Curbing Prostitution One John at a Time

It's after 11 a.m. when Emmanuelle, an attractive 41-year-old former prostitute dressed in a red-and-black V-neck dress, takes the podium at San Francisco's Hall of Justice. She's clearly very nervous, but that's not surprising. In another time and place, the 40 or so men sitting in rows of plastic upholstered chairs might have been her customers. In fact they're here on a warm Saturday in May because they've been arrested for trying to buy sex. (Article continued below...)

The men, who are diverse in age and ethnicity, are voluntarily taking part in something called the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). It's a bit like traffic school for drivers with too many speeding tickets. But the day's lineup at what is sometimes called "johns school" has a unique curriculum—a series of "scared straight" talks about the ills of prostitution mixed with some seriously graphic sexual-health education. By attending the eight-hour session, and paying a $1,000 fee, these "johns" can avoid being prosecuted for solicitation. More than 5,700 men have gone through the program since its inception in March 1995. Over the last decade, the number of arrests annually in San Francisco for soliciting sex has varied widely, ranging from 140 to 1,200.

San Francisco's johns school is part of a renewed nationwide push by law enforcement to focus more on the Photo Gallery: Famous Johnsbuyers of sex than the sellers—a method that, if initial studies are to be believed, seems to be more effective than the cops' periodic roundups of prostitutes. Thirty-nine other U.S. cities have similar education programs in place, most based on San Francisco's school, which got government support after a city task force on prostitution created in 1994 recommended that officials focus on the social issues fueling prostitution instead of prosecution.

Now, the future of the johns school is in question. Earlier this month, supporters of a measure to decriminalize prostitution announced that they had enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this fall. The bill, backed by the Erotic Service Providers Union, a San Francisco-based labor group, would not only end arrests for solicitation and prostitution, but also contains a specific provision that would prevent the city from funding the First Offenders program.

"Criminalizing sex workers has been putting workers at risk of violence and discrimination for far too long," said Maxine Doogan of the ESPU, in a statement July 18. The group believes that city resources are being wasted in they call "a futile effort to police consensual sex between adults."

But San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and the city's district attorney, Kamala D. Harris, strongly disagree. "To suggest that this is somehow an issue that only involves consensual adults, that's just not true. No matter how these girls and women are packaged for sale, the reality is that for many of them, their life experience is often wrought with abuse and exploitation," says Harris. The proposed measure would hamper efforts to crack down on human trafficking, she says, because it prevents police resources from being used to locate and help immigrant women and children in particular who have been forced into sex work by traffickers who lure them to the United States with promises of other kinds of employment.

Harris says that programs like the johns school help sensitize those who buy sexual services to the true working conditions of sex workers—and refute the notion that many of them are in the business voluntarily. "It forces the john to deal with the reality of prostitution instead of their fantasy of what's happening," she says.

Dismantling that fantasy is precisely what Emmanuelle and several other ex-sex workers have come to the johns school to do. Emmanuelle (who requested that NEWSWEEK not use her real name in print) explains that the women she worked with were often mentally and physically ill. "I have posttraumatic stress disorder from [the work]," she says. "I want to be one of those people who has a good job, a long marriage. But because of my illness, I'm scarred for life from this industry, and I have to restart my life at 41." By the time she finishes telling the men about her life on the street, many of the men in the room are openly weeping or sniffling. They applaud as she walks away and another ex-prostitute, Jenna, 33, takes the stage to tell her story.

Jenna, a 33-year-old redhead, started working as a cigarette vendor at a club as a teen. She tells the men that she "didn't start off wanting to be a prostitute" but that the attention she got from men at nightspots and a $200-a-day heroin addiction she developed helped propel her into that lifestyle. Soon, Jenna (who declined to provide her last name) would find herself homeless and infected with hepatitis C, the victim of repeated beatings by abusive clients. Now, she says, even though she's been out of the sex industry for three years, she can't maintain a relationship with a guy longer than a few weeks. "I'm damaged, but it has to be true for some of you, too," she says to the johns. "You don't realize when you're getting yourself off what you're doing to these women. You're causing a lot of damage. We're damaged, but you guys are, too."

And they work hard for the money. According to a preliminary report released this year by researchers at the University of Chicago, based on a study of prostitution in Chicago from Aug. 19, 2005 to May 1, 2007, a streetwalker makes on average $27 per hour; given the limited hours prostitutes normally work, this would generate less than $20,000 annually. The women also reported frequent physical abuse. According to the study, a woman working on the street could expect an annual average of a dozen acts of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex.

