk, Maine” collide in the same news story, I sat up and took notice. I’m inclined to read any story with the word Zumba in the headline.

In a story that’s only a bit more sleazy than the latest political ad, a woman from Maine named Alexis Wright — a dance instructor — has reportedly been working as a prostitute with more than a hundred clients in her studio and a nearby office.

That is interesting enough, but more interesting, and consequential, is the decision by law enforcement to name her clients. (In routine Google searches for this story, I have bumped into the published names of 21 of her clients, which is said to include husbands, fathers, realtors, lawyers and other prominent businessmen.)

There are, of course, different thoughts on whether the clients should have been named. A New York Times story about the incident said: “Generally, women who were interviewed here seemed to applaud making the list public with as much information as possible. Men, on the other hand, generally thought that the crime was minor and that releasing the names would only harm the families.”

I have fielded phone calls from Maine journalists who consider this story and this case an ethical minefield. To their credit, they are asking for advice. Here’s what I argued:

1. Publication of the names of johns serves no journalistic purpose or social benefit.

2. The consequences of publication are predictable: It will harm the most vulnerable of the stakeholders, the children of those who are named. Sex crimes — whatever the nature or severity — carry a particular stigma for families.

3. The criminal justice system does not need to publish the names in order to suppress the business of one busy prostitute. Nor will publication deter men in the future from engaging in this kind of activity.

4. It was not that many years ago when police would make busts at gay bars and then publicize the names of the men arrested. On occasion, these names could appear in the news media, the men, essentially “outed.” Social mores change over time, and prostitution in some countries is legal.

5. The argument “Well the names are already all over the Internet” does not hold water with me. If the names are all over, what is the point of publishing them again, except as a cheap way to attract readers to your paper or your website? Wouldn’t it be better not to pander to the crowd, to take the high road in the interests of your long-term credibility?

6. “But it’s a public record?” So what? What percentage of public records make their way into the press? Obviously, only the tiniest sliver. The key question remains: What good would this do?

7. Isn’t it sexist to publish the name of the one who offers sexual services but not the ones who pay for it? Maybe, but if this were a male prostitute, I would not publish the names of his clients, male or female. If the police busted, say, a house of prostitution or a ring of call girls, I would only publish the name of the person who ran the operation.

8. Publishing the names could lead to more confusion than clarity, and could cause people to make incorrect assumptions about people who share the same names as clients. According to The Daily Mail, “a 75-year-old retired colonel … was forced to sit down with his wife and explain to her that he had not been sleeping with prostitutes. He shares name with one of 21 men on list accused of paying … for sex. … Police only released list of names, without addresses or dates of birth — leading to paranoia and confusion in town.”

Finally, I would cite an Eliot Spitzer exception. Spitzer, former attorney general and governor of New York State got caught using an escort service in spite of his public law-and-order reputation. To generalize, I would be willing to publish the names of clients whose actions were in gross conflict with his public posture or responsibilities.

Realtor?  No

Police Chief? Yes

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  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    It’s not shame, in the sense of an internal feeling of having done wrong; it is shaming, which is an externally applied (for instance, by you, against me) harm done which can and does affect job, spouse, offspring, etc.

    If party A and party B agree in an informed manner to participate in a consensual act, agreed upon value received being equitable for value given, clearly there is no cause for shame. It’s a good transaction, done well.

    What is actually happening in the act of criminalizing sex work is that some people are forcing their ideas upon others. A far, far less savory activity than an act where all participants agree. And yes, now we have a legitimate cause for shame.

  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    “Any time you can get ‘alligator’ and ‘nudist’ into the same headline, it’s been a good day.”

    Yes. And that’s part of the reason why newspapers are dying left and right. Because they have NO IDEA WHAT NEWS ACTUALLY IS. When you pander to the lowest common denominator, you leave the thinking public entirely by the wayside. Further, just about the entire “news” industry is clueless about the fact that people are pretty good at gossip; they don’t need help at it at all. What they could use is an actual news source.

    Worthy News: Government interferes with adult, consensual agreement for service; no constitutional basis; legislation penned by Dumbo Legislators 1…n

    Despicable Gossip: John Doe and Jane Doe had Sex For Money! OMG WTF!

    But hey, keep on keepin’ on. I laugh every time one of these formal gossip operations goes bust.

