No good deed goes unpunished. I'm guessing Fairleigh Dickinson University professor David Flory would not debate that after his arrest in June on charges of promoting prostitution in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The charges stem from the fact that Flory, a physics instructor, operated a message board called "Southwest Companions" where people allegedly communicated about illegal behavior.
Now, if Flory were a high-school dropout named Snake with tattooed knuckles, gold teeth, and a string of previous offenses, no one would care about his arrest. But Flory is a silver-haired grandfather of 68 with previously unblemished status, and this made him an irresistible target for bloggers and journalists of every slant, who frothed with moral indignation over "the pimping professor." (Subsequently arrested was former University of New Mexico president F. Chris Garcia, 71. The academic motif was an unrelated coincidence that nonetheless further stoked the Professors-Turned-Pimps! hysteria.)
I find this outrage misplaced. There's no report of any violence connected with the Southwest Companions site, no mention of anyone underage, no drug angle, no lurid revelations about ministers or politicians. More tellingly, I can't find any specific allegations of Flory actually taking money from either sex workers or clients. No women have come forward to say that Flory victimized them. Flory is quoted as saying he didn't profit from the site; he maintained it so people who posted would have a safe way to meet.
Flory and Garcia have been accused of "recruiting new prostitutes... for their multi-state ring." After careful examination of the slippery phrasing in the stories, I'm translating this as: They e-mailed women who were already sex workers in other states and said, "I'd like to meet you, you should come visit Albuquerque!" Sex workers get e-mails like this all the time. That's not recruitment; that's fan mail.
Labeling Flory a pimp is pernicious nonsense. I've met a few real pimps. They're bad people, and nonprofit safety is not their goal. Unless there's new evidence forthcoming, Flory is being vilified simply for providing a forum where people discussed paying for sex. It's reasonable to infer he had some personal interest—he is also alleged to be a client of sex workers. However, that's the opposite of being a pimp. When people equate guys like Flory to predators who use fear and physical abuse to compel women to be prostitutes, it ultimately endangers women more, because it attenuates outrage at genuine exploitation.
Yes, prostitution is illegal. But even if you think it's a social evil, message boards can be effective harm-reduction tools. Calling their moderators "pimps" is like calling people who run needle exchanges "drug pushers." As long as we criminalize private consensual adult behavior, the media will distort information to get a dirty story, and once mud is slung, it can't be taken back. It's possible the charges against Flory will be dropped or reduced. But his reputation is permanently ruined. That's an unjustly heavy price to pay for good intentions.