This first appeared on the Good Vibrations magazine.
San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón is reported to have suggested putting mugshots of men arrested for paying for sex on a web site to shame them in order to discourage other men from doing the same. The use of shame to try to control sexual behavior has a long history and no matter how many times we see that it doesn’t work, there is always someone who’s willing to give it a try.
Shame is one of the more powerful tools for enforcing social rules because it sends the message that “you are not acceptable as you are.” When you have a strong motivation to be accepted in a family, congregation, or community, shame and the threat of shame are effective at regulating behavior. And despite the many ways in which it gets misused, shame isn’t always a bad thing. For example, if you break an agreement with a partner and feel shame, the discomfort of the experience can help you to not repeat your actions. While it’s a very uncomfortable or painful experience, it can help us integrate social rules that serve us and our relationships.
But shame is a very powerful medicine and it doesn’t take a lot for it to be toxic. When it’s applied with a heavy hand, it’s likely to cause more problems. I think that the toxicity of shame is worth thinking about, in light of Gascón’s proposal. Of course, there’s the obvious point that being arrested is not proof of guilt and posting mugshots would punish people who haven’t been convicted of anything. There’s also the way in which this strikes me as a form of vigilante behavior, which is especially interesting when it comes from the chief of police.
But most importantly, as sex work activist Carol Leigh points out:
Increasing enforcement can make the oldest profession more dangerous for sex workers, said Carol Leigh, a member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Sex workers have to make decisions about their customers to remain safe. Less time to determine if someone is dangerous means more risk.
“I’ve seen so many different campaigns to try and shame and punish people involved in prostitution, and all it does is drive sex workers underground,” Leigh said.
Making sex work more dangerous for the people who do it is inhumane. The folks working the streets aren’t generally doing it out of choice, but rather because it’s what they need to do to survive. Gascón’s proposal would put them at more risk without doing anything to mediate that. There are some clear parallels between that and, for example, abstinence-only propaganda, which often uses shame with the intention of scaring teens away from sex but ends up putting them at more risk for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Simply put, shaming people for their sexual choices is an ineffective way to help them make different choices. Whether you believe that sex work should be decriminalized or not, this simply isn’t the way to try to reduce or end it.