With a law against revenge porn recently passed in California, and increasing concerns about harassment, bullying, and outright criminal acts being documented on social media, the conversation about free speech — and how it’s defined and wielded — is more relevant than ever. Last year, Wired posted an article covering a lawsuit being filed by arrestees whose mugshots were being used by advantageous companies to make a quick buck. The scheme is simple: Take a mugshot (and its associated information), which is part of the public record; slap it on a website; demand hundreds of dollars to remove the information.

Perhaps one day everyone will have their dirty laundry aired somewhere on the Internet, but right now a bad association from a Google search can make or break opportunities. While this particular Ohio lawsuit regarding the mugshots is gaining attention, there are other sites operating on a similar business model that are still operating under the radar. One example? ExposingJohns.com.

ExposingJohns.com has a similar business model to that of these mugshot-wielding websites. But instead of publicizing someone’s arrest record, it exposes potential clients of sex workers. They collect the information by creating fake ads on private entertainment advertising platforms and then “expose” the folks who unknowingly contact them.

Based on their FAQ, they are sharing any personal information they obtain regardless of whether or not any illegal behavior actually takes place. How do they justify doing this?

“Solicitation of prostitution is a crime involving a person’s agreement to exchange money for sex. This agreement does not have to be explicit. A person’s actions can be enough to demonstrate agreement. (IE: Responding to an escorts ad with the intent to meet). Solicitation is simply encouraging someone to commit a crime. It does not matter if the crime ends up being committed or not.”

For a mere $195.97, they will “investigate the claims” to delete the profile of an “exposed john” within two weeks, and expedited services carry an even heftier price tag, costing up to nearly $500 for a “premium 24 hour investigation.”

According to a comment on FreeAdvice.com (take that as you will), the entire operation even more suspicious than it seems at first glance:

“I contacted a poster on CL a while ago, who had posted as a woman looking for a guy to hang out with, play pool and have a good time. She had pics and a cell so I txted “her” saying I liked the pics and would be interested in meeting. Recently a friend txted me asking if I knew I was listed on a site called exposingjohns.com — she said she had searched my cell because she forgot my address and was going to send me a book. Turns out my cell and pic and the txt were listed on the site as a “solicitation for prostitution” — now the ad mentioned nothing about money or anything like that. It was my belief and understanding this was just about two adults going out for the evening.
Well I consulted a lawyer friend who said it wasn’t worth it just pay their silly fee and get rid of it… much against my will I did, I filled out the info and they “rejected my card” and now the listing shows my full name because they took it from the card. This site is a total sham!”

Despite the site’s claims that its business model is not only legal, but an ethical attempt to combat STI rates and human trafficking (although it is completely unclear as to how, exactly, ExposingJohns.com does this), this is downright exploitative and it actively harms sex workers. Many folks will tell you that the Nordic Model, a legal approach to sex work that makes it legal to sell sexual services but illegal to buy them, is an ideal approach. Some may be convinced that sites like ExposingJohns are a positive contribution to society, but their business model is essentially extortion, and like other approaches that stigmatize sex work clientele, it puts sex workers at an even higher risk for violence and destitution.

From ExposingJohns.com’s FAQ

Former provider and sex work writer Maggie McNeill has written on the issues with the Nordic Model plenty of times, and she sums it up best with a comment from October 2010:

“It defines prostitution as a crime against women like rape, which makes prostitutes the victims. This of course presupposes that women are so weak and pathetic that we can’t resist an offer of money for sex even if we want to.”

Ostracizing and exposing clients is not only a complete diminishment of agency, but is also actually anti-sex worker. By criminalizing clients, it perpetuates the stigma against sex work as a whole, and the workers in the industry. Robbing working people of their established client base (and thus, their livelihood) by using the same information that they often use to ensure their own safety (remember those screening tips we talked about ?) actually creates a more dangerous situation for active providers. Sites like ExposingJohns.com drive off the benign clientele who are afraid of being ostracized because of their willingness to see an entertainer, leaving behind only the careless and the dangerous, and makes it increasingly difficult for providers to get the screening information they need to guarantee their safety.

For folks who actually want to help sex workers, both those who are in the industry and those who want to exit, taking tips directly from sex workers is by far the best course of action. Removing safety nets that providers have developed from experience while simultaneously creating financial desperation (which would come for any business having their clients targeted) puts sex workers in a terrible position.

Although the legal status may still be in flux, Cleveland.com reported that credit card companies and PayPal stopped services to the mug shot sites. Due to the stigma associated with sex work, it may be too much to hope that they would do the same for a site like ExposingJohns.com. However, it’s always worth a try.