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Tennessee Prosecutor Wants to Teach Men to Stop Buying Sex

Do these so-called “john schools” actually hurt women more than help them?


Can a district attorney teach men to stop buying sex? A Tennessee prosecutor plans to try.

In the ongoing battle against sex trafficking, Assistant District Attorney Tammy Meade of Davidson County wants men who buy sex to know they are both a problem and a potential solution. She is offering those who solicit sex, nicknamed “johns,” an opportunity to avoid prosecution and take part in the fight against the local sex trade. In order to get their criminal charges dropped, all arrested clients have to do is attend “john school,” a class in which students are to learn, in a word, empathy — empathy for the women whose sex they purchase. But according to experts, the schools fail to take into account the needs and perspectives of the sex workers themselves.

The Davidson County school seeks to educate johns about victims and the potential ways that they, as buyers, are contributing to women’s exploitation. Taught by Meade and trafficking survivors, the intention of the course is to put a “dent” in the practice of purchasing sex. As an added benefit, participation fees are funneled into services for trafficking survivors, including services for the very women who teach the class.

According to Meade, sex workers are women who lack control — women who are exploited by men — rather than women who make an informed, conscious choice to engage in the sex industry. “It’s okay for a man to buy a woman like she is something off the Walmart shelf, but it is bad that she is providing the service? We have to tell them that’s not okay,” she recently told local news station WSMV. Apologetic men reportedly approach her after every class. “If we can stop the johns from buying, we get in and serve the women who know no different,” Meade said.

Last year, arrested clients outnumbered sex workers in Davidson County. John school is painted as a win-win for men and women alike: fewer men will end up with a criminal record and fewer women will be preyed on and purchased if they participate.

Meade is not the only prosecutor to latch on to the diversion option for men who buy sex. The first john school was introduced by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in 1995. Similar courses have been springing up ever since, including a $250 class established by Nashville’s former mayor in the 1990s. In 2008, a Department of Justice study concluded john school students in San Francisco were less likely to purchase sex than those who did not participate. A study of john schools in British Columbia found that participants reported a change in attitude toward prostitution.

However, advocates of sex decriminalization and workers’ rights — and sex workers themselves — say these programs, along with the narratives of victimization they perpetuate, may harm women far more than they help.

The premise of john school and cracking down on “demand” is still driven by the idea that sex work needs to be policed in the first place, which creates barriers to safety and exacerbates stigma, studies show. In Sweden, the criminalization of clients is linked to an increase in violence against sex workers, as well as negative health outcomes. If people are deterred from buying sex due to the threat of an arrest, workers have fewer options to choose clients they feel comfortable with and are, therefore, more at risk of encountering someone who could put them in danger. They are more likely to move to isolated areas that are less familiar and less safe. Fear of police interference also hastens the decision-making process, so workers’ ability to screen clients, negotiate condom use, and discuss boundaries is also jeopardized.

A study in Vancouver found that violence against women remained stagnant after the government embraced a demand-centered approach to policing. Sex workers there also said the focus on clientele endangered them and stripped them of options. “It pisses me off that they [the police] are there because basically what it comes down to is the shortest time that I’m out there, the shorter I’m on the street and the better I’m paid,” a woman named Lisa told researchers. “But you [police] stand out there and you fuck up my business and scare away my dates. The longer I’m out there my chances of getting sick, raped, robbed, beat up whatever are greater.”

According to Kate D’Admo, an advocate who has worked with several organizations dedicated to sex workers’ rights, there is no evidence to suggest that john schools actually decrease trafficking or prostitution. Meanwhile, the classes fail to provide concrete resources — such as housing or access to childcare — and alternative job opportunities for the women they are intended to help. “If you want to get someone out of the sex trade, give them options,” she told In Justice Today. “None of these things are about more options. They’re just about making the one option that many people have — even if they are trafficking victims — more unsafe.” The lingering threat of arrest keeps sex workers silent and in the shadows.

Prosecutors do not usually seek input from advocacy organizations when designing their john schools, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Womenreported in 2011. It is also not clear that these schools are equipped to help sex workers. Other organizations can arguably do more than john schools to help women who do not want to be involved in this work, D’Admo says, because they are speaking directly to sex workers and asking what their needs are, versus talking and making assumptions about them to clients. Community-based outreach programs are also better equipped to screen sex workers and connect them to life-saving social services — investing in women’s own sense of agency instead of controlling their movement and choices. These programs can help workers build trust in people outside of law enforcement who won’t judge or police their bodies. They can also create safe spaces that are free of stigma and encourage women to talk openly about their work, which in turn creates opportunities for victims to seek help from people they feel comfortable around, says D’Admo.

D’Admo and organizations like GAATW argue that the legal framework used to think about sex work should be “rights-affirming” — based on the idea that many women in the industry do have agency — as opposed to a victim-centered narrative that bolsters criminalization.

“While we can talk about the assumptions of people’s circumstances and lives, there’s a very real impact here,” D’Adamo said. “While at the same time predicating this entire argument on them being victims, you’re increasing victimization.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.