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“Johns” in the Spotlight: Anti-prostitution Efforts and the Surveillance of Clients

  • Ummni Khan (a1)

This essay examines surveillant practices that subject sex trade clients (“clients”) to socio-legal control. In particular, I employ the concepts of the gaze, voyeurism, and exhibitionism to unpack the surveillant dynamics, and consider how power and pleasure are harnessed, produced, and thwarted in the increasing scrutiny of the sex trade’s demand side. I further examine my own research of the regulation of clients within this analytical framework. Following David Lyon’s insights on the scopophilic dimensions of surveillance (2006), I argue that the instrumental goals of surveillance are interconnected with a voyeurism that gratifies the pleasures of looking at, categorizing, defining and making sense of, clients. Yet, bearing in mind the multi-directionality of the gaze, I also analyze the controlled exhibition of sex work signifiers, as information is not just gathered, but also displayed and performed.

Cet article examine les pratiques de surveillance qui assujettissent les clients de l’industrie du sexe (les « clients ») à un contrôle sociojuridique. En particulier, j’emplois les concepts du regard, du voyeurisme et de l'exhibitionnisme afin de révéler les dynamiques de surveillance, et d’examiner comment le pouvoir et le plaisir sont canalisés, produits et entravés par l’examen de plus en plus minutieux de la demande dans le commerce du sexe. Dans ce cadre analytique, j'approfondie ma propre recherche sur la réglementation des clients. En m’appuyant sur les idées de David Lyon portant sur les dimensions scopophiliques de la surveillance (2006), je soutiens que les objectifs fondamentaux de la surveillance sont liés au voyeurisme, donnant ainsi plaisir à regarder, classer, définir et donner un sens aux clients. Toutefois, compte tenu du caractère multidirectionnel du regard, j'analyse également l'exhibition contrôlée des signifiants propres au travail du sexe, puisque l’information n’est pas seulement recueillie mais aussi exposée et représentée.

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1 Jeffrey, Leslie Ann and MacDonald, Gayle, Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back (UBC Press, 2011).

2 Jill Nagle, “Reviewed Work (s): Making Work, Making Trouble: Prostitution as a Social Problem by Deborah R. Brock; Prostitution, Power, and Freedom by Julia O'Connell Davidson; Sex Work and Sex Workers by Barry M. Dank; Roberto Refinetti Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry by Ronald Weitzer,” Signs 27, no. 4 (2002): 1177–1183, at 1182.

3 Haggerty, Kevin, “Surveillance and Political Problems,” in Surveillance: Power, Problems, and Politics, ed. Hier, Sean Patrick and Greenberg, Joshua (UBC Press, 2009), ix.

4 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (Random House Digital, 1980).

5 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2, (Random House Digital, 1990).

6 Walby, Kevin and Smith, André, “Sex and Sexuality under Surveillance: Lenses and Binary Frames,” in Policing Sex, ed. Johnston, Paul and Dalton, Derek (Routledge, 2012), 5463.

7 Ibid., 54; Kevin Walby, “Police Surveillance of Male-with-Male Public Sex in Ontario, 1983–94,” in Surveillance: Power, Problems, and Politics, 46; and Lyon, David, “9/11, Synopticon, and Scopophilia: Watching and Being Watched,” in The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility >2006), 3554.

8 Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1975), 438–48.

9 Rachel Dubrofsky and Shoshana Magnet, Feminist Surveillance Studies (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

10 One notable exception is David Bell’s article, “Surveillance is Sexy,” in Surveillance & Society 6, no. 3 (2009): 203–12 that I will draw upon in the analysis of my anecdote.

11 House of Commons, Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, The Challenge of Change: A Study of Canada's Criminal Prostitution Laws: Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights [and] Report of the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws (House of Commons Canada, 2006), 19;

12 McCracken, Jill, Street Sex Workers' Discourse: Realizing Material Change Through Agential Choice (New York: Routledge, 2013); Ditmore, Melissa, Prostitution and Sex Work (ABC-CLIO, 2010).

13 Lowman, John, “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada,” Violence Against Women 6, no. 9 (2000): 9871011.

14 Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford [2013] SCC 72.

15 See Brock, Deborah, Making Work, Making Trouble: The Social Regulation of Sexual Labour (University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Jill McCracken, Street Sex Workers' Discourse: Realizing Material Change through Agential Choice. For an example of the feminist antiprostitution perspective, see Benedet, Janine, “Pornography and Prostitution in Canada: The Dangers Ahead,” in Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking (2007), 306–20.

