April 19, 2008

Informal Social Sanctions, Prostitution, and Johntv.com

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When we think of preventing crime, we usually think of the government punishing people with fines, arrest, jail time, and so forth. It turns out, however, that informal punishments by friends, family, and neighbors also deters crime as much, if not more, than formal punishments. These informal punishments can take many forms. A family member might express disapproval; a friend might cut off the friendship, and even passing strangers looking askance can prevent crime.


These informal social sanctions are part of daily life, and they aren’t necessarily planned ahead of time as a way of preventing crime. It’s in this context that we can think about a class of informal sanctions developed explicitly to prevent crime. These sanctions threaten public embarrassment as a way of deterring criminal behavior (as former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer might for other politicians). The logic here is that people sometimes care deeply about their good reputation, and will avoid activities that would threaten it. As such, threatening reputations might be a way to influence peoples’ behavior more effectively than threatened jail time.

Recently an individual in Oklahoma City has been getting a lot of attention for his efforts to use shame to prevent crime. His name is Brian Bates, and he styles himself as a video vigilante in his efforts to prevent prostitution. Brian started some years ago clip_image004when he got frustrated with the high levels of prostitution in his neighborhood. At one point, he came out of his house to find a prostitute and her client conducting business while parked in his driveway. He eventually testified in court for several cases, but no convictions resulted. Off-handedly, a prosecutor joked that maybe next time he could bring in a video clip, and he thought that was a good idea.

Armed with only a video camera, Bates drives around areas of Oklahoma City to video tape men who frequent prostitutes. He starts video taping when he sees a car slow down to pick up the prostitute, and then he follows them until they stop. After they engage their transaction, Bates will typically approach the car to film the customer. He confronts the man, asking him to explain his behavior, which the man usually denies, and Bates films the conversation.

Bates then posts his videos on-line for the whole world to see. Here is one of them, in which an Army recruiter, dressed in his uniform and driving a military car, gets caught “recruiting” paid sex. This video, and many more like it, are available on youtube.com. (In fact, Brian Bates gets a cut of the advertising dollars associated with each online view of these videotapes).

On Bates’ website, he says that deterring crime is his motivation. One of the goals of his work, he writes, is to “use those caught and published here as an example to hopefully dissuade others.” Elsewhere, Bates has been quoted as saying "If you get caught by the cops, you pay a fine. If you get caught by me, you get a life sentence… there's no reprieve, no probation. People will be hitting that video on Google searches as long as you live."

(Somewhat surprisingly, Bates supports the legalization of prostitution, in private settings. His focus is on “street” prostitution.)

Bates’ actions have raised various ethical concerns—does he have the right to follow people around and videotape them? Apparently, he does, as long as it’s all done in public. Bates also turns over his videos to the police in an effort to assist them in getting convictions for prostitution. The police, however, have reported that they tend not to be of much use.

A remaining question is whether his work is effective in deterring street prostitution in Oklahoma City. It’s difficult to know, but my guess would be that it does deter individuals who are caught once from doing it again. It seems like the shame of having friends, family, and coworkers watch such activities on-line would lead a person to find some other outlet for their desires. It’s less clear, however, that his work discourages customers who have not previously been caught. Probably many of them have never heard of Bates and his video camera, and others are from out of town.

Ironically, there could well be some reverse shaming going on here. While Bates emphasizes that he’s the good-guy here, and he’s bringing justice to the community, perhaps people have begun to wonder about somebody spending his days trying to film other people having sex.

Who knows, maybe someday we’ll all have video cameras, and we’ll be so busy videotaping each other that we won’t have time to break the law.


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Do you really think that once they have been video taped that it will deter them from future forays into prostitution? If the video is already out there for life, on google, YouTube, etc., do they really have anything to lose from future visits? I guess I'm wondering: Is having two videos really that much worse than one?

