These are tough days for newspapers. Most editors are desperately struggling to make ends meet, but the Las Vegas Review-Journal took it to a new low recently by publishing the mug shots, names and ages of suspected sex workers alongside the bold all-caps header: "Working Girls: Las Vegas' 50 Most Prolific Prostitutes." You might ask: Is that some kind of prestigious award for prostitutes' productivity? No, not even in Sin City. The photos were compiled to help police crack down on hooking on the Strip, but the Review-Journal decided to publicize the photos to the general public. It also designed a snazzy online slide show offering close-up peeks at the gals.
For some time now, johns' photos have been published in local rags for humiliation purposes. But, while it isn't unheard of for police to make photos of convicted prostitutes available online, it's uncommon for newspapers to print working girls' photos -- unless you count escort ads. As I discovered, though, the Review-Journal has a history of courting controversy by doing so. Back in 1990, it published photos of HIV-positive prostitutes. At the time, Gay Community News reported that "the executive director of the Nevada AIDS Foundation has said the practice violates the women's privacy rights."
The privacy violation with this latest top-50 list is much more straightforward, because there isn't the same level of moral complexity; they have broken the law, but, as far as we know, are not risking anyone's life but their own. In fact, because of the large percentage of prostitutes who are reportedly addicted to drugs, poor, controlled by pimps, and abused and raped while working, they're usually treated as victims, as Erica Barnett points out on Shakesville. That's why they usually don't have their photos ... advertised in the local paper.
That's not even to mention the fact that a number of the top-50 women "have been charged with trespassing or loitering and not prostitution," as Richard Abowitz writes in the Los Angeles Times' Web site. "The casinos have banned the women and they returned. Prostitution was not directly involved in most of the arrests the program is taking credit for making." But they have been branded "prolific prostitutes," nonetheless. Abowitz calls the stigmatized women "the Strip version of streetwalkers" and argues that "nothing in this program is meant to catch casino hosts who supply high rollers with hookers for kickbacks from the hookers." What a shocker.
Beyond the desire to sell papers, the editors presumably published the photos to help shame the women out of their work. (Editor Thomas Mitchell responded to an e-mail for comment noting that it was an "editorial decision" but did not elaborate.) While the Web version has inspired nasty comments (e.g., "You know they are all CRACK HEADS"), the spread might actually do more to advertise these women's services. One online commenter enthused: "I'm going to Vegas next week, and thanks to this i'll know who to talk to." Are we sure this isn't Las Vegas' latest raunchy tourism ad?