One term that has come up repeatedly in my trafficking research is ‘john school,’ which is an educational intervention program that provides men who are caught paying for sex with information about the realities of prostitution.
The first john school was established in San Francisco in the 90’s, and since then several major cities across North America have launched similar programs. The ultimate purpose of a john school is to reduce demand for paid sex. Victims of exploitation, police, and health care workers make presentations, trying to demonstrate to the men that their actions can have devastating effects. The hope is that the men will change their behaviour as a result.
John schools are very controversial. Though most in the anti-trafficking community want to end demand for paid sex, some argue that that john schools allow men to get off easy because they simply pay a fee and sit in a class instead of going to court. Others claim it is a morality play, while yet another group questions the effectiveness of the educational approach.
I wanted to find out more firsthand, and after hearing that there was a john school in Vancouver, I set up an interview with Ian Mitchell. He is the coordinator for the BC Prostitution Offender Program and was willing to sit down with me for an interview.
When did the Vancouver john school start and why was it started?
Vancouver police were originally responsible for getting the school started. They were receiving a lot of complaints about street prostitution and would set up stings accordingly. This was in 1999, and I took over in 2000.
How does a sting work, and how does it lead to men walking through your doors?
In a sting a woman police officer dresses up like a prostitute. A guy drives up and makes a deal, giving the police enough evidence to proceed to court with that. If he meets certain criteria (ie. not carrying drugs or weapons, no extensive criminal record etc), he’ll be given an appearance notice for court and our brochure. This gives him the option of (a) going to court in 90 days and fighting it, or (b) attending our prostitution offender program (john school) by paying $500.00 and going from there.
There is a critique that john schools offer men the ability to buy their way out of court. How do you respond to this argument?
Here it costs them an hour with me, 8 hours in the school, and $500. In court they might get a $50 fine which is often conditional. They don’t learn as much in court as they do with us.
Why would someone opt to come to the john school?
Court is more public. This program is confidential. Another thing we get critiqued for from time to time by women’s groups saying that their partners need to know. And I say, I don’t disagree with that, but what we’re trying to do is educate them and if they’re looking over their shoulder wondering about their partner, we lose them. This way hopefully we can convince them not to do it again. Hopefully we can convince them to get checked for STDs, and that way their partners their partners will find out but maybe we can stop them from doing it in the first place.
- We start with a short film with a prostituted woman. Then we have a nurse from BC Centre for disease control – he is a street nurse who deals with drug addicts and prostitutes. His role is not to scare them (some john schools do that but we don’t) but is very personable and gets the men talking. It’s basically a safe sex lecture. The BCCDC is not for or against prostitution, but presents the men with information about STD’s and how that could affect their families.
- Then we turn it over to the Vancouver City Police. This is a very important part because it lets the guys see police in a different role. Their experiences on the street gives them stories to tell and current cases to talk about. They go through what the laws are, what being ‘found in’ is, what a bawdy house is, etc. By the time we are finished with them, prostitution is not something they are even considering anymore.
- We show a video called Stolen Lives and break for lunch. Police come back and tell them about the police record system which is different from the court record system. If someone is picked up under Section 213 and choose court instead of our program, he will start a court record, and once he is convicted, he gets a criminal record. A police record simply marks down that this event happened. If the man comes to us, the police record shows no statement of innocence or guilt, just bare bones facts. If they through our program, that is all their record will show.
- After this, the Servants Anonymous Society comes in. They run two houses that help women get out of the sex trade and present on healthy relationships. Who are we as people of value? The guys really like that part. We then usually have 3 young women from the streets that come tell their stories.
Part II of this interview is coming on Thursday. Mitchell will discuss the attitudes of the men coming in, the ‘morality’debate, the effectiveness of the program, and why stings are more difficult today than they were in 2000.
What do you think so far? Do you think education about some realities of prostitution can prevent men from buying sex? What do you think of Mitchell’s response to men ‘buying their way out of court?’