It’s not always easy for a good, simple idea to catch on. The three point seat belt for automobiles wasn’t standard equipment for American cars until decades after its invention and pleas from doctors that car accident head injuries needed to be reduced. Rules and laws making smoking illegal indoors such that non-smokers wouldn’t suffer the consequences of second-hand smoke came even later than requiring seat belts. And so on.
Around 2010 cities looking to reduce their prostitution traffic, such as Minneapolis, began using shame techniques by publishing the pictures of “johns”; the prosecuted customers of prostitutes. Earlier, in 1998, there were programs such as one in Oakland where an arrest for soliciting prostitution resulted in the police seizing your car. It became difficult to explain to your family why the station wagon was gone and Daddy walked home from bowling night.
San Diego has found decided success with another approach, and it’s one that tends to get to the heart of the matter. City officials have instituted an educational intervention program for people suspected of soliciting sex. According to a story by David Garrick in the LA Times on March 7th, those “johns” can reduce the charges against them to disturbing the peace by “attending a lengthy seminar where police, former prostitutes and former johns stress the risks and societal damage of prostitution.” Garrick quotes San Diego Deputy City Atty. Jamie Ledezma: “Ultimately, our goal is to convey the message that prostitution is not a victimless crime.”
Garrick reports that since 2002, more than 97 percent of the nearly 1,400 participants in the program have not been arrested again for solicitation. Ledezma stated that “the common denominator” for former prostitutes was a history of abuse and early life trauma… emotional, physical, and/or sexual. He noted that most prostitutes are younger than 25.
I will concede that this particular societal ill has not been that much on my mind, but I was deeply impressed with how a simple and focused method was finding traction and getting results. What has been bothering me of late is the tendency for ridiculous, impractical, and mostly wrong-headed ideas to come quickly to the forefront. Say, for example, building a bigger wall and having Mexico pay for it or the repulsive notion that we simply keep Muslims out of the United States.
True, I’m pointing at one particular source of patronizing thinking but I’m more interested in why such concepts find purchase with the public. And further, how these ideas completely avoid actually dealing with the problems they are alleged to be addressing. What could possibly be the appeal, when the concepts are so clearly lacking in any intellectual follow-through?
There’s always going to be something attractive about an idea that seems to capture what we want, rather than what we need. We need immigration policy. But that’s complicated and involves a lot of talking and reasoned debate. We want less crime, but dealing with the root issues of crime again means taking hard looks at social conditions. Housing criminals in prisons may give many what they want, but it creates the humiliating statistics of the U.S. having the largest prison population and the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
The state of Texas executes far more people than any other state and is continuing to do so at a record-breaking pace. With that kind of help, the U.S executes more people than Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2013: “Capital punishment is inconsistent with the mission of the United Nations to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of the human person.” Capital punishment is an idea; it’s not necessarily a good one.
If we like ideas that make us less humane than those the ideas are meant to contain or punish then I would say those ideas are less successful in the big picture than something like San Diego’s method of dealing with prostitution, johns, and ultimately the sex trade. America is now a place where, if you have the money, you can live behind a wall and call your “community” Bel Air Crest. But that wall isn’t doing anything about the root causes of crime. Embracing a public figure who knows you will like a notion he might spew out without you considering how it fails to treat the problem is just us hiding from our responsibilities as citizens. San Diego came up with a good idea, and it is working. The time for more good ideas is now. An even better idea would be to look away from anyone dispensing mere expressions of what we want, instead of ideas for what we need.