by Ryan Meehan
Brian Bates, Oklahoma’s own Video Vigilante® and founder of JohnTV®, first picked up his video camera in 1996 in an effort to discourage acts of prostitution in his community. Bates firmly believes that prostitution is not “the world’s oldest profession” and is instead the world’s oldest form of abuse.
The goal of Mr. Bates and JohnTV.com® is not to put an end to prostitution as that is an unrealistic goal. The purpose of JohnTV® is to put a spotlight on the graphic realities of street prostitution, expose the perpetrators and dispel the myths that further the abuse. JohnTV® works to achieve that goal by lifting the veil of anonymity that empowers the Johns by exposing them on this site. Brian’s work is a true example of an individual who became fed up with what his community was being exposed to, and became proactive about finding a solution to the problem. And he stops by FOH today for 5 Questions about his journey in finding that solution.
FOH: One thing I’ve noticed in the years I’ve followed your work is that you get a lot of complaints (mainly on YouTube) suggesting that you’re invading people’s personal privacy by videotaping these activities. Could you briefly summarize why this seems to be more of a public problem instead of what some simply believe is a violation of their rights?
BB: First, it’s important to understand that my activism and awareness campaign only targets prostitution that is public, forced and/or organized. I don’t concern myself with what two consenting adults do 100% in private. I focus on public prostitution because it has the greatest negative impact on not only the individual involved, but also the community as a whole. Additionally, in my almost 16-years on the streets with my camera, I’ve yet to meet a woman involved in street prostitution that wasn’t also the victim of sexual abuse, physical abuse, a pimp and/or addiction. Remove one or more of those conditions and she would not have been on the streets prostituting herself to begin with.
I’ve also lived in a community held hostage by street prostitution. The presence of pimps, prostitutes and ‘Johns’ is a standard of living, public safety and a public health concern. Not to mention, where these types of crimes flourish, so do other opportunistic crimes such as drug dealing, drug manufacturing, theft, burglaries, gang activity, etc. It is not by accident that street prostitution is allowed to flourish in lower income and minority areas but is given zero tolerance in middle and upper income areas.
I’ve personally witnessed the darkest sides of street prostitution and its devastating effects on the individual and the community. I’ve seen women literally beaten and/or kidnapped off our streets, known over a dozen women who have since died or been murdered, I’ve attended funerals of these prostituted women and I’ve seen how their presence can destroy a neighborhood’s sense of community.
Lastly, like it or not, a person forgoes their right to privacy when they are in public in most states. Here in Oklahoma, if you are in public, a place of public accommodation, or can be easily viewed from such a place, then you have no legal expectation of privacy – not even in your car.
FOH: For those who have never been there, how would you describe South Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City?
BB: Geographically the portion of South Robinson Ave. known for the persistent presence of street prostitutes is located immediately south of downtown Oklahoma City (literally blocks from the bombing memorial and the OKC Thunder NBA arena). It’s a stretch of roadway only about 10 blocks long that is fronted with a mix of small businesses and homes. It’s a low income area inhabited by mostly minorities and the elderly. There are a large number of children in the area and numerous green spaces that serve as parks. Unfortunately, those parks are empty most of the time – except for the prostitutes, Johns, pimps and the drug and sex items they leave behind after their encounters.
Forty-plus years ago S. Robinson Ave. was a major artery into downtown Oklahoma City and was considered a nice blue-collar area of town to live in. Since then most of the businesses are now vacant and the neighborhood consists of mostly renters who are not motivated to take ownership in the neighborhood.
But, to many people’s surprise, most of the families in the area are very friendly and willing to give a helping hand to their neighbors. Unfortunately, S. Robinson is also the place where street prostitutes can also be found, literally 24-hours a day.
It’s a neighborhood that is only blocks from our downtown and entertainment districts, has numerous small churches, and where a family can buy a very modest and clean home for about $35,000. Remove the criminal activity and it’s a nice neighborhood for people with limited income or those who prefer to live below their means.
FOH: You began videotaping criminal activities in neighborhood long before the economy tanked, so why do you think pimps and prostitutes were so desperate to engage in these activities back when you started? Do you feel that it’s even worse now that times are so tough and money is so difficult to come by, or has it always been the same?
BB: I first picked up my video camera in 1996 while I was living in a neighborhood overrun by prostitution and I was working at the nearby University and Children’s Hospital in their marketing and public relations department.
