What's Wrong
with John "School"?

By J. Marlowe

August, 1996

John "school" disregards Canadian law

In Canada, prostitution is not a crime. The exchange of sex for money in private is legal, while "communicating for the purpose of prostitution in a public place" is not. Johns are arrested on a "communicating" charge (Section 213 of the Criminal Code), yet the purpose of john "schools" is not to address the law a john may have broken, but rather to condemn the exchange of sex for money. The act of lecturing johns about the evils of perfectly legal transactions blatantly oversteps Canadian police departments' bounds. Police are paid to "serve and protect" the public by enforcing laws fairly; not to moralize.

The concept of john "schools" was developed in San Francisco, where the prostitution laws are different. As in many American states, California's laws are designed to eliminate prostitution altogether; Canadian laws are designed to keep prostitution private. Programs adopted in Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa have simply mimicked the San Francisco model without bothering to tailor it to our own Criminal Code. If john "schools" are to operate in Canada, they should strive to inform johns about how to hire a prostitute legally instead of trying to get them to stop hiring prostitutes altogether.

John "schools" fail to recognize the diversity of sex workers and clients alike. Sex workers are categorically portrayed as victims of exploitation, while clients are categorically treated as psychopathic manipulators out to satisfy their sexual addictions. While both of these stereotypes may be true of specific individuals, they deny the reality that often sex workers and clients are simply engaging in a mutually agreeable act between consenting adults. The "communicating" law is supposed to control where negotiation for such acts takes place, not the terms of the negotiations themselves.

John "schools" hurt prostitutes

While most prostitutes choose to work in this profession, there are some who are there because have no other way to earn a living they need. Initiating a program that will erode the client base and "starve" people off the streets does nothing for the welfare of those who have no viable alternatives, other than compounding their desperation. This strategy will also increase indigence and strife within entire communities on the street in much the same way as a factory shutting down in a single-industry town.

From a public health perspective, john "schools" could conceivably lead to an increase in unprotected sex among the most vulnerable streetworkers. Prostitutes who can't afford to pass up an offer for unprotected sex are less likely to use condoms for everything, every time. If john "schools" succeed in reducing the number of clients, the proportion of prostitutes who can afford to say no to unsafe sex will decrease.

According to anecdotal evidence from San Francisco, john "schools" tend to spook the nice guys but not the creeps. Many johns are pleasant, respectful men who, for reasons of their own, want or need to hire a sex worker from time to time (think of Hugh Grant). These are the johns most likely to be manipulated into believing that what they're doing is harmful, yet it is they who pose the least threat to sex workers. Losing these clients means that sex workers have to find new clients, many of whom may not be as pleasant or as respectful.

John "schools" assume that sex workers are incapable of speaking for themselves. These programs typically employ a handful of ex-prostitutes who present the worst possible scenarios of sex work, and then try to convince johns that all prostitutes share the same histories, dependencies and attitudes. Because working prostitutes with a positive attitude are denied the opportunity to speak at john "schools," only one, overtly biased viewpoint is represented.

In Canada, there are legal alternatives to street work, yet the sex trade continues to thrive outdoors. Nobody has bothered to ask prostitutes themselves what factors -- economic, legal, social, practical -- have influenced their decision to work the street. How can you find solutions if you have no idea what the problems are? Rather than assuming that harassing johns will somehow make prostitutes disappear, why not spend money on something that makes more sense like finding out what other venues street prostitutes would be willing to work at, and why they work where they do.

These programs assume that sex workers and johns know nothing about safe sex and need to be educated. While middle-aged, heterosexual men are a hard-to-reach group to target safe sex education for, it is unlikely that john "schools" are better safe sex educators than the sex workers themselves. Sex workers typically know more about safe sex and STDs than do other people. They teach safe sex skills during sex which may well be more effective than more conventional forms of safe sex education. Ironically, proponents of john "schools" make claims about street work that are contradictory: that johns are tossing used condoms on the ground; and that johns are practising unsafe sex.

John "schools" target only the male clients of female prostitutes. No male client of a male prostitute has gone through the program in Canada, nor has a female client of a male or female prostitute. This suggests that there is an underlying moral agenda to the program: female sexuality is something to be protected by the state, while male sexuality is something to be repressed by the individual. Such antiquated attitudes have no place in a government-sponsored initiative, and serve only to reinforce outdated stereotypes which have traditionally served to deny women's sexual autonomy.

