News & Politics

Dear Johns: For Shame

A controversial plan to deter prostitution in an urban neighborhood never quite measured up to its hype.
It was launched with great fanfare last spring -- Operation Shame, a campaign to discourage the "johns" who drive Oakland, Calif.'s late-night streets to pick up prostitutes. At the heart of the campaign was a plan to arrest the johns (a slang term for men who solicit prostitutes) and then display their mugshot photos on prominent 10 feet by 22 feet billboards.

"We're going to shame the out-of-towners and locals who drive to our neighborhood to look for prostitutes," Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente told reporters at the time. Much of the prostitution problem was centered in the Fruitvale section of De La Fuente's 6th Council District, along the International Boulevard business thoroughfare that cuts through the southeastern end of Oakland.

A spokesperson for the Oakland Police Department, Sgt. Rob Stewart, said that the majority of the johns come from outside of Oakland.

The idea behind Operation Shame was that potential johns, seeing the faces of fellow solicitors on billboards, would figure that the potential of having their night-time wanderings come to the very public attention of spouses, relatives, neighbors or employers was not worth the risk. The operation was a project of De La Fuente's office, with the Oakland Police Department cooperating by providing the arrest booking photos.

Eight months later, the billboards have long since disappeared from International Boulevard but the prostitutes have not. On Redbook, an internet chat station that provides a forum for johns, the Oakland street pickings this month seemed as good as they have ever been.

Under the topic "International SW [streetwalking] Action is building up again," one poster recently wrote, "Man I drove down … International on weds wow from 25th to 46th street wall to wall youngsters hot ones black/Latina's/whites didn't see any Asians. Also today around noon one asain around 18th & international, and then a real hot latina in camo/army clothes out for fun."

"I did a sight seeing tour yesterday from downtown oakland …" another poster replied in agreement. "just guessing because i didn't count -- but there had to be at least 50 ladies out in the sunshine in [Oakland] alone."

A drive down International Boulevard at any time of day or night confirms their observation that Oakland's prostitute quarter is as busy as it ever was -- young, well-dressed women in short skirts or shorts still work the pickup areas they commonly call "the stroll," walking nonchalantly from block to block, congregating on corners, catching the eyes of men in slowly passing cars, hustling to jump in when passenger doors fly open.

So what happened?

While five of the billboards did go up last spring -- locations donated by communications giant Clear Channel -- the effectiveness of the shame campaign was undercut at the very beginning by a small constitutional issue apparently overlooked initially by Oakland officials: the concept of innocent until proven guilty. The city had planned to put the faces of arrested johns on the billboards, but constitutional rights advocates quickly pointed out that this opened up the city to potential high-figure lawsuits from any billboarded men who were later exonerated at trial.

"That someone can be punished without being convicted is a violation of our civil liberties," San Francisco magazine quoted John Crew, an attorney in the ACLU's San Francisco office. "People could equate arrest with guilt."

So instead of identifiable pictures on the billboards, the city eventually opted to use the photos of four men recently arrested for solicitation, but with their faces so blurred as to be unidentifiable. "How much clearer do we have to make it?" the billboards proclaimed. "Don't 'john' in Oakland."

At a June press conference underneath one of the billboards, De La Fuente announced, "This is your last and final warning." If johns did not heed that warning, he promised, the next round of billboards would show the mens' faces, unfettered.

The second round of billboards never went up. And De La Fuente's widely reported warning was recently dismissed by Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, who represents the district adjacent to De La Fuente's and has frequently clashed with the council president on various issues.

"There's no shame if no one actually sees your face," Brooks said in an interview. "You have to put the whole billboard program into context and decide whether or not it comes from a real desire to be effective, or if it comes from someone who was just trying to position himself for the mayor's race. They got all the publicity over the billboards when they were originally put up. But once the hype was out there, they didn't feel they had to do anything else."

De La Fuente is an announced candidate in this year's election to succeed the outgoing Jerry Brown as mayor of Oakland.

Brooks said she was putting more faith in frequent stings operated by the Oakland Police Department, in which police decoys pose as either prostitutes or johns. She said the city should also increase programs to work with the prostitutes themselves, trying to find ways to get them off the streets and into more productive -- and legal -- activities. "I think those type of activities are far more effective than the billboards ever were," she said.

De La Fuente was not available for comment for this story. As for the billboards themselves, the idea seems to have been quietly dropped, with the police department spokesperson saying he did not know if it was going to be relaunched with undimmed booking photos.

"You're going to have to ask Mr. De La Fuente's office about that," Sgt. Stewart said. "Our department was simply cooperating with him. We weren't in charge of it."

Other communities around the country have tried similar programs to Oakland's Operation Shame, with mixed results.

JohnTV.com, an Oklahoma City website that bills itself as "one Oklahoma man's effort to target, expose and impact street and organized prostitution and the sexual trafficking of individuals," recently reported an unsuccessful effort to rent billboards "to regularly post the mug shot of a recently convicted 'John' to serve as a reminder to others that engaging in the solicitation of prostitution is not worth the consequences. Unfortunately, "the website noted, the billboard company "felt this would be too controversial and denied JohnTV.com's request."

But the billboard shaming policy is apparently widespread enough that a "Re-visioning Prostitution Policy: Creating Space for Sex Worker Rights and Challenging Criminalization" convention of sex workers in Las Vegas scheduled for this summer lists as one workshop topic "the effects of punitive policies which target clients ( shaming and billboard campaigns, etc.)."

Meanwhile, even with an increased Oakland police crackdown on prostitution with other methods, including seizing and confiscating the cars of men arrested for picking up streetwalkers, the johns on Redbook do not seem deterred about continuing to cruise Oakland's streets for prostitutes.

"With all the car seizure laws and police presence, why hasn't the track moved to a neighboring city like Berkeley?" one contributor posted last November. "Either it means that the car seizure laws are completely ineffective in cutting down street prostitution, or they are really not enforcing it."

The police "are always around," another poster cautioned. "don't let your guard down for 1 second. always keep your eyes and ears open." But, apparently, he believed the risk was worth it. "Since the sun has come out there are lots of goodies out there," he added. "every day and every night you can find 'em."
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.