Fifteen Minutes of Shame

Human beings are ingenious creatures. Over the years, they have figured out all manner of ways to punish their fellow human beings.

They have fined them, imprisoned them, shot them, hanged them, gassed them, injected them, sliced off their heads, blinded them, crippled them, whipped them, starved them, crushed them, mutilated them and prevented them from sleeping.

Perhaps the most bizarre punishment recorded by history is attributed to the Roman emperor Nero, who, as Karl Beckson writes in London in the 1890s: A Cultural History, "lighted his gardens by having live Christian captives covered with wax and set afire."

In Denver these days, things are more humane. And, perhaps, more embarrassing.

The Mile-High City is about to begin posting the photographs of convicted prostitutes and their customers on a cable television channel, as well as on the police department’s website. Johns TV, this is called, and it is a bizarre twist on the modern infatuation with celebrity. Millions upon millions of Americans would do almost anything to get their faces on the tube; here is one of the few examples of people getting air time and desperately trying to avoid it.

But not the only example. St. Paul, Minn., has been putting the faces of prostitutes on the Internet since 1998, and police say it’s the city’s most popular website. In Aurora, Colo., which is next-door to Denver, newspapers have been publishing pictures of people caught in various kinds of sting operations for eight years. City officials say the result is a drop in the relevant kinds of crimes.

Other cities adopting similar kinds of methods are Oklahoma City, Boston, Hartford, Conn., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

It is, of course, an updated version of the old scarlet letter, which, in various of the early American colonies and states, was not just the "A" for adulterers, but a "P" for paupers, as well as a few other letters for a few other offenders. The idea was that public humiliation would be as effective a deterrent to crime as prison, that psychological punishment was, in the long run, as effective a response as physical or financial punishment.

On the one hand, the idea has an implausibly old-fashioned ring to it today. We live in an age in which people eat insects on Fear Factor and bare their breasts on The Jerry Springer Show. Playboy does a photo spread on "The Women of Enron" and wet T-shirt contests continue to be the summertime rage at young-adult bars. A woman who indulged in fellatio with the president of the United States is a celebrity and another woman who shot her married lover’s wife in the face is now writing a newspaper column for a Long Island weekly. Indecency seems more a pathway to bright lights and riches than a means of discouraging improper behavior.

Yet, somehow, in some cases, against all odds, the publicizing of disgrace seems to have the desired effect. One of the johns whose photo was posted in St. Paul complained to police that they had ruined his marriage. Another, a well-known local minister, was so embarrassed by his publicity that he tried to lie his way out of it. He wasn’t soliciting a hooker for sex, he explained to all who would listen; he was trying to lead the poor woman away from the paths of iniquity, onto the broad, sunlit boulevard of salvation.

Nobody believed him.


It was Andy Warhol who predicted, many years ago, that everyone in America would eventually enjoy fifteen minutes of fame. What we are learning from our scarlet TV shows and websites is that the nation might be better served if certain of its citizens suffered through fifteen minutes of shame.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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