I had the privilege of attending the “john school” or Prostitution Diversion Program at the 77th precinct in Los Angeles this last Saturday. The program began in 2008 by two retired LAPD detectives under the belief that education is more powerful than punishment. That if these men who have been arrested for soliciting prostitution only knew what was really going on and all the dangers involved – they would make better choices in the future. Since the program began in July of 2008, 1,533 men have gone through the program and only 4 have been repeat offenders.
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the training. To be honest, my fear was that the school was going to be very shame-based. But it was delightfully refreshing. I walked away with such hope, inspiration and encouragement for what this program is doing and what more we can be doing to help the men of Los Angeles.
This program educated, challenged, encouraged and inspired (at least me! But I think the men that were there as well). The men were treated as decent humans who would make better decisions if only they had the information to make those decisions. On one of the breaks we were talking to a detective who was telling us about some of the past men they have come through the program. One man was in a moment of extreme loneliness and depression after his wife of 40 years had just passed away a couple weeks before and he got caught. I think we often jump to the conclusion that these men are gross and misogynistic. But I think you’d find that a lot of these men have a much larger and tragic story that we most often don’t consider.
Throughout the day the johns ask questions, they answer questions, they’re involved and even engaged in laughter at different parts of various lectures and presentations. The presenters really know their stuff – and they don’t pull their punches – but they also treat the johns as intelligent men who are capable of thinking through the consequences next time to make better decisions since they now have the information.
I go through the whole day below, each speaker that came and what they talked about. If you care to read in more detail – keep going!
On Saturday’s training there were 23 men present, of various ethnicities. I counted 8 wedding rings in the room and guessed the ages ranged from early 20’s to early 50’s. Their current situation was explained to them. You were ARRESTED for prostitution, but not CONVICTED – and that’s how it’ll stay on your record if you complete this program and successfully stay clean for one year of probation after completing this program.
“We’re not here to discuss if prostitution should be legalized. We’re not here to point fingers. We’re here to help you make better decisions. You’re risking your life, health, reputation and your family’s life and health. If you go back out on the street, you WILL be arrested.”
Not everyone is eligible for john school. A man cannot have prior arrests for prostitution, drugs or violent crimes on his rap sheet and must be willing to submit to an HIV blood test. Each john shells out $600 to cover the cost of the class. And if they keep clean for their one-year probation, no conviction goes on their permanent record. IF, however, they are to solicit a prostitute again and get caught – they would go to jail immediately.
The day was packed full of highly qualified, entertaining and informative speakers on a variety of topics. The day starts with an explanation of HIV testing which is required of each man that goes through this program. Throughout the day, each man is asked to leave the room one by one and go out to a mobile station parked outside to get tested. They will get their results immediately.
The first speaker was Lt. Rick Shields to give the police perspective. He explained that years ago there were hundreds of prostitutes out on the street corners, but those numbers are declined due to the internet, out call and in call services, backpage, newspapers, etc. The game is changing and how we must respond is changing. He discussed some of the sting operations that the police have going which most likely resulted in these men getting caught and sitting in this room! He framed it all as an overarching community problem – prostitution impacts our churches, schools and neighborhoods in ways we don’t think about. Represented by the simple fact that many of these women are FORCED in this and what we don’t see are the killings, fights and rapes that place. He also reminded these men that a majority of the women they are soliciting are actually under aged although they might tell you they are 18. And if you get caught with a girl under 18, even if you claim you didn’t know – that’s an automatic felony!
The youngest girl arrested (for LT Shields) on the streets in Hollywood for prostitution was 11 years old. The oldest was 69 years old.
Next a city attorney representative, Sonja Dawson spoke. She started by making it clear that her job was to prosecute them! But at the same time, they were supportive of this program because they realized that they could not arrest their way out of this problem. She explained the specifics behind getting arrested for prostitution, the penal codes. She also took the time to explain what would happen if they violated probation or had a second (or third!) offense.
Next was Jason Dawson from the Public Health Administration to talk about HIV and AIDS awareness. Let me tell you – THIS is the sex education we need in high schools! Terrifying. He explained all the science behind what HIV and AIDS actually are as well as many of the statistics from LA, giving many different gender and ethnic statistics.
Then Heather Northover came and gave a presentation of STDs….with pictures. Again, if this was incorporated into more of our sex education, I can’t help but think more teens would stay away from sex…FOREVER! (just kidding…only kind of). STDs cost $16 billion in health care each year. And HIV can run up to $40k annual to treat. At one point she asked each man to look around the room and then asked “how comfortable would you be having sex with someone after they’ve had sex with everyone in this room?” That’s basically what’s going on when you have sex with a streetwalker, you just don't think about it because it’s their job. Sex workers are 10x more likely to have STDs and inconsistent condom use.
Then we had a lunch break, which was really ill-timed since we had just looked at a ton of penises with STD’s.
The afternoon, to me, was the most powerful part of the training. I know not everyone who solicits prostitution is a sex addict. And the training is not implying that either – but bringing in several men from sex addicts anonymous was really powerful. I think it gave freedom to relate to the stories of those who suffer from addiction to find yourself in their stories and be able to get the help you need. I won’t share any of the details of the stories that were shared, but know that they were raw, vulnerable, gut wrenching and powerful. There were lost jobs, divorces, revoking of professional licenses, loss of property, lost children, having to register as a sex offender, and many more. Their truth telling was so powerful, it really conveyed the human experience: fear of mortality, fear of failure and a deep seeded desire to be loved, wanted and needed.
Their biggest suggestions:
1. Go to meetings
2. Meet with a sponsor
3. Have a support group you meet with (out of SAA) that you talk to about life and challenges
4. Cold call others within SAA so you can ask how they are
5. Share your story: it is only through authenticity and vigorous honesty that you can get freedom.
They then had Dr. Barbara Pavlo come in and talk about some of the brain science behind addiction and specifically sex addiction. After that they had an ex-prostitute from the area (she had worked one of the tracks After Hours works on for 15 years!) speak to the men about a prostitutes perspective. And the day ended with a community member talking about the impact prostitution has on the neighborhood. She brought up many things I had never thought of before! It was really moving.
I was encouraged by humanity on Saturday! Those that came together to present this amazing program, retired LAPD officers Art and Bill who have put this program together and continually improved it over the years. Their belief that the men of Los Angeles can make better decisions. The passion of the community members, the vulnerability of the men from SAA who came to share their stories and let those in the training who may also suffer from addiction know that they are not alone.
Everyone deserves a second chance. Thank God for grace. Thank God for community members that do what they can to educate, challenge and love those who had a moment of weakness. And for those it wasn’t a moment of weakness for, who dare to repeat – they’ll pay the consequences! The dark underbelly of prostitution in Los Angeles is a difficult thing to get your mind around – but this program is doing a great job getting the word out there.