The johns school was founded by Norma Hotaling, a 56-year-old ex-prostitute who founded FOPP in 1995; she also launched an umbrella group, SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), which combats sex trafficking and helps those trapped in the trade get out and find mainstream jobs. Both organizations aim to put pressure on the other people involved in the prostitution transaction—and both stand to lose city funding if the anti-prosecution measure is adopted this fall.) "It's taken until now to realize there are men involved," Hotaling says. "But if you want to tackle prostitution and trafficking, you have to start with demand reduction."

That's where the johns school seems to be having an effect. The San Francisco program shows it is possible to appeal to the customers' sense of "empathy for those harmed," says Michael Shively, a sociologist who reviewed the program for the Department of Justice, which provides some of its funding. Shively's study, released in May, found that recidivism rates of those who completed "Johns school" were 30 percent less likely to be rearrested for soliciting sex than were men who did not opt for the program. And an earlier study of a similar program in Buffalo, N.Y., resulted in an 87.5 percent drop in the recidivism rate for attendees. Shively admits he was skeptical at first. "It didn't seem realistic that one eight-hour day of talking at men would change their behavior," he says. "Now I'm an advocate."

The johns school attendees are mainly men who've tried to hire women who work the street—rather than those who have sought the services of the growing indoor prostitution trade (escort services, sensual massage parlors, etc.). The indoor trade is sometimes viewed as less perilous for the prostitutes involved, and the data on them is less comprehensive. However, a recent study by researchers at Columbia University found that while sex workers in this category experience lower rates of physical violence, these women are more vulnerable because assaults happen off the radar. These prostitutes, according to study authors Sudhir Venkatesh and Alexandra Murphy, tend to be "invisible" and often become isolated from their community and from other women in the trade who might provide a social network. That's one reason escorts find it hard to leave the business.

Some advocates say that legalization would help bring these women and others like them of the shadows and de-stigmatize the profession. And, according to San Francisco's Erotic Service Providers Union, decriminalizing the profession would allow these women to fight for better working conditions and pay and would make it easier for sex workers to report crimes without fear of prosecution themselves. But anti-prostitution activists point to studies indicating that legalizing prostitution may in fact create an environment that encourages human trafficking and pushes violence and abuse against sex workers even further underground.

A 2007 study by San Francisco psychologist and prostitution expert Melissa Farley found that in places where commercial sex is legal—such as Nevada, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands—illegal prostitution, as well as the number of rapes and assaults against prostitutes, has increased. Farley also found that more than 80 percent of the women working as prostitutes in Nevada's legal brothels "urgently want to escape." Both Germany and the Netherlands—country infamous for their red-light districts—are reconsidering their decisions to legalize the practice.

U.S. law-enforcement officials have also found a link between human trafficking and prostitution. The House passed an anti-human-trafficking bill in 2007 that would lower the barriers for prosecuting johns and traffickers, but it faces serious opposition in the Senate. (More than 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, according to U.S. officials. Of those, 80 percent are female and about 50 percent are children.)

The idea that some of the women selling sexual services might in reality be young girls is another concept that the johns school hopes to impart to its "students." District Attorney Harris estimates that there are as many as a thousand girls under 18 working San Francisco's streets.

One participant in the johns-school program, "Anthony," was getting a crash course in some of these truths. A 45-year-old paralegal recently laid off from his job, he wound up in the program after he tried to pick up an undercover officer working in the city's seedy Tenderloin district. He admits that he'd paid for sex before in Tijuana, Mexico. But after hearing a lecture at johns school about children in the sex industry, he swore he was finished. "I never thought that I could be picking up a child who looks 22 or 23 but is really under 18," he told NEWSWEEK. "The possibility of ruining a child's life ... I'm never putting myself in that situation again." [The men interviewed declined to provide their real names owing to the sensitive nature of the subject.]
"Marco," another arrested john in the class, didn't think he had much to learn at the start of the eight-hour session. "Aside from knowledge of the vice unit and how they operate, everything else I already know," he said. But at 4 p.m., the 23-year-old construction worker found himself leaving with more than the papers certifying his completion of the course; he also had a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting schedule tucked under his arm. "I was going through the list, and I fit a lot of the criteria of a sex addict," he said. " I thought it was a rare thing, but I might check out a class."