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Boston Police Want to Open 'John School' to Shame Men Who Buy Sex

We talked to a criminologist about the potential problems with a plan to fight sex trafficking through shaming.
September 16, 2016, 8:25pm
Image by Raymond Forbes LLC via Stocksy

According to the Boston Herald, police are looking into the possibility of setting up a "john school" in Boston to shame offenders caught soliciting. It's one method they hope will help reduce sex trafficking in the city.

"[The johns] are fueling a violent, violent industry where young people get harmed, and many never come back from that," Lt. Donna Gavin, head of Boston Police Department's Human Trafficking Unit, told the Herald. "It's not OK to come into our community, exploit our young people and then go home in the suburbs where you think no one's ever going to know."

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Last year, Boston joined Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation, a national campaign working to reduce sex trafficking. The city's goal is to curb solicitation of sex online by 20 percent and street-level sex work by 80 percent over the next two years.

Read more: The Insidious Myth of the 'Unrapeable' Sex Worker

A john school is an education program for men who are arrested for solicitation. According to a 2012 report prepared for The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) on the efforts to reduce sex trafficking demand, there are at least 50 cities and counties that have instituted john schools or similar programs. Often funded by the fines that arrested johns are forced to pay, many are modeled after San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program, which began in 1996. The program usually takes place for once a month and lasts up to eight hours. The curriculum includes a series of lectures on sex work that touch on health risks, legal consequences, its impact on communities, the dynamics of pimping and trafficking, and the various ways sex workers may be exploited and/or abused.

John schools "are designed to shame the men and prevent them from reoffending," says Ronald Weitzer, a criminologist and George Washington University sociology professor who attended the john school in San Francisco for research purposes. "There's a lot of controversy over whether they actually deter men from buying sexual services … in the first place or it prevent those who have been arrested from reoffending."

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According to the report for NIJ, the San Francisco program reduced the annual recidivism rate for arrested johns from 8.8 percent to 4.5 percent after it began operating. But those numbers may be misleading. A man could get arrested for paying for sex in New York, attend a john school there, and then go to someplace else and buy sexual services there, Weitzer explains. "So no one would know that he'd reoffended unless he did it back in New York."

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He also points out that john schools unintentionally target men from low-income backgrounds. Most of the men in those programs are arrested for buying sex on the street, not for buying sex in the massage parlor or from an escort who advertises online, he says. Men who have more money tend to go to massage parlors and brothels, or they use escort services.

it seems the john schools are just a way of trying to prevent men from buying sexual services in general rather than fighting trafficking itself

"Most people, when they think about prostitution, they think street prostitution," Weitzer explains. "But we need to look at it as different tiers and different sectors. There's abuse and victimization in each tier."

"There's no problem with a policy designed to fight trafficking," he continues," but … it seems the john schools are just a way of trying to prevent men from buying sexual services in general rather than fighting trafficking itself."

Weitzer suggests a better way of detecting trafficking victims is decriminalizing prostitution and having police and health authorities involved in monitoring the legal sector. That way, he says, sex workers may feel more comfortable reporting incidents of abuse without being questioned.