Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Informal Social Sanctions, Prostitution, and

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 (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.

Originally posted on

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