  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    Yes, of course the same argument applies. If there’s a social problem, we have probation (monitoring by the state), fines, and prison, as well as parole (post-prison monitoring by the state.)

    Shaming is a very poor choice because it is inherently non-level; it need have almost no effect upon the rich, and yet it will probably outright destroy the life of the poor.

    Shaming also tends to last forever, whereas fines, prison, etc. all have defined endings, and offer the potential for the individual to reintegrate into society. If you make them a public target — which is exactly what a public listing does, among other shaming mechanisms — they can’t do that, and consequently, they’re a lot less likely to rehabilitate. If you’re known permanently as a criminal, the barrier to further criminal behavior gets lower; if you can’t find a job, it drops even further; if you cannot gain respect in the community under any conditions, how will the supposed stigma of doing something criminal serve as a deterrent?

    Shaming is a subset of the “make criminals into a permanent lower class” mindset, utterly replacing the concept of rehabilitation; as such, it is one of the worst social mistakes extant at this time.

  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    “The fellas whose names appeared in gay bar busts were typically the names people would recognize. If a name is published and people don’t recognize it, they will forget it.”

    If it’s your name, and you are generally unknown, yet your boss or other near associate reads it, they aren’t going to forget it. Better go back to square one with your reasoning; it doesn’t pass muster.

  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    The entire thing is about puritanical, insane law made by those who would enforce fossilized, toxic, unjustifiable rules of theirs upon the rest of us. You completely miss the real issue at hand here, which is the government interfering in informed, consensual choice.

    These laws *only* do harm. Sex work is no less honorable and legitimate than playing football, giving a massage, or serving hamburgers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.nephin Daniel Nephin

    More timely question: How are papers handling Boy Scouts’ “secret list?” Identify or no?

  • Krister Rollins

    “All or Nothing” is the basis of equality. Once you start carving it into bits you get people who are more equal than others. The Supreme Court, in fact, unanimously struck down Separate But Equal. So, that’s nine folks (and all the justices since then) who think all or nothing is just fine.What nuances?
    No one argues that punishing men is more important than protecting families. No one. That argument isn’t happening. That rhetoric is called a “straw man.” Justice should be handled evenly regardless of gender. That’s the argument.
    AND MORE IMPORTANTLY: I would argue that the thing these families need protection from is the husbands and fathers (and possibly wives and mothers, the list isn’t completely out yet) who abandoned them to pay for sex with a stranger. Time with a prostitute is ALMOST CERTAINLY time away from the family. And money.
    We could do any number of things but won’t. It’s not up to the women (or men). It’s up to our legal system. And again: These names in any criminal case are made public on the premise that watchdogs ensure justice is done fairly.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, it should NOT be a crime. The fact that people like you may find it offensive is your problem and it should not be illegal. There are plenty of real victims out there that we don’t need to turn consenting adult women into victims of your imagination. If we are going to criminalize personal relationships based on the harm to women, then marriage is definitely the first relationship that ought to be banned, based on the number of incidents of intimate partner violence that occur within marriages every year (12 MILLION incidents). Thankfully not all marriages are violent- in fact, most aren’t- but the same is true for sex work. Most sex workers do not experience violence at the hands of their clients or their employers – rather they experience violence and rape at the hands of law enforcement agents. But that’s another issue.

    You presume that all the clients of prostitutes are married. Typically, men who find comfort with a sex care provider are also widowed, divorced, disabled, socially inept- in other words men (and women) who are not able to, at that point in their lives, find companionship through traditional means. The socially and physically disabled and widowed are the most likely to be unable to find a partner. Many times recently divorced men utilize the services we offer because they are not yet ready to get involved emotionally in a new relationship, while still needing and wanting to be held, listened to and enjoy the stress relieving benefits of sex. Or do you think these people should just do without?

    When you see that man in a wheelchair who can’t lift his head up because he has cerebral palsy- do you think he doesn’t need or want sexual companionship? When your grandmother dies and your grandfather is left alone, do you think that suddenly HE doesn’t want to be held and nurtured? What about those men who have never been successful picking up ‘chicks’ because they are shy or nerdy- think they don’t have needs, both sexual and companionship wise? Guess what? THEY DO HAVE NEEDS. And who the f..k is anyone to say they ought not to share in the health benefits of having a sex life because they can’t find someone to marry or even to date?

