Since 2013, the Joseph J. Peters Institute (JJPI) has facilitated the Sexual Education and Responsibility (SER) Program (or “Johns School”) in conjunction with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP), and the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia. Prior to the development of SER, JJPI was involved with Philadelphia’s Project Dawn’s Court, a diversion program for women with three or more arrests for prostitution. As Project Dawn continued to thrive, it was determined that educating individuals who purchase sex might also help to reduce the number of individuals engaging in commercial sexual exploitation by reducing the demand for paid sex.
The History of SER
The development of SER was born out of the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model which shifts the criminal aspect of commercial sex from the seller to the buyer. Under this model, selling one’s body for sexual purposes is not a crime, but purchasing sex from someone is. Also illegal under these laws are pimping, running a brothel, and rape. The model operates on the basic assumption that the purchasing of sex is an act of male violence towards women, and assumes that adult women sex workers are implicitly unable to give consent, even if they “willingly” engage in sex work.
Here in the United States, both the buyingand selling of sex continue to be criminalized, but a number of diversion programs for individuals who purchase sex were implemented in cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Many of these programs combine a classroom educational component with public shaming tactics, such as publishing participants’ pictures in local newspapers and/or on websites, and possible Megan’s Law implications (i.e. being registered as a sex-offender if re-arrested after the program).
SER Program Structure
SER uses a small group format with an average of 10-12 participants per four-hour class. Most participants attend only one session, but there have been individuals who have been ordered to attend up to eight individual sessions. The program itself covers several topic areas. There is a brief presentation by both the District Attorney’s Office and the Defenders Association which covers legal questions such as: upcoming court dates, return of impounded vehicles (another consequence of the arrest), and expungement.
The group is primarily psycho-educational in nature, and focuses on topics such as consent, cognitive distortions, and the impactof prostitution on other individuals and the community as a whole.
The group generally begins with introductions. The groups are diverse along racial, ethic, and socio-economic lines, however common themes of feeling targeted, having been entrapped, and wanting to put the arrest behind often emerge. During this phase, it is key that the group leader presents a nonjudgmental facts-based attitude, as it helps with group cohesion and “buy-in” as the session progresses. Most of the participants are extremely embarrassed and ashamed about the arrest, and taking too punitive of stance often creates an adversarial environment which leads to aggressive acting out, and/or disruptive behaviors.
After introductions, there is generally a discussion on consent, both legal and true. Participants are usually challenged to consider if prostitution can ever be a consensual act using the rules of consent as defined in Pathways, a workbook written for individuals who exhibit problem sexual behaviors. This stage often reveals the various cognitive distortions that many of the participants have surrounding sex, their self-image, and healthy relationships.
Cognitive Distortions and Objectification
Each stage of the group builds upon the last, and this portion focuses on addressing and correcting some of the distortions revealed in the initial discussion. Individuals generally begin challenging one another on their faulty beliefs about those who sell sex, as well as their thoughts on relationships and women in general.
While motivation to purchase sex varies among participants, the idea that individuals who engage in prostitution are “less than” is relatively common. This is particularly evident during an exercise in which men are asked to list all of the names for prostitutes and johns. Just illustrating the language differences in treatment of salesperson vs. customer often illuminates men to their underlying problem attitudes, and begins to set stages for the final component of the group: victim impact and empathy development.
Impact and Empathy
Discussion timing is important in the group. After the objectification discussion, participants are shown pictures taken from the 2007 Prism Magazine article entitled “Portrait of Exploitation,” which often evokes the strongest emotional reaction. While many, if not all, of the participants come to the group with a great deal of shame and guilt surrounding their arrest, many have failed to consider the impact of their arrest on anyone but themselves, choosing to ignore the fact that their patronization might be providing the money to support a drug habit that leaves a child without a parent, or otherwise destroys a life.
As a result, a great deal of the afternoon discussion is spent focusing on not only on the impact of prostitution on the individuals in class, but also on the person selling sex and the community. They are presented with statistics regarding the prevalence of histories of trauma, mental health problems and substance abuse among street-level prostitutes, as well as being provided with some insight on the overall impact of early childhood trauma on the lifespan. Their own personal risk is explored, and they are presented with: statistics on the likelihood that they might be robbed/killed, the risks of contracting an STI or STD and passing it to a partner, the possible legal and social consequences of solicitation, and the risks it poses to their own personal relationships. Finally, the impact of prostitution on the community is discussed, with a focus on the impact street-level prostitution may have on children living in the area, as well as the possible impact these children have on the larger community.
This discussion often has a “bringing it all home” effect, and help group members connect their behaviors to larger concerns, both personally and socially. Most group members leave the group reporting an increased awareness of their own issues and issues related to human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. After completing a brief post-test, they are given resources to help them address issues with addiction, mental health problems, and other needs that may have been uncovered during the session.
It should be noted that evidence for the effectiveness of the “Johns School” concept is mixed. A 2008 study found that not only were Johns Schools effective in the short term, but they also maintained reduced re-arrest rates for at least 10 years; however, there are some that would argue that the threat of being labeled as a sex-offender is a bigger deterrent to future solicitation. In that 2008 Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation study of men who purchased sex in Chicago, 41% of those interviewed felt that John School was a deterrent against buying sex, but more than eight out of ten noted public exposure and/or jail time as deterrents.
However, as the problem of human trafficking continues to grow, intervening in the problem from all sides will be key. Patrons are often ignored in the equation, but by continuing to work with them in reducing the demand for sex worker, hopefully we will be able to make an impact on suppliers, thereby putting an end to this form of modern day slavery.
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Crouch, D. (2015, March 14). Swedish Prostitution Law Targets Buyers, but Some Say It Hurts Sellers. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/world/swedish-prostitution-law-targets-buyers-but-some-say-it-hurts-sellers.html
Chen, S. (2009, August 28). ‘John schools’ try to change attitudes about paid sex. Retrieved March 31, 2017, fromhttp://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/08/27/tennessee.john.school/index.html?iref=mpstor
Coulter, L. (2007, Sept. & Oct.). Portrait of Exploitation: The Real Face of Prostitution. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/sexual-justice/portrait-of-exploitation-the-real-face-of-prostitution/
Durchslag, R., AM, & Goswami, S. (2008, May). Deconstructing The Demand for Prostitution: Preliminary Insights From Interviews With Chicago Men Who Purchase Sex (Rep.). Retrieved March 31, 2017, from Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation website: http://media.virbcdn.com/files/40/FileItem-149406-DeconstructingtheDemandForProstitution.pd