16 See, for example, Holzman, H. R. and Pines, S., “Buying Sex: The Phenomenology of Being a John,” in Deviant Behavior 4, no. 1 (1982): 89116; Diana, Lewis, The Prostitute and Her Clients: Your Pleasure is Her Business (Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1985); Freund, Matthewet al., “Sexual Behavior of Clients with Street Prostitutes in Camden, NJ,” The Journal of Sex Research 28, no. 4 (November 1991): 579; Morse, E. V., Simon, P. M., Balson, P. M., and Osofsky, H. J., “Sexual Behavior Patterns of Customers of Male Street Prostitutes,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 21, no. 4 (1992): 347–57; Jordon, Jan, “User Pays: Why Men Buy Sex,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 30 (1997): 55; Sullivan, Elroy and Simon, William, “The Client: A Social, Psychological, and Behavioral Look at the Unseen Patron of Prostitution,” in Prostitution: On Whores, Hustlers, and Johns, ed. Elias, James al. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998) 134.; Bernstein, Elizabeth, “The Meaning of the Purchase Desire, Demand and the Commerce of Sex, ”Ethnography 2, no. 3 (2001): 389420; Busch, N. B., Bell, H., Hotaling, N., and Monto, M. A., “Male Customers of Prostituted Women: Exploring Perceptions of Entitlement to Power and Control and Implications for Violent Behavior Toward Women,” Violence Against Women 8, no. 9 (2002): 1093; Lowman, John and Atchison, Chris, “Men Who Buy Sex: A Survey in the Greater Vancouver Regional District,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 43, no. 3 (2006): 281; Monto, Martin A., “Prostitutes' Customers: Motives and Misconceptions,” in Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, ed. Weitzer, Ronald John, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010); Chris Atchison, “Report on the Preliminary Findings for John’s Voice: A Study of Adult Canadian Sex Buyers,” (2010); Milrod, Christine and Weitzer, Ronald, “The Intimacy Prism: Emotion Management among the Clients of Escorts, ”Men and Masculinities 15, no. 5 (2012): 447–67.

17 While there is growing evidence of the existence of female consumers in the sex trade (Weitzer, Ronald, “Sociology of Sex Work,” Annual Review of Sociology 35 (2009): 213–34), this issue has not infiltrated the larger debates, as these consumers represent a small fraction of the overall client population. As such, I focus on the male client, whose gender itself plays a significant role in the debates, particularly for the criminalization arguments that cast all prostitution in terms of “male violence against women,” for example, Benedet, Janine, “Paradigms of Prostitution,” in Justice Bertha Wilson: One Woman's Difference, ed. Brooks, Kim, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009), 131.; Post, Diane, “Legalization of Prostitution is A Violation of Human Rights,” Nat'l Law. Guild Rev. 68 (2011): 65; Waltman, Max, “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law,” Mich. J. Int'l L. 33 (2011): 133; Farley, Melissaet al., “Attitudes and Social Characteristics of Men who Buy Sex in Scotland,” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 3.4 (2011): 369.

18 Kemple, Thomas and Huey, Laura, “Observing the Observers: Researching Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance on 'Skid Row,'” in Surveillance & Society 3, no. 2/3 (2002).

19 Ibid., 153: Luhmann, N., “Paradox of Observing Systems,” in Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity, ed. Rasch, William, trans. O’Neil, J. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 7993.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 155.

23 See, for example, Delgado, Richard and Stefanic, Jean, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (Temple University Press, 2000) and Williams, Patricia J., The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard University Press, 1991).

24 Delgado, Richard, “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A plea for Narrative,” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 2411 (1989): 2414.

25 Ibid., 2415.

26 For an astute engagement with the affective impact of interviewing clients, see Hammond, N., “Tackling Taboo: Men who Pay for Sex and the Emotional Researcher,” in New Sociologies of Sex Work, eds. Hardy, Kate, Kingston, Sarah, and Sanders, Teela (Ashgate Publishing: 2010), 5974.

27 While empirical work on clients is not a part of my research mandate, the lack of direct client voices is a drawback to focussing exclusively on the construction of clients in regulatory discourse and processes.

28 The concept of the panopticon was developed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (Toronto: Random House Canada, 1977) based on Jeremy Bentham’s vision of an ideal prison structure that would be panoptic— or all seeing. Bentham’s architectural design placed authorities in a central tower from where prisoners could be observed at all times, but where they could not verify if and when they were being watched. The power of the panoptic gaze is its invisibility; the uncertainty would render self-disciplined and docile bodies. Foucault argued that while a literal translation of Bentham’s prison did not manifest, the power dynamics of the panopticon have infiltrated modern practices of social control not just in penal institutions but throughout society. Surveillance literature has further developed the notion of the panopticon, specifically with regard to electronic monitoring systems. See Lyon, D., “Bentham's Panopticon: From Moral Architecture to Electronic Surveillance,” Queen's Quarterly 98 (1991): 596617.

