John School, San Francisco: Background

By J. Marlowe

To understand what john "school" strives to accomplish, one must understand the people behind it. Norma Hotaling is the ex-prostitute behind the San Francisco john "school" which started this whole bizarre trend. Her experiences on the street were of being desperate, addicted and the victim of extreme violence; rumour has it that a client once fractured her skull.

Obviously, Hotaling's experiences on the street were traumatic, and nobody should have to endure the things that she did. However, she is unwilling to acknowledge that others may have had a different experience and may have a different point of view, and goes to great lengths to discredit those who do. As one sex workers' rights activist puts it, the women behind abolitionist recovery programs and john "schools" "refuse to acknowledge their own shortsighted self-righteousness, nor do they seem to realize that what they are saying is interpreted by the larger society as calls for greater police crackdowns on the street."

Hotaling has characterized the behaviour of prostitutes as "pathological," and without exception equates prostitution with "being repeatedly sexually assaulted, being dominated, battered and terrorized." She has even quoted studies that go as far as likening prostitution to selling a kidney. She accuses groups such as COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and the National Organization of Women of creating a political climate that "supports and protects" pimps at the expense of prostitutes' welfare. This is rather astounding claim, considering that the woman behind the first COYOTE chapter is Margo St. James, who continues to speak out in favour of sex worker empowerment. Despite the fact that St. James herself was a prostitute, Hotaling insists that only her own experiences and opinions are valid, refusing to give credence to the experiences and opinions of others.

In Hotaling's eyes, prostitution is regarded as a clear battle of the sexes. She calls it "violence against women" (notwithstanding the fact that male prostitutes and, to a lesser extent, female clients do exist). In a 1994 paper, she concludes that the solution to the problems associated with street prostitution is "programs for women and enforcement of the laws against pimps and johns." It becomes quite apparent from reading her statements that Hotaling is hostile towards all johns, choosing to regard them as a homogeneous group: "prostitution [is] exploitation, objectification and targeting of women as a class in order to maintain men's power over women in general."

It has been suggested that municipalities with a desire to control the spread of HIV should spend less time harassing, intimidating and arresting prostitutes and johns, and instead create an atmosphere of tolerance by devoting resources to outreach, education, and STD prevention programs. Hotaling dismisses this notion outright, claiming that sanctioning legalized prostitution would make governments into pimps. Obviously she places more importance on the unattainable goal of abolishing prostitution than on the more realistic one of ensuring that high-risk populations have the knowledge (and latex) to protect themselves.

In a report prepared for the Beijing Conference on Women, Hotaling asked a sample of streetworkers "What do you need?" According to her, most three quarters said that they needed job training, and 88 per cent wanted out of the profession. Why should money be spent on making johns feel lousy when it could be better spent helping streetworkers get the training, counselling, and/or rehabilitation they need in order to get off the street? In what way does john "school" -- with its objective to "starve" sex workers off the street -- help those street workers who want to get out of the profession, but find themselves unable, accomplish this goal?

The John "school" program was founded on the basis of a number of dubious factors. First, the woman behind the program has repeatedly expressed her contempt for johns. Second, she has taken it upon herself to be the unofficial spokeswoman for all streetworkers, regardless of whether they share her opinions. Third, she places her personal agenda of abolishing prostitution above more immediate concerns such as HIV prevention and sex worker empowerment.

All john "schools" derive from the San Francisco model. While its proponents strive to window-dress the program as an "educational" rather than a punitive initiative, the underlying message is quite clear: all johns are rapists and all prostitutes are helpless victims in need of rescue. Despite the fact that Canadian courts have determined that the exchange of sex for money is perfectly legal when conducted in private between consenting adults, john "schools" making their way across the border continue to present the abolitionist rhetoric of their American counterparts. Vancouver City Council should see john "schools" for what they really are: publicly sponsored venues in which johns undergo a day of verbal harassment in an effort to abolish an activity which is already partially decriminalized in Canada. What benefit this is supposed to provide to prostitutes who want to get off the street is anybody's guess.


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