August 1 - 8, 1996. Vol. 30 No. 1493

Kimberly Daum

p. 20

"John School" Would Let
Offenders off the Hook

If Councillor Lynne Kennedy gets her way, men who solicit sex from prostitutes can continue to rest easy. Kennedy wants those offenders to go to "john school," an option that would let them avoid criminal record, as well as a fine or a jail term, by attending a one-day seminar on the detrimental effects of their actions.

The problem is not that johns need education. The problem is that they already have a very low risk of conviction and incarceration. A Calgary vice officer reported earlier this year that men attending San Francisco's john school (there are others in Los Angeles, Edmonton and Toronto) averaged 20 to 25 sexual transactions before they were first caught by police. the pattern is likely the same here in Vancouver, where, according to Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman, only 341 men a year on average are charged for soliciting the services of a prostitute. What's worse, barely one charge a year is laid against a john for soliciting sex from a juvenile.

According to Lowman, 77 percent of those charged in Vancouver with soliciting sex from a prostitute plead guilty. Of those who plead not guilty, only 12 percent are actually convicted. Few men are sentenced to jail, and community-service workers complain that the men are routinely discharged by the courts. Yet the consequences of a conviction are striking: only two percent of the convicted offend again.

Neither the cops nor the courts are doing their jobs.

Kennedy's proposal is based on the assumption that men who buy sex do not understand the damage they do to women, families, and communities. Why, then, do men not talk openly with their wives, children, and neighbours about their sexual exploits with prostitutes? Johns know that purchasing sex is looked down upon in this society. They simply want to avoid disruption and complications in their personal lives. They want to save their reputations.

Politicians, the police, and the courts need to confront the fact that by buying sex, johns are supporting an industry in which violence is endemic. Lowman estimates that sex-trade workers are 60 to 120 more likely to be murdered than women in the general population. At least 50 women who work as prostitutes have been murdered in British Columbia since 1988, and these cases are 25 percent less likely to be solved than other murders.

According to a 1995 study that Lowman conducted with colleague Laura Fraser, 77 percent of adult sex-trade workers averaged at least one violent trick a month. Sixty-two percent of those women were sexually assaulted and 48 percent were beaten. (Thirty percent of the offenders used a knife or a gun.) Ninety-nine percent of those surveyed believed that juveniles in the sex trade are most at risk of violence.

Lowman and Fraser's findings were echoed in a 1995 study done by Sue Currie in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Curry found that 98 percent of the sex-trade workers were victims of violence -- 94 percent were beaten, 48 percent were assaulted with a weapon, and 89 percent were sexually assaulted or gang-raped. Ninety-nine percent of the women believed that juveniles are at more risk of violence than adult women.

Between 1988 and 1994 in Vancouver, an average of 216 violent tricks a year were reported to the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society. The society's executive director, John Turvey, estimates that only three to five percent of all violent incidents are reported, and women in Lowman's study estimated that about 12 percent of all transactions involve violence. We know very little about johns, but we can conclude from the numbers that far too many of them use violence against the prostitutes they hire.

Lowman and colleagues are currently conducting a study on the behaviour of johns. Until the study is complete, city hall has little business proposing initiatives that are seriously questioned such as Lowman and Fraser and experts such as Turvey. That anyone, particularly an elected female official, would advocate reduced consequences for a population of men that can be, and often is, dangerous is unthinkable.

Child protection needs to be the bottom line whenever prostitution is discussed. In fact, Kennedy's john school proposal will only perpetuate the danger for kids who work in the sex trade. Johns can avoid detection by female police officers who pose as prostitutes by purchasing favours from kids -- which increases the kids' risks. The school proposal offers johns an attractive alternative to jail. But nothing comparable is being suggested for the women and children exploited in the sex trade.

The city has failed to enforce the law and continues to offer dangerous and cosmetic solutions to prostitution-related issues. Half-hearted measures that fail to address fundamental problems and play right into sex offenders' hands are not good enough. Kids belong in school. Their johns belong in jail.

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Created: September 2, 1996
Last modified: July 2, 1997

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