    As far as married men, it was my experience that their wives PREFERRED that they find a professional with whom to enact their fantasies as the wife did NOT want to be bothered. Wives understand that if their husband has an affair, for which there is no legal ramifications other than a possible divorce- the ‘other woman’ is likely to ensnare their husbands which would be the end of their gravy train. Ask the first couple of wives of Newt Gingrich. Had he done like Eliot Spitzer and David Vitter, they might still be married to him. Well, not at the same time of course.

    I’d like to see you go through the humiliation of having someone name you as a prostitute and see how far you get when you try to find other employment. How about when a person commits ACTUAL violence against another, they are arrested and convicted- THEN we post their names and faces all over the place. Otherwise, IT AIN’T NOBODY’S BUSINESS WHAT GROWN MEN AND WOMEN DO WITH EACH OTHER AS LONG AS THEY CONSENT.

  • Krister Rollins

    Krister is a masculine name. It’s Swedish. It’ OK, though, I get that a lot. I mean, not when I’m met in person, but when people haven’t heard my name and I argue for equality it happens.

    And I think your argument cuts both ways here. If society considers prostitution insignificant compared to murder, the stigma attached to it will be lessor than that of murder.

  • Anonymous

    It is usually not a matter of shame but the stigma that sex workers and our clients face for daring to engage in consenting adult commercial sex to meet the needs of either and both.

    Why not just decriminalize consenting adult commercial sex and then there will be resources available to help those who are victims of rape, domestic violence, or human trafficking of any sort- including the number one destination for such victims- domestic servitude. But that’s too simple for most people who think they have a right to dictate the moral values of everyone else.

  • Anonymous

    Why do you think this case is an exception? Where on earth do you get this concept that ‘most prostitutes are quasi slaves’? Do you think most women are stupid and incapable of making life choices for themselves? Perhaps you are unaware that MOST PROSTITUTES are NOT slaves of anyone, they enter sex work because it offers more benefits for fewer hours than a miserable job as a secretary or a domestic servant or flipping hamburgers…

    As a sex worker rights activist for 30 years, I think I know a few more prostitutes than you do. Like thousands of them around the world. And believe me, they are NOT quasi slaves OR treated like property (that would be wives you are thinking of who are treated like property… not us prostitutes). It is morons like you who treat us like children and that is what causes us the most harm. You give the cops more tools (laws, increased penalties) with which to rape and extort us. And once we have been arrested for prostitution, we are unemployable anywhere else, even if we wanted to move on with our lives.

    I suggest that you search the internet for sex worker rights organizations and see the many videos and articles created by very articulate, highly educated men and women in sex work and see what we have to say about ourselves. And for those men and women who have fewer options than the rest of us, why would you begrudge them the earning potential they have in sex work rather than force them to earn minimum wage doing a menial job where they are REALLY exploited? Like domestic service or sewing in a garment manufacturing operation? Now THOSE women are the quasi slaves… NOT the sex workers who earn much more per hour and have more time to do the other things they want to do.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, your statement that the wives, girlfriends and partners of these men are at risk is totally WRONG! Prostitutes are among the MOST studied group of people on earth- and time after time, organizations like the CDC have found that prostitutes are responsible for about 3 to 5% of all sexually transmitted diseases in the US. 75% comes from high school and college age people and the remaining number of cases are from NON commercial sexual encounters- one night stands, etc.

    There is a really good reason for this. Our bodies are our assets. And if we get a disease or spread a disease, it will put us out of business. Then there is the way in which sex workers do their work- much of it has NOTHING to do with intercourse and has to do with fulfilling fantasies… like B&D, cross dressing clients, clients who have foot fetishes, etc. and NONE of those activities in ANY WAY endangers the health of either the prostitute OR the client.

    The rest of your comments are too ludicrous to even bother responding to. They are a rehash of every abolitionist argument ever made. We are prostitutes because it is a darn good job for most of us. When I was working, it was the best job I ever had- far better and MORE MORAL than working for the LAPD where I was employed for 10 years. I had a much greater risk of being harmed by the work I did then, than I ever risked working as a call girl.

    It must be really difficult for you to live in such a bubble where knowledge can’t filter in. You need to stop watching so many soap operas. They aren’t real life.