I don't know. I would think that there is a fairly low probability that you would be caught on tape to begin with. These individuals may rationalize and come to the conclusion that it is very rare to be struck by lightening twice--and, if they were, would it really matter because they are already on tape? Also, if this negative sanction really is negative--perhaps all the damage that was done from the first tape (losing friends, partners, etc.) would make people more likely to return to patronizing prostitutes.

The loss of shame (privatization) is a real issue in our culture. Ravi Zacharious has a great resource on this.


I even preached on this right after easter and how Jesus alone can turn this trend around.

"If you get caught by me, you get a life sentence… there's no reprieve, no probation."

No trial, no fairness, no US legal system. I'm a little bummed that there are many paragraphs here about legitimizing this activist's motivations, but very few offering the opposing view.

I know this isn't supposed to be a news story, but somewhere in the breathless illustration of the case, the theory of public shaming seem to have left the essay by the grassy verge.

I don't want to see him get hurt, and that seems to be where he's headed, but I am looking forward to seeing him break under the civil suits he's got coming (and will surely endure if he's ever the slightest bit wrong).

Also, for the record, I think he's an asshole; and I would not for love or money ever click on the links you have advertised for him on this sociology blog.

Pitseleh... I think you're right in questioning the efficacy of this sanction, at least initially. If the John isn't deterred by prison & police, how much difference will one person make? However, one way of saving face when getting caught is to say you'll never do it again, so in that case I wonder if the filming might prevent future instances.

Joe... I think that you're right that we're definitely losing privacy. This definitely has some downsides, but it also has its upsides (which is why I suppose that we do it). It seems more difficult now to abuse people (e.g., family members) and expect the issue to remain private.

Mr. Calvin... you make a good point about the lack of due process. Is this an acceptable form of being a vigilante? As for clicking on links, we're not advertising for JohnTV, rather we're using it as an instance of a larger point regarding informal deterrence.

Your statement “(Somewhat surprisingly, Bates supports the legalization of prostitution, in private settings. His focus is on “street” prostitution.)” is interesting because therein lies a big part of the problem. Many of these women perceive the street as the safest place to work. Massage parlors, escort agencies and Internet advertising set them up for a sting by the local vice cops. On the street, they think they can “screen” their customers more effectively. Maybe our society need to rethink this whole issue.

In my experience, if someone is so preoccupied with something related to sex, they have something to hide or perhaps they are "guilty" of the same thing that they find shameful. With that said, the real issue of street prostitution needs more attention, and perhaps if he is generating some talk, *any* talk about this issue, it is a good thing? [There is something to be said about institutionalized prostitution where prostitutes live in a house, get tested every six months, and are protected from police and client abuse (with the "manager" or pimp abuse being an unchanged factor...)] As for deterring people from committing crimes, I think it is probably as effective as the legal system. Humans don't deter much when they really want something. And don't rewards work better than punishment?

I disagree with you blue, that “manager or pimp abuse …” is an unchanged factor. If these ladies are able to report abuse to the authorities without fear of self-incrimination that will deter most of the kinds of abuse you’re referring to. It is a shame that these women are more afraid of law enforcement than abusive customers and pimps.

kaja, what I mean is that whether it be street prostitution or prostitution in a legal, recognized institution (for example, a brothel) the fact remains that sex workers have someone who can and often does abuse them. In the former case this would be a pimp (I guess...) and the latter the owner of the institution (a madam?) These owners are not always better than pimps; they abuse sex workers and they allow clients and police to abuse them as well. At least that is the case in Turkey, where brothels are legal but street prostitution is not. However, I do think that such a set up, where sex workers are moved off the streets can be a good move, especially in order to protect them. Of course, legally they have the right and means to report abusive managers; however in a line of work, where the work itself is a reason for marginalization, I think it would be more likely for the managers to forge a symbiotic relationship with the legal authorities (i.e. bribing the police, etc) - sorry to be so off-topic...