John "schools" provide a way for men to buy their way out of a criminal conviction. Why is there no similar opportunity proposed to allow prostitutes to buy their way out of convictions? Is it simply assumed that johns will actually benefit from the program while prostitutes would just endure it to avoid convictions? The truth of the matter is that anybody arrested on a "communicating" charge would sit though a day of finger-wagging in order not to be convicted. It can also be argued that providing a one-day "schooling" alternative for johns, while continuing to hand out harsher sentences for women working the street, would be a mockery of justice, and would discriminate on the basis of sex, which would be unconstitutional.

John "schools" don't work for johns, either

The john "school" strategy for solving problems related to street prostitution requires expensive police undercover operations in order to arrest johns. Entrapment is not illegal in Canada. Undercover police can openly solicit for potential customers in order to arrest them. Even if someone, who had never hired a prostitute before, decided on impulse to accept the offer from the officer -- with even a nod or gesture -- he could be charged.

If police were to offer someone, at the time of his arrest, the opportunity to avoid criminal charges by instead agreeing to attend john "school," this negotiation could be considered to be a kind of plea-bargain. Except that the "accused" would have to agree to his sentence without actually pleading guilty to any criminal charges. Whether you perceive this offer as extortion or as a "sweetheart deal," it could be seen as an infringement of an accused person's right to legal counsel. Allowing police forces the power to carry out the full procedure of justice, which is currently reserved for the courts, would set a dangerous precedent. Currently, when someone (usually a police officer) cuts a deal with the police in order to avoid criminal prosecution, it is considered to be an instance of corruption.

Speakers at john "school" are typically women with a negative or ambivalent attitude towards johns. This necessarily creates an adversarial atmosphere and discourages johns from voicing their true opinions, or disagreeing with what they're being told. Johns are made to feel that prostitution is a "women's issue" and as such their "teacher" is always right, regardless of whether or not she has anything in common with the sex workers the johns see. Sex workers and their clients would benefit more from john "schools" run by sex workers, who could teach johns how to be more courteous, to tip well, and other ways to improve their chances of getting good service.

John "schools" lecture johns about things they may never have done or even intended to do. Community spokespeople talk about the impact of prostitution on neighbourhoods, citing things such as noise, litter, harassment of residents, and incidents of used condoms or needles being picked up by toddlers. There is absolutely no reason to assume that every man arrested for "communicating" with an undercover officer would have done any of these things, and the programs preclude the possibility that some of the men arrested could have intended to simply pick someone up and take her or him home or to a hotel.

John "school" won't solve neighbourhood problems

Proponents of john "schools" claim that the rate of recidivism is very low. What this really means is that the vast majority of their "graduates" have not been caught again, which is not surprising given the relatively short time during which these programs have been in operation. What are the odds of someone being arrested more than once for accepting a proposition from a police officer posing as a prostitute? There is no real evidence that the program has effected recidivism rates.

The popularity of john "schools" among johns is greatly exaggerated. When johns are arrested for "communicating for the purpose of prostitution" with an undercover officer, they are given two choices:

  1. Pay $500, sit through a lecture for a day, and go on their merry way as if nothing happened, or;

  2. Find a lawyer, agonize over the possible outcome of court, face a judge and possible publicity, and possibly incur a permanent criminal record;

Which would you choose?

Prostitution will never go away; any program designed to stamp out prostitution is destined to fail. Yet there is no reason why open dialogue between the various parties -- including sex workers -- could not reach some sort of compromise that would minimize the effect of, or limit the amount of, prostitution in public spaces. There are all kinds of proposals being tossed around, ranging from tolerance zones to publicly run brothels to a licensing scheme akin to that used to regulate street vendors or taxis. Adversarial and judgmental schemes such as john "schools" simply make sex workers more defiant, and show that elected officials are more concerned with getting the votes of vocal groups of property owners and electioneering than they are with the welfare of all citizens.

Johns will keep coming as long as there are hookers on the street, and hookers will keep working on the street as long as there is money to be made. If the objective is to get prostitution off the street and into private places (rather than trying to abolish it), both sides of the transaction need to be considered. The supply side has been targeted for decades yet it still exists; why should targeting the demand side produce a different effect? To move prostitution out of the public view (and it's unlikely that you will ever get 100 per cent of it indoors), you have to address both the supply side and the demand side in an all-encompassing initiative that provides viable alternatives to the working on the street. These should include other ways for desperate people who don't want to be on the street to make money, as well as legitimate, alternative venues that are safe workplaces where sex workers can make a fair wage.


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Created: August 12, 1996
Last modified: March 6, 1999
SWAV Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710
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