The economy really has very little, if anything, to do with street level prostitution. Despite the myths out there, women do not street prostitute simply to feed their kids, themselves or because of a lack of available jobs. They prostitute on the streets as a result of addiction, abuse, coercion, lack of education and/or failed parenting.
Many of these women come from broken homes where they were often subjected to sexual abuse from family members or close family friends. Often prostitution is passed down from mother-to-daughter and many of the girls on South Robinson admit their first pimp was their own mother. Right now we have at least three sets of ‘mother-daughter teams’ working S. Robinson Avenue.
Even when these girls come from ‘good families’, those positive influences often cannot compete with the negative impact of drug experimentation and predator pimps. In addition, many of the women I have known were actually suffering from various forms of untreated mental illness.
Oklahoma City police recently admitted that OKC has a huge juvenile street prostitution problem. We are seeing girls as young as 13 years old working our streets and being picked up by ‘men’ who often have daughters older than the girls they are soliciting.
Studies have found that most often, adult prostitutes working the streets are actually former child prostitutes that simply slipped through the cracks.
As for the pimps, they are simply predators that have learned that they can make large sums of money by using coercion, violence, emotions and addiction to control impressionable youth and force them to prostitute for you. Once they’ve broken a young victim down, they can use that young girl over and over again. Most of the pimps in our area require each girl working for them to make at least $600-$1,500 per day.
FOH: What was the most ridiculous excuse that you’ve ever heard from a John that you’ve just busted?
BB: Just when I think I’ve heard it all, I hear something new that makes me shake my head. Just the other day I busted a guy with a very sad young woman who has literally lost her sanity to drugs and the streets. When I caught him having very public sex with her, he claimed “she talked me into it.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zA-vUY0QQA )
In another case, I caught a ‘John’ having sex with a prostituted woman and they were literally parked next to a church. His excuse was that he knew I was trying to catch the woman and that he was simply helping me get the evidence I needed. Most often the guys claim the girl is actually their girlfriend – that is until I remind them I taped them picking her up on S. Robinson and that I know her name and he doesn’t.
What shocks me the most is Johns who admit they know who I am and have watched my videos but never thought they would be the one to be on the other end of my lens.
FOH: How would you suggest individuals fight prostitution and human trafficking in their own communities without actually going out into the field and doing what you do?
BB: I never endorse doing what I do because it’s very dangerous in regards to personal safety, public safety and personal criminal and civil liability. I’ve been sued (unsuccessfully) in the past and even criminally charged (charges dropped). Not to mention the ridicule one often is the target of when they choose to tackle this very important, yet controversial, topic.
The easiest way for people to make the most positive impact on the types of prostitution I target is to promote awareness and stop the myths.
Awareness is key. Sure, we all know prostitution has existed so long it’s often referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” But, prostitution and sex trafficking is not a subject many people are willing to discuss openly. It’s important to take this topic and its negative impact out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions or at least clarify there is a distinct difference between consensual, unorganized, private prostitution and prostitution that is the direct result of addiction, abuse, coercion, mental illness and so on.
The unfounded myths around prostitution are often what perpetuate prostitution and cause the general public to lose sympathy for the potential victims.
Studies and reality have shown that prostitution is far from victimless and often is not an act between two consenting adults and for those engaged in prostitution, whether by force or by choice, often find it impossible to get out.
As a community we need to recognize that prostitution cannot be legislated out of existence and that incarceration for the often victims is not a solution. However, the other end of the spectrum, legalization, also is not the answer as it simply opens the Pandora’s Box and turns our government in the pimp and enabler.
In addition, I think it’s important that people give of their time and money to organizations that fight prostitution and trafficking.
FOH: How long can you continue to do this?
BB: If someone would have told me in 1996 that almost 16-years later I’d still be doing this, I’d have said you were nuts. I’ve continued with my video activism however because I’m apparently pretty good at it, I’m motivated by the positive impact, I continue to see successes within my own community and I’ve been able to monetize my activism and thus fund it as a full time effort.
As long as there is a benefit to the effort to positively impact prostitution by my participation, and I am physically able to continue those efforts, then I can only assume I will continue to be a part of the solution. I don’t know that my role will always be as ‘The Video Vigilante’ but nonetheless I will have a role.
Brian’s official website: http://www.johntv.com
Brian on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/johntvokc
Brian on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/videovigilanteokc
Brian on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/videovigilanteokc/videos
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