29 Sanders, Teela and Campbell, Rosie, “Designing out Vulnerability, Building in Respect: Violence, Safety, and Sex Work Policy,” The British Journal of Sociology 58, no. 1 (2007): 119 at 2.

30 Ross, Mirha-Soleil, “Dear John” in Working Sex: Sex Workers Write about a Changing Industry, ed. Oakley, Annie (Berkeley, CA: Oakley Seal Press, 2007), 211.

31 See, for example, MacKinnon, C., Feminism Unmodified, (Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1987).

32 See Nussbaum, Martha C., “Objectification, ”Philosophy and Public Affairs 24.4 (1995): 249–91 who argues for the possibility that objectification can have positive force in some circumstances.

33 David Bell, “Surveillance is Sexy,” 203–12.

34 Ibid., 211.

35 R. v Mack, [1988] 2 SCR 903.

36 Marx, G. T., “Ironies of Social Control: Authorities as Contributors to Deviance through Escalation, Nonenforcement and Covert Facilitation,” Soc. Probs. 28, (1980): 221.

37 Walters, P., ““Would a Cop Do This?”: Ending the Practice of Sexual Sampling in Prostitution Stings,” Law & Ineq. 29, (2011): 451–77.

38 Doane, Mary Ann, Femmes fatales (Routledge, 1991), 1.

39 Ibid., 2

40 Baker, Lynda M., “Undercover as Sex Workers: The Attitudes and Experiences of Female Vice Officers, “Women and Criminal Justice 16, no. 4 (2005): 2541; Dodge, M., Starr-Gimeno, D., and Williams, T., “Puttin’ on the Sting: Women Police Officers’ Perspectives on Reverse Prostitution Assignments,” International Journal of Police Science and Management 7(2), (2005): 7185.

41 Ibid., 77–8.

42 Ibid., 78.

43 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, 1st ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 45.

44 Khan, Ummni, “Running In(To) The Family: 8 Short Stories about Sex Workers, Clients, Husbands, and Wives,” Journal of Gender Social Policy & the Law (2011): 495526.

45 Seymour, Andrew, “Cleaning up the Capital,” The Ottawa Citizen, October 2, 2007, accessed July 22, 2014,

46 My use of the word “hail” draws upon Althusser’s conceptualization of the way ideological utterances produce subjects through a coercive “hail” or “interpellation” that is based on a presumed “obviousness” of the state of reality, in this case, the “obviousness” that the letter recipient would agree with the police’s description of the social problems produced by prostitution; see Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: New Left Books, 1971), 172].

47 Andrew Seymour, “Cleaning up the Capital.”

48 “Report A John,” Edmonton Police Service, accessed July 22, 2014,

49 Bruckert, Chris and Hannem, Stacey, “Structural Stigma, Social Profiling, and the Abuse of Police Power in Ottawa,” in Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013), 297. See also Pheterson, Gail, “The Whore Stigma: Female Dishonor and Male Unworthiness,” Social Text 37 (1993): 3964.

50 I find it somewhat ironic that the chosen name for this program alludes to the mythological one-eyed creatures, known not only for their immense power, but also for their savagery. See Delahunty, Andrew and Dignen, Sheila, “Cyclops,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), accessed June 3, 2013,

51 “No to Solicitation and Sexual Harassment,” Ville de Laval – government website, accessed July 22, 2014,

52 Author’s translation: Describe in detail the driver’s activities that led you to conclude that he was engaging in solicitation for the purposes of prostitution. Ville de Laval – government website; Rapport D’observation: Projet Cyclope.

53 Barry, Martin C., “Laval Police Hope to Curb Prostitution with Project Cyclope,” The Laval News, July 4, 2011, accessed July 22, 2014,

54 Mathiesen, Thomas, “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault's ‘Panopticon’ Revisited, ”Theoretical Criminology 1, no. 2 (1997): 215–34.

55 Rosenbaum, Dennis P., “Community Crime Prevention: A Review and Synthesis of the Literature, ”Justice Quarterly 5, no. 3 (1988): 323–95.

56 Hier, S. P., “Probing the Surveillant Assemblage: On the Dialectics of Surveillance Practices as Processes of Social Control,” Surveillance & Society 1 (3) (2003): 399411.

