Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Week of 5.30.08

"John Schools"
Can men who hire prostitutes be reformed?

Learn more about "John Schools" with insight from "Kira," a former prostitute who helps men understand their realistic impact on the women they hire.

Kira's Job

prostitute walking On several Saturdays in a given year, "Kira" (her name has been changed to protect her identity) can be found talking about her life as a prostitute to men taking part in San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program, which aims to reduce demand for commercial sex. She tells the men she never liked the sex -- in fact, she was disgusted by them and traumatized by what they did to her.

"You guys think we really liked having sex with you, but we would lie to you just to get your money... I hated you when I was out there," she tells the men.

Men who participate in the program, sometimes referred to as "john school," have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes and have been given the option of avoiding prosecution by paying a $1,000 fee and attending a one day class. The classes educate the men (or "johns") about the realistic negative consequences of prostitution.

They hear first-hand from former prostitutes, like Kira, about what life as a prostitute is really like. She tells them about the sexual abuse she endured as a child, starting at the age of 3, how she was paid for sex as a teenager, and became addicted to drugs. She recounts the violence and rape that many prostitutes experience while working on the streets.

"You can see in their faces that they were really impacted by the story of being abused as a three year-old child," Kira tells NOW.

"I hated you when I was out there."
-- "Kira," a former prostitute
Men who attend john school are also taught about the health risks associated with prostitution, the impact the practice has on the community, as well as the legal consequences. If a man is caught with a minor, he could be charged with statutory rape.

Kira, who now works to help prostitutes get off the streets, says at least 30 percent of all prostitutes in San Francisco are underage.

Fewer Re-Arrests

The strategy behind the city's john school -- set up 13 years ago -- appears to be working. A study released by the U.S. Justice Department in March concluded that the program has been effective in substantially reducing recidivism among men arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

Michael Shively, a senior associate at Abt Associates, a social science research company in Massachusetts and lead author of the Justice Department study, said that men who went through the program were about 30 percent less likely to be rearrested for soliciting a prostitute than men who did not attend.

"Some of the men really think they're doing women a favor by providing them with an income and they don't think there is harm involved. A lot of the men comment on being surprised to learn that prostitution is not a victimless crime," Shively tells NOW.

Shively says he believes the program's two pronged approach -- focusing on men's self interest on one hand and the victims on the other -- is part of the reason for its success. According to Shively, some men revealed that they wished they knew earlier about the harmful effects of prostitution to others, and said after john school they did not plan to re-offend. "But there are guys that really don't care whether they hurt others -- they might be responding to the message that prostitution can hurt them." Shively says.

The two year study, commissioned by The National Institute of Justice, found that, since the program's inception, the recidivism rate in San Francisco has dropped from about 8 percent to 5 percent. About 5,900 men have attended San Francisco's john school, according to Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), a local non-profit.

"A lot of the men comment on being surprised to learn that prostitution is not a victimless crime."
-- Researcher Michael Shively
Cost Effective Treatment

The founder of SAGE, Norma Hotaling, herself a former prostitute, set up the john school program together with the San Francisco District Attorney's office and the city's police department. A third of the fees collected through the john school program goes to SAGE, which uses the funds to provide services for girls and women involved in street prostitution. The remaining fees support all the costs of conducting the john school classes, as well as subsidizing police vice operations, and the screening and processing of arrestees, according to Shively.

"It is cost-effective and sustainable," he says. The john school in San Francisco has operated at no cost to taxpayers while generating nearly $1 million for recovery programs directed to providers of commercial sex.

Programs similar to San Francisco's are now operating in roughly 35 locations throughout the country, including Chicago, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C. There are also plans for john schools in cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles and Dayton, Ohio.

Related Links:

National Criminal Justice Reference Service: Evaluation of the First Offender Prostitution Program - Report Summary [pdf] and Full Report [pdf]

The SAGE Project -- Standing Against Global Exploitation