School for Johns

Arrested for soliciting sex, men wind up in a Brooklyn classroom

Besides, it would be dumb for a sex worker to rat out the only person who can bail her out of jail, which is why Menifee, like many New York activists, favors a conservative brand of decriminalization—not legalization, she's quick to emphasize, but a reduction in the severity of the offense, so that women who she says are "emotionally retarded" enough to sell their bodies would no longer be threatened with jail time. If they did not need protection from vice cops, pimps would have less of a chokehold on them.

"You want to get rid of pimps? Decriminalize," says Robyn Few, an activist from the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in Berkeley. She calls john schools and similar scared-straight programs for prostitutes "shame based" and misdirected. Decriminalization is no panacea, she says, because young girls will still get tricked into the life. But at least they would be able to seek help without fear of being locked up.

The way Few sees it, prostitution is already legal—but only for the middlemen. Operators of massage parlors, escort services, and topless bars are just pimps who pay taxes and get a wink and a nod from police. "Everyone in America knows what goes on in there," says Few, "and when they open a Yellow Pages and flip to [the escort section] they know what those places are." The employees of these de facto brothels have little recourse when they're ripped off or assaulted.

A diseased mouth, for the viewing displeasure at the John School, Brooklyn
A diseased mouth, for the viewing displeasure at the John School, Brooklyn

The Bay Area has an active decriminalization movement, says Thukral, of New York's Sex Workers Project. New Yorkers, on the other hand, have been slow to agitate for radical change. That could be due in part, she says, to Giuliani's "quality of life" campaigns in the '90s that made sex workers feel even more targeted by law enforcement and thus more wary of organizing. This could be slowly changing; a few organizations, like Prostitutes of New York, have come out in support of decriminalization, and a new industry magazine called Spread (written for and by sex workers) is being circulated.

Still, the Urban Justice Center has not taken an official position. Thukral says local energies are for now concentrated on other issues. "Most sex workers we talk with," she says, "express a need for services like ESL and other education. Then there's the problem of not being able to make living wages in traditional low-skill fields. Law enforcement should put money into helping prostitutes find a way out, not into arresting johns."

"I'm not calling you guys child molesters, but these are just kids, guys," a young assistant district attorney tells the John School class. "We don't have a program for [molesters]—our program for that is jail. You guys have to realize, what if she were your daughter and a guy like you approached her?"

The Brooklyn D.A. does have an intervention program for young prostitutes called "Saving Teens at Risk," which has received mixed reviews. A more established program for minors, the nonprofit Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, is based in Manhattan and has produced a video that's used in the John School.

In the video, African American teens—faces blurred to protect their identities—tell stories of being lured from their homes by pimps who acted like boyfriends. In soft, childish voices, the girls describe being punched, kicked, and stranded outside in the dark after failing to meet their quotas for the night. They talk about their shame and terror and, most of all, how much they hate the johns.

"Y'all know you're wrong," one whispers. "I was only 13. Come on, you knew I wasn't 20. I should've been home with my family."

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