57 Sanders, Teela, Paying for Pleasure: Men Who Buy Sex (Devon, UK: Willan Publishing, 2008), 152.

58 Persons, C. G., “Sex In The Sunlight: The Effectiveness, Efficiency, Constitutionality, and Advisability of Publishing Names and Pictures of Prostitutes' Patrons,” 49 Vand. L. Rev. (1996): 1525–35.

59 See for example: 680 News staff, “Recent ‘John Sweep’ Results in Ten Arrests,” 680 News, December 9, 2009, accessed June 25, 2014,; “Editorial: John Sweep was Right Thing to Do,” The Belleville Intelligencer, September 17, 2013, accessed June 25, 2014,; Sherri Zickefoose “After Citywide Prostitution Sweep, Calgary Police Admit it’s only a Small Dent in Sex Trade,” Global News Toronto, April 23, 2011, accessed June 25, 2014,; Megan Gillis, “Ottawa Cops to Start up ‘John Sweeps’ during Busy Spring,” Ottawa Sun, March 5, 2014, accessed June 25, 2014,

60 Lowman, John, “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada,” Violence Against Women 6, no. 9 (September 2000): 987.

61 “Ottawa Police Shift Focus to Johns in Sex-trade Sweeps,” CBC News, January 7, 2014, accessed July 22, 2014,

63 “16 September 2013 - Directed Enforcement - Downtown,” Belleville Police Service, accessed July 22, 2014, The names in this police report were reproduced in this media article: W. Brice McVicar, “Johns Busted Downtown,” September 16, 2013, accessed July 22, 2014,

64 Persons, C. G., “Sex in the Sunlight: The Effectiveness, Efficiency, Constitutionality, and Advisability of Publishing Names and Pictures of Prostitutes' Patrons,” 49 Vand. L. Rev. (1996): 1565–69 at 1525.

65 Lowman, J., “Prostitution Law Reform in Canada,” in Toward Comparative Law in the 21st Century (Tokyo: Chuo University Press, 1998), 919–46.

66 My knowledge of the typical john school agenda is based on interviews conducted with the organizers of these programs in Edmonton, Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Sudbury, Vancouver, Windsor, Winnipeg, and Peel region. I also observed two john school sessions.

67 Fischer, B., Wortley, S., Webster, C., and Kirst, M., “The Socio-legal Dynamics and Implications of 'Diversion': The Case Study of the Toronto John School Diversion Programme for Prostitution Offenders,” Criminology and Criminal Justice 2 (4) (2002): 385.

68 Van Brunschot, E. G., “Community Policing and ‘John Schools,’Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne De Sociologie 40 (2), (2003): 215–32.

69 Ibid., 230.

70 Falling asleep can be a real issue, not because it conveys disrespect, but because it can reflect the class position of the man. For example, during one john school I observed that took place from 8:30 4:00 p.m., one man had come off of an all night work shift as a taxi driver and was clearly exhausted and struggling to stay awake during the speakers’ presentations, which were largely lectures and not interactive.

71 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1995), 228.

72 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 17–35.

73 Keane, H., What's Wrong with Addiction? (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 162.

74 Foucault, Michel, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

75 For a sensationalist rendition of this ideological stance, see Malarek, Victor, The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men who Buy it (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). On the other hand, some clients self-identify as “johns,” see Brown, Chester, Paying for It: A Comic-strip about Being a John (Montréal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly, 2011).

76 In the humanizing vein, see Chris Atchison, “Report on the Preliminary Findings for John’s Voice: A Study of Adult Canadian Sex Buyers” and Teela Sanders, Paying for Pleasure: Men who Buy Sex. In the demonizing vein, see Melissa Farley et al., “Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don't Buy Sex: ‘You Can Have a Good Time with the Servitude’ vs. ‘You're Supporting a System of Degradation,’” Prostitution Research & Education (2011),

77 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality.

78 This political strategy of self-questioning is derived from Cossman’s, Brenda, “Turning the Gaze Back on Itself: Comparative Law, Feminist Legal Studies, and the Postcolonial Project,” Utah L. Rev. (1997): 525.

* I thank my Research Assistant Amanda Boyce for her outstanding work. I am grateful for the insightful feedback I received from Brian Smith, Lara Karaian, Shoshana Magnet, Rachel Debrofsky, participants of the Critical Criminology Conference at Carleton University 2014, the two anonymous reviewers and Mariana Valverde. Finally I thank SSHRC for research support that made this article possible.

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