Say NO to “John Schools”!

What are “john schools”?
“John schools” are popular names for programs intended to deter would-be sex work clients from continuing to engage in commercial sex. The first such program was begun in San Francisco in 1995, and became the model for similar programs across the United States and in other countries. Many times these are “diversion” programs, where a first-time offender avoids criminal prosecution and conviction, or receives probation instead of jail time, by attending the program.

How do these programs work?
Such programs are designed around the assumption that all forms of commercial sex are inherently degrading to women, and that “educating” clients about this would deter them from continuing to solicit the services of sex workers. Typically, a group of men arrested during a police sweep or sting operation are required to attend a session several hours in length, where an instructor and other individuals deliver a series of lectures. Attendees are frequently required to pay a fee, ostensibly to cover the costs of the program. They are also warned that a second arrest on a prostitution-related offense will result in a more severe penalty.

What kind of information is provided?
Based on San Francisco’s model, a series of presenters give lectures to the attendees. While some programs have attendees fill out an evaluation form, the program structure does not allow for questions or discussion. Critics have noted that much of the presentation is anecdotal, and that many invalid assertions are presented as fact, such as:
   1. that all sex workers have pimps, who compel them into selling sex;
   2. that sex workers spread HIV and other STIs;
   3. that clients’ behavior is indicative of “sex addiction”.
Researchers who have reviewed or observed these programs note that they rely heavily on fear and shame to enforce conformity, qualifying more as indoctrination than meaningful education.

Are these programs effective?
There is no solid evidence that “john schools” are effective in achieving their intended goals. While proponents for these programs claim that they lead to reduced rates of recidivism among attendees, critics point out that there is no significant difference from those who are simply arrested. There is also typically little or no actual follow-up on the behavior of attendees; when follow-up is done, they look only at whether individuals were arrested for similar offenses.

What about the cost?
Attendees are typically required to pay a fee of several hundred dollars, ostensibly to cover the program’s cost. Yet a 2009 audit by the budget analyst for San Francisco found that the city’s “model” program, despite charging up to $1,000 per person, experienced a $49,000 shortfall that year, and over five years a total loss of $270,000. Combine that with the increased cost of enforcing laws against commercial sex, the promise that these programs offer a low-cost means of dealing with street prostitution ring hollow.

How do these programs help sex workers?
They don’t, and too often wind up hurting them. “John schools” and other high-profile “end demand” programs tend to discourage clients who pose the least problems for street-based sex workers, pushing those workers to take on greater risks in order to earn enough to survive. Such programs also fail to address the economic and social factors behind a person’s decision to enter sex work, often placing blame and total responsibility on clients.

What should police and other agencies do instead?
CoSWAC agrees with sex worker rights’ organizations that full decriminalization of sex work is the best path to reducing harm for all parties concerned. In the interim, police and social service agencies need to shift their priorities to helping street-based sex workers where they are by addressing safety, housing, medical care and other needs. Outreach to sex work clients should focus on educating around safer-sex practices and respect for sex workers’ rights and safety.

Is there any way to keep the police where I live from implementing a “john school”?
Organize! Connect with sex worker rights’ groups, advocates for civil liberties and criminal justice reform, and other allies to educate yourselves and the public about how these programs fail to deliver on their promise and lead to more harm for sex workers. Consider starting a petition addressed to your police chief or municipal government.

For more information, check the resources and contacts below:

Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN)
Best Practices Policy Project
Desiree Alliance
Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA)

Audit faults S.F. D.A.’s prostitution program
Article in San Francisco Gate (Sept. 20, 2009) raising criticisms about the effectiveness and cost of that city’s “john school” program, which was the model for similar programs in various cities.

Challenging the Kerb Crawler Rehabilitation Programme
From Feminist Review (No. 67, Spring 2001), a critical review of the “john school” program implemented in Leeds (UK), and of the “short-circuited thinking” behind such programs generally (PDF document).

Do John Schools Really Decrease Recidivism?
A critical evaluation of San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, by Rachel Lovell and Ann Jordan (PDF document).

The Impact of John Schools on Demand for Prostitution
Scholarly paper by Eleanor Levine; while CoSWAC does not endorse her conclusions, or her apparent conflation of commercial sex with sex trafficking, the author does raise important questions about the effectiveness and content of these programs (PDF document).

Initiatives to “end demand” for prostitution harm women and undermine service programs
A fact sheet with citations by Desiree Alliance (PDF document).

What’s Wrong with John “School”?
Essay by J. Marlowe of the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver, outlining the shortcoming of so-called “john schools”; while specifically addressing Canadian law at the time (1996), the criticisms mentioned apply to American and other contexts.