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May 8, 2012

Johns Scared Stiff: The Dangers of Hookers

Disclaimer: We do not normally read The New York Post. We don't even read it like we read Cosmo magazine ("so you don't have to"). The Post is usually too bad even to read as critique. But sometimes their pun-tastic titles catch our attention and we can't help but glance. That's what happened yesterday.

The following text conversation happened while one of us was commuting home from work on Monday:
Lilith: Reading the Post over someone's shoulder on the train. Gotta google this story later: "Johns Scared Stiff. Class teaches men dangers of hookers". WTF

Lilith: I assume it's the Post, based on the title.

Jezebel: Wow. Yes, we need to google that later, because now I'm dying to know the story.

Lilith: I'm sure it's an "amazing" article.

Jezebel: Okay, I just looked it up. The first line is about "bad boys" who need to be "taught a lesson". High quality journalism as always.

Here's the article, for those of you who actually want to read it in its entirety, instead of just our bitching and ranting about it. The title on the web version is "Brooklyn's 'john school' teaches men dangers of hookers" but the headline that was on the print version had the "Johns Scared Stiff" pun.

Obviously the title alone was pretty infuriating: The dangers of hookers. Even before reading it, I already hate this article and its author (Josh Saul) just from that line alone. I'd imagine that on average, "johns" are much more of a danger to sex workers than vice versa. The "school" in the article is actually a 10-year-old educational program called Project Respect in which men are taught the "adverse consequences" of patronizing sex workers. Men who are arrested for soliciting or patronizing sex workers are given the option of avoid a court hearing and possible jail time by taking a 5-hour class for $350. Afterwards their cases are dismissed in 6 months, as long as there are no new arrests. (The article claims that more than 3,000 men have taken the class and only "a bone-headed 26" have been arrested again for the same crime.)

Photo by Gabriella Bass

Clearly "Project Respect" is a misnomer, because it doesn't seem like anyone is being respected here. The chief of the Brooklyn DA's sex-crimes division, Rhonnie Jaus, has referred to it as a "scared-straight concept". Yeah, scared-straight by slut-shaming and spreading propaganda. The program includes a lecture from an HIV-positive sex worker who "kept working the streets after her diagnosis", "graphic slides of diseased genitalia", and warnings from assistant district attorneys about underage sex workers.
“If you are patronizing prostitutes, there is a very good chance you are going to encounter children,” Assistant District Attorney Jamila Cha-Jua-Lee told the men. “If you come into court and say, ‘I thought she was 18!’ and I have a birth certificate, I win.”
Now, we understand that prostitution is illegal in New York, and we acknowledge that there are a lot of problems with the sex work industry and it's not always the safest line of work. But still, we have a hard time believing that this "class" is a great solution to anything. We'll concede that it's possible that the class itself is not quite as bad as the article's description of the class, but there's still plenty to dislike.

First of all, it's nice for these men that they get the option of taking a class instead of going to court. But there's no mention of what happens to the sex workers who are arrested alongside them. Do they get offered the option of avoiding court and possible jail time by taking a class that teaches them that johns are dangerous liars who probably have a bunch of STDs? We're betting they don't. And we hope that Brooklyn is putting more time and resources into helping the underage girls who are working as prostitutes in their borough than they are into using them as scare tactics at john school.

According to the article, most of the men in these programs claim that they were entrapped. We may never know how many of them are lying, but the claim fits right in with the overall framing of this story. It's not really about holding the johns accountable for their actions or digging deeper into the idea that the existence of something like a john school in the first place just may mean that our cultural attitudes and public policies about sex work are totally screwed up. Nope, instead we can boil it all down, as the article's headline did, to the "dangers of hookers". Hookers lying about their age, hookers concealing their STDs, undercover cops lying about being hookers. Thank goodness we have john school to teach men that hookers can't be trusted.

We're thinking of pitching a follow up article to the Post. The working title is "New York Post article about Brooklyn's 'john school' teaches everyone dangers of criminalizing sex work and shaming sex workers".

Also, this might just be us being petty... but they couldn't even come up with an original name. There is another Project Respect that has been around at least two years longer and has a lot more to do with respect. It is a prevention and education program aimed at preventing sexualized violence. Now that's the kind of respect we can get behind.

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