After reading this article, I realized that I am always using informal social sanctions. I have been offered things that would hurt my education and body and I have always rejected them. They are a part of life and people may not notice that they use them. Its interesting to see how we reject certain actions in order to keep a good reputation. However, when others tell us to reject something, we question it or go against it. People don’t see that friends, parents or teachers are trying to prevent from something bad happening. The strange thing is that when people know they are doing something wrong, they do it anyway. For example, underage drinking has become very popular and a lot of teens do it because the want to be accepted, they want to have fun and they think they can get away with it. No matter how much society emphasizes no under age drinking, it happens anyway.
Even though the law makes rules for society to obey, they are constantly being broken. I’m pretty sure that there are rapists, murders and child molesters that haven’t been caught yet. Brian Bates thinks that putting people on camera and embarrassing them will help prevent crime. Maybe he is helping out in some way but really, it’s not making much of a change. It would be weird seeing a random man following and video taping people in his free time. I think in order for there to be a change in crime, society would have to change things. There so many problems with the economy, education, crime rate and even racism. It takes time to fix these type of problems so people should something as community to help prevent crime, that way nobody is left behind. I don’t think there will ever be perfection in society but I know that there are ways to make it better and more peaceful.

I can see this both ways, people shouldn't be picking up prostitutes, people shouldn't be prostitutes, and Brian Bates shouldn't be taping random people. I could see if he was in law enforcement and had a right to be taping them, but he doesn't. He's just some guy video taping random people and putting it on the internet. Personally, i think it is stalking in a way and he shouldn't be allowed to keep doing it. However, the prostitutes and the people picking up prostitutes need to be stopped also.

I learned about informal sanctions in my sociology online class, but I didn't know that what Mr. Bates was doing would be considered an informal sanction. I find it surprising that he can tape people and put it online, usually revealing who they are, and not get into legal trouble. It just doesn't seem like something that would be legal to do.

I agree. Informal sanctions are a part of daily life and we don’t always realize that we are using them. People may actually use these sanctions to prevent crime. Because most people care so deeply about their good reputation, they avoid any sort of activity that will threaten it. Threatening a person’s reputation might actually be a way to influence a person’s behavior. Simple punishments such as a family member expressing disapproval or a friend cutting off their friendship could cause a person to re-think what they were going to do.

I agree the informal sanctions are, a lot of the time, more effective than the formal ones. They can cause long lasting shame and embarassment. Formal sanctions, like a fine, can be easier to overcome and put behind you. In this specific sitiuation I would think that the informal sanctions would have a large effect on those who are already involved, but I doubt it would do a lot to stop the street prostitution. Either way, informal santions are a good reminder to think twice before doing something questionable because they can have life long effects.

Well, I am a parent of a girl that the video vigilante has plastered all over his website and let me tell you from the other side. my daughter has gotten off the streets and has cleaned her act up. However, she has lost more jobs due to a co-worker stumbling on one of his videos. So how is this helping them? She is afraid to get a job because she is just going to lose her job as soon as someone sees that video.
A young man at the mall got arrested for videotaping a young woman walking thru the mall with his new camera phone, but this guy gets away with videotaping women every day.
I am all for cleaning up the streets but Brian Bates is giving these girls a life sentence. Who made him judge and jury.

In my opinion, I think its clear that these informal sanctions are doing what there meant to do; ruin any opportunity the person caught has of being normal. If someone knew that one of the possible consequences was humiliation instead of just a fine for committing a crime, then there would be a lot less crimes like these.

I think its great that he is videotaping all of these obscene "meetings" people need to knnow whats going on in the world. Informal sactions are a lot more effective than formal sanctions. This is going to embarrass the prostitute and that is what should be done.

The method of the preacher is relative to a small town, in the big city could be reprocussions, the on look of wrong doing doesn't faze criminals because their morality has already flew awasy, yes they may lose something meaningful, but at the time their needs where gratified.

Thank you for this interesting article. It really helped me understand the term "social sanction" and it showed me the ways people are trying to prevent crimes from happening just by using shame. If I was the one picking up the prostitute, I would definitely be embarrassed to be questioned by someone who said they were watching, let alone have all of my dirty work be posted on the internet for all of my family and friends, as well as my community, to see! I bet people are thinking twice about picking up a prostitute now.

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