  • Anonymous

    Strange, I talk with Swedish sex workers who say that this is NOT true. Where do you get your ‘facts’? The Swedish model is NOT working- nor will it ever work because the cops merely turn the threat of extortion to arresting the clients if the prostitute doesn’t give the nice officer a free sample.

    It should NOT be a crime to sell OR buy what you can legally obtain for free. If I have sex with 10,000 men who line up around the block, and as long as NO one pays me, I am not a criminal- they are not a criminal and no one rushes to arrest any of us or to stop me from being ‘exploited.’

    As a retired sex worker and a sex worker rights activist for 30 years, I believe I have a little more knowledge about this industry than you do. Justice is NOT arresting either the prostitute OR the client OR the employer UNLESS and UNTIL the prostitute files a complaint with the police – if and when she/ he as been the victim of a crime.

    Stop infantilizing adult women who, for whatever reason, CHOOSE to engage in commercial sex because it is the BEST option out of whatever options they may have. Why would we want the police to arrest our non violent, non abusive clients, employers or others with whom we work when the police do have the resources to arrest the reported rapists in 80% of the over 80,000 reported rapes in the US each year? Nor do they have the resources to arrest the perpetrators of the over 12 MILLION incidents of intimate partner violence and the 1 MILLION intimate partner rapes… why not focus the scarce and valuable resources prosecuting the VIOLENT men and women who actually have a VICTIM? And allow US to go to the police WHEN WE ARE ABUSED- including when the cops rape us… because right now, cops like San Diego Police Officer Daniel Dana get PROBATION for raping prostitutes… the DA doesn’t think a jury will believe a prostitute was raped… by a cop… even though it happens with increasing frequency.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    If we were to take the charges of possible sexism seriously — and we should — what would be the best way to prevent it, or minimize its effects? I don’t think an all or nothing approach gets us there. No names or all names becomes just an excuse for not thinking through the nuances. It feels as if some of you are saying that punishing men is more important than protecting families? Here’s what we could do, but won’t. We could call up the wives or partners of each john and ask that woman whether we should publish the name and address of the perpetrator. How many of those women would approve?

  • c adams

    The wives, girlfriends, and partners of these men are at extreme risk of getting aids, syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, etc, etc…
    There is a huge MEDICAL issue here.
    They deserve to know!
    Also, say, the paper published a photo of your partner wallowing in filth and mud with a pig every day on Main st usa….that man’s wife/partner should have an opportunity to know the facts and leave someone who displayed such aberrant disgusting behavior…

    The men are exposing themselves to blackmail, professional and personal which could lead to murder, suicide and other toxic ills..

    The women in such cases are many times exploited by pimps and others for financial gain in a cesspool of drugs and prostitution. The news has documented sexual trafficking with astounding numbers…

    These men do not deserve to be respected or tolerated in a civil society.
    Apply the law fairly, do not exempt MEN soliciting and paying for sex, degrading themselves and others and society. They are not buying a carton on milk .

  • http://www.thisistrue.com Randy Cassingham

    “Publication of the names of johns serves no journalistic purpose or social benefit.” Would you make the same argument for any OTHER person arrested as a suspect in a crime? Why or why not?

  • Steven P. Mitchell

    Based on your what you are saying here, as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) is a misdemeanor in most states, then, extending your reasoning to comparable circumstances, people who are charged with Driving While Intoxicated or driving while under the influence of drugs should not have their names published in the paper either – unless of course they kill someone in the process (which would presumably make it manslaughter).

    As a male, with zero interest in having sex with a prostitute in exchange of money, I think it is hardly pandering ‘to lurid public curiosity’ by publishing the names of the customers. In fact, if a reporter does not publish them it is more akin to the ‘old-time’ values of protecting the males, while exposing the woman prostitute. Yes, you can rationalize it as if you are “protecting the family” from publicity, but in its deepest essence, you are protecting the men from public exposure despite the fact they were as much a part of this scenario, and just as guilty as the woman. I think in a modern, post-1950s world, either no one’s name is exposed or everyone’s name is given.

