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“John school” educates Worcester’s johns

October 11, 2009

Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine has an article about a program up in Worcester that I had never heard of: a “john school.” This one day session is offered to people charged with soliciting sex from prostitutes online or in person, in lieu of jail time. They must pay $200 to cover the cost of the program, and if they attend, they avoid criminal conviction. A study by Abt Associates found that a similar program in San Francisco reduced the rate of rearrests and recidivism among men paying for sex by up to 50%. Worcester’s program, called Community Approach to Reduce Demand, includes presentations about the health risks of having sex with prostitutes for everyone involved; the damaging effects that prostitution can have on sex workers physically and emotionally; the high rates of drug and alcohol abuse among sex workers; and the strong link between childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and prostitution. The day finishes with a presentation from a former sex worker, who tells her story of sexual assault as a child, drug abuse, homelessness, and hopelessness.

Overall, this program’s existence and approach seems legally and financially very sound. First, I am thrilled to see law enforcement directing its efforts towards the people who buy sex, rather than those who sell it. For too long, legal action to curb prostitution focused simply on the people who sell sex, only adding to the troubles of men and women who are too often financially, physically, and emotionally vulnerable. It is refreshing to see law enforcement redirect its efforts towards people who exploit that vulnerability with little or no regard for the destructive impact of their actions. Financially, this program is a great choice for the state. It costs the government nothing, since offenders’ fees cover all costs and even contribute to a program that helps prostitutes. By choosing to attend the “john school” instead of going to jail, the people who attend are essentially saving the government thousands of dollars.

Philosophically, I appreciate the program’s promotion of education and reformation to end violence, rather than shame. In his book Preventing Violence, psychiatrist James Gilligan advocates a restorative justice approach to prisoners who had committed violent crimes, arguing that the shame-based prison system that we have now only perpetuates cycles of violence and imprisonment. The Community Approach to Reduce Demand program appears to agree with Gilligan’s findings; while lecturers are certainly assertive and direct, the program is founded on the belief that, given enough information and support, people will choose to change. However, this rejection of shame-based punishment is undermined by Worcester’s policy of publishing offender’s names in the newspaper, towing their cars, and sending postcards to their homes with information about the charges against them. I’m not saying I disagree with those tactics, but simply pointing out the apparent inconsistencies of their underlying theories.

The article does briefly make mention of some opposition to this program from people who believe that prostitution should be legalized to better protect sex workers, by ensuring their access to medical care and allowing them to unionize. When I read statements from women and men who argue that they are choosing to sell sex from a place of empowered and informed moral agency, I believe that to label their work as victimization is misguided and disrespectful. But when I think about the men who were at this one day class in Worcester, I cannot help but think that they require education, at the very least. When they have buy sex from people who may not have adequate health care and who are not necessarily empowered to demand that their clients use protection or only engage in certain sexual acts, their solicitation of sex is much more likely to be violent and abusive.

All in all, I’m glad to know the program exists, but for me, it raised more questions than answers. What do you think?

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