Hooker High 

Salt Lake City Johns learn new lessons after soliciting the world’s oldest profession.

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Kay saw the man sitting in a chair, close to where two tables met to make a corner. He was visibly shamed, almost in tears, by her story of how his money fed her drug addiction.

From the time she first began using heroin at age 16, Kay, now 40, lived a life of desperation. There were periods when she lived a “normal” existence, but she was always drawn back to prostitution. It was quick and easy cash to feed her heroin habit.

The expression of utter shame and shock that came over this married man in his 60s didn’t phase her. Nor did the fact that as a john—a man who pays a prostitute for sex—he had to spend 10 weeks in a court-ordered class to make amends for what he had done. How could this man, who was caught by Salt Lake City police trying to buy sex from a prostitute, not know how he contributed to another’s drug habit? How could he pretend to be so ignorant, she thought.

“You guys get to come here and go to john school while we end up in jail puking and freezing and sick from drug withdrawal,” Kay, visibly angry, told a group of about 15 men. Stone-cold in their chairs, they were the uncomfortable recipients of her scathing words.

“You think you have it hard. You don’t know what hard is,” she tells them. “You get to go back to your nice home and your wife, while we get thrown in jail.”

This is how Kay, a widowed mother of two who asked that her real name not be used, explained her decline to a room of men busted as johns. All were caught inside Salt Lake City boundaries. All were paying their restitution in the form of a $350 class, a class unlike any other offered in Utah.

Nationally, the class breaks ground in its approach to offenders who engage in the world’s oldest profession. It’s ground breaking because it requires more time and commitment than most other courses like it in the country.

John schools have been around nationwide and in Canada for about six years, but most offer a one-day course. Many of these schools spook men into not misbehaving again, assailing them with marathon lectures from former prostitutes, police, health-care professionals and community merchants all too ready to tell a roomful of johns how reprehensible their behavior was.

In contrast, the Salt Lake City program takes a different approach. It’s an unprecedented 10-week curriculum that teaches men important lessons in life. They learn how to get along better with their spouses, how to pay more attention to their kids, how to recognize and catch those moments in their behavior when they are inattentive to their loved ones or friends.

Keeping in mind that vulnerability and weakness are part of the human condition, the class strives to not only teach the students how to improve their interpersonal skills. It also gives the men permission to see themselves for what they truly are: everyday people who took a wrong turn. In doing so, the instructors hope the men will learn to forgive themselves, and find a way to transform that once-embarrassing moment of getting cited for soliciting sex into a positive learning experience.

The prostitutes are bound to come away with lessons, too. Speaking to the men in the class gave Kay the opportunity to see a little of herself in each of them, she said. She has come to see them as addicted to sex in the same way she craves drugs. She suddenly realizes just how much they are her equals.

“Feeling Cards”

Created in the last decade, john schools are a relatively new way for prosecutors and police to deal with prostitution in their communities. In 1995, San Francisco began combating the world’s oldest trade by creating the nation’s first john school program. Four years after its inception, program administrators reported that of the 2,181 men who had taken the class, only 18 had been rearrested and prosecuted.

Since then, other cities in the United States and Canada have started john schools modeled after San Francisco’s. Pittsburgh, Penn., South Bend, Ind., Everett, Wash., Nashville, Tenn., St. Paul, Minn., and Vancouver in Canada are a handful of the cities that emulated the eight-hour San Francisco program.

While these predecessors may have inspired Salt Lake City to open its own john school, similarities thereafter are few.

When time came for Salt Lake City lead prosecutor Sim Gill to craft a john school program, he settled on a longer version of the class with more breadth.

The demands of 10 weeks of instruction, two hours per session, is tempered by a warm environment provided by instructors Debra Daniels, Bobbi Morgan and April Walters, who handle their pupils with kid gloves. An evening with the three-person prostitute panel, and another evening with a state health care worker who reminds them of their chances of catching AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, are the notable exceptions.

A typical evening at john school class looks more like a day at Romper Room than a place where men gather for punishment after committing a sin in the eyes of civilized, moral society.

It’s a soft touch, the best of example of which is the class’s game of “feeling cards,” a ritual designed to let men better identify their feelings and how they respond to them. There are more than two dozen laminated, fluorescent-colored thumb-sized tabs men choose from when they walk into each session. They have a word written on one side, an image of a facial expression on the other. Selections include tired, bashful, frustrated, happy and relieved. After a card is selected, everyone at the table takes turns explaining why they picked a certain card. Explanations usually include details of the minutiae of their day.

“I’m tired today,” one man lamented. “Things have been really tough at work.”

“I’m grateful,” said another. “This class has really helped me improve the relationships in my life.”

“Busy,” said another man, who let out a big sigh, then went on to tell the class that coming home from work spent leads him to unintentionally neglect his young daughter. He recounts the time he was talking to her with his back turned when she asked him to look at her while she spoke to him.

Even instructors partake in this opening ceremony. One day, an exuberant Walters announced to the class that she had finally gotten her 4-year-old son to use the toilet.