  • Alfred Ingram

    I’m trying to wrap my head around the mindset that sees the woman, but not the men as participants in a crime. Basically, this is a list of excuses for treating the johns with kid gloves as if they were victims instead of willing participants. The truth is, though this case seems to be an exception, most prostitutes are quasi slaves, they’re treated like property, bought, sold, or leased.
    Your set of rules turns this on it’s head.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    These comments are interesting and certainly reflect the range of opinions on the case in general. Given the length of Krister Rollins’s rebuttal, she deserves a particular response. That fact that you see no value in any of my arguments suggests that are looking for any excuse to justify the unjustifiable. Let’s take just one aspect: that Maine is a state where soliciting prostitution is a misdemeanor. That, by definition, suggests that the society considers it insignificant compared to, say, murder. Yes, of course, the children of murderers suffer from both the crime and the publicity, and we tolerate that as regrettable collateral damage given the severity of the offense. Is it worth those consequences to families given the low level of the offense? I don’t believe that prostitution is a victimless crime, but neither do I believe that journalists should pander to lurid public curiosity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    These comments are interesting and certainly reflect the range of opinions on the case in general. Given the length of Krister Rollins’s rebuttal, she deserves a particular response. That fact that you see no value in any of my arguments suggests that are looking for any excuse to justify the unjustifiable. Let’s take just one aspect: that Maine is a state where soliciting prostitution is a misdemeanor. That, by definition, suggests that the society considers it insignificant compared to, say, murder. Yes, of course, the children of murderers suffer from both the crime and the publicity, and we tolerate that as regrettable collateral damage given the severity of the offense. Is it worth those consequences to families given the low level of the offense? I don’t believe that prostitution is a victimless crime, but neither do I believe that journalists should pander to lurid public curiosity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sophie.tesch Sophie Tesch

    It takes two people to make this crime happen. I think john’s have just as much responsibility as the prostitute. It is no longer acceptable for it to be okay for the john to do it and the prostitute gets all the shame. As for the wife and kids of the john, they are going to be hurt no matter what. They are in the unfortunate position of having a crappy husband/father. Perhaps this incident can be a turning point where the john can become a better person for having gone through it.

  • A. Owens

    She’s only been accused and not convicted, and the linked story says she pleaded not guilty. I have to agree the Kennebunk, Maine, police probably don’t have enough to do. But I just think you should treat folks the same.

  • A. Owens

    I have to say, your standards are all over the place on this one, Roy. You have to treat people the same. If she’s charged and they’re charged, and you do the story, then everyone goes in … No. 8 doesn’t hold water because police records do contain addresses in every police report I’ve used. You publish those too. That’s a good idea, regardless, because, as you say, who would you rather be confused with, a John or a drug dealer? (neither would be my guess).

  • Anonymous

    Well done, Roy. I agree, but with one suggestion — the editor write a column explaining the decision to withhold names. –Skip Perez

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronald.proto Ronald Proto

    I agree with you Roy, for a couple of reasons. First, these men are accused, not convicted. What happened to the criminal justice process. More and more people are getting tried in the news media. Second, the case of mistaken identity, like the good colonel. The police in Kennebunk have too much time on their hands, if they are going after prostitutes. They ought to lease out a few of those cops to cities with real crime, like Oakland California, were people, including children, are getting killed at an alarming rate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaunges.kaune Jaunges Kaune

    The “fellowship of mankind” thinks it’s an honor to
    have been bitten by the morality bug (justifying the more heinous crimes of
    self-repute and ignorance). . ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/peteskiba Peter J. Skiba

    If you are so ashamed of what you do that you do not want your name disclosed – just don’t do it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/reinan John Reinan

    Can’t help but comment on your opening, Roy — reminds me of the time there was an alligator attack at a nudist colony north of St. Petersburg. I was working at the Tampa Tribune at the time. One of the veteran metro editors leaned back with a smile and said, “Any time you can get ‘alligator’ and ‘nudist’ into the same headline, it’s been a good day.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justice-Redefined/100003938471950 Justice Redefined

    In Sweden clients are prosecuted and prostitutes are not. It has worked very well and it does indeed decrease the number of johns. There is no reason to protect the men from their crimes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.nephin Daniel Nephin

    I’m getting some popcorn. Am insterested in the reactions to this post. I would favor publishing – but I’d sure try to get the alleged John’s side. And, second graf, I hadn’t realized she’d been convicted.