During another evening of john school last March, the class discussed four different types of approaches people take when dealing with conflict. Morgan and Walters role-played the same scenario under four different models: “in your face,” or aggressive behavior; “the disappearing act,” or passive behavior; “the combination,” of passive/aggressive behavior; and the ideal form of behavior, “direct and honest.”

Each time, Morgan pretended to knock on Walters’ door. The two of them had a date to see a movie together but Morgan was several hours late, and has a track record of being tardy. For the first skit, Walters acted disappointed, but was passive about her feelings. For the fourth skit, she was assertive and firm, and told Morgan next time she was more than 45 minutes late, she would make other plans.

The men leaned forward in their chairs and laughed. Their eyes sparkled with amusement. Ostensibly, this didn’t seem like a class that was trying to teach men about the perils of soliciting sex. And that is exactly why the program seems to work, said Gill.

“This is not about shame,” exhorted Gill, who launched the program in November. “This program allows the johns to internalize their experience and learn something from it. It would be very easy to give people a fine and send them on their way, but this program really involves engagement. Look, we could continue to do things like before and it can’t be any worse, but it definitely won’t get any better either.”

Daniels, Morgan and Walters, working through their consulting and diversity training company Umoja—Swahili for unity—devised the curriculum that won Gill’s favor when he was selecting a contractor to teach the class.

Part of what impressed him was their professional backgrounds. For nine years, Daniels ran the battered women’s shelter at the Salt Lake City branch of the YWCA. While Walters is currently a stay-at-home mom, she and her partners were all former instructors on domestic violence prevention at the YWCA. After doing that for several years each, Daniels and Morgan went on to the Salt Lake City-based Rape Recovery Center. Daniels is the center’s director of client services, while Morgan does crisis intervention counseling.

At the YWCA, the women also taught and developed courses teaching men about healthy relationships. That class has since been discontinued. On the whole, the majority of the instructors’ experience remains in the field of domestic-violence prevention skills for women.

Morgan said this class, which has an entirely revamped curriculum from the one taught several years back, returns the attention to male behavior that leads to abusive relationships.

“Statistically, men are the ones perpetrating crimes against women,” said Morgan. “There can’t be a greater understanding of why they are doing that unless they are taught to deal with their actions. Not doing that would be like treating the surface of a wound without getting to the core of it.”

The typical john

It’s men like Manny that the three women on that first-ever prostitute panel were confronting. Every time his wife is pregnant, 28-year-old Manny said he finds himself straying from the roost for sexual gratification.

This New Year’s Eve, Manny, a convenience store clerk who declined to give his last name for this story, was driving around used car lots near 1100 South on State Street. Although it was 10:30 p.m. and all dealerships were closed, the Salt Lake City man said he was shopping for a used car. What he found instead was a woman lurking in one of the lots who wanted a ride. Manny said he gave it to her.

He asked her what she did for a living. To Manny, her reply was “who cares, do you have twenty bucks?”

His wife was several months pregnant with their third child when Manny was snagged, he said, by that familiar impulse to seek sex elsewhere. They drove to a vacant parking lot two blocks away, where a Salt Lake City Police officer on surveillance issued Manny his first citation for soliciting a prostitute, a Class B misdemeanor under city code.

In many ways, it was Manny’s lucky day. About two months later he became one of Salt Lake City’s first students in the program for johns. Now, in early April, he was attending week nine of the 10-week class. In exchange for his participation, Manny, a first-time offender, will get his conviction lifted. If he fails to participate satisfactorily, or does not complete the course at all, the citation results in an automatic conviction.

Gill said the city makes the option available to eligible first- and second-time offenders. Eligibility is based on the defendant’s criminal past and requires that the citation did not accompany an assault.

Manny’s last three classes included between eight or nine other men, but instructors can make room for up to 20 students.

The men in Manny’s group range in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties. Half are married. At least two have been wed for more than 20 years. Some are formally educated, others come from blue-collar backgrounds. Some, like Manny, come from traditional Hispanic or Catholic backgrounds. Others come from deeply religious Anglo upbringings.

There is no clear demographic profile for a john, said Gill. Law enforcement experts and prosecutors consistently agree, if this room was a microcosm of who goes to the streets looking for sex, it’s also a microcosm of society at large.

“This class is not what I expected”

Druing the 10 weeks that the men spend in class, life, of course, goes on. In that time, Manny closed on a house, fathered his third child and got in a car accident that nearly totaled his wife’s vehicle.

He ran the car into a ditch on the evening reserved for his last class at the john school. The accident also occurred one day after his wife gave birth. He stormed out of the house after an argument with his wife. The stress was overwhelming. Rather than fume in front of her, he left.

Manny returned for his last evening of john school another evening. The class had become a refuge for him, a place to escape his domestic troubles.

No one gets over the humiliation of having to attend this class, Manny said. He knows that from his own experience, and conversations with classmates. But instructors want to reduce those feelings so students can focus attention on improving their behavior, rather than being self-conscious.

“This class is not what I expected,” Manny said. “I thought it would be a lot more difficult. I thought it would be about making us feel bad about what we did, and telling us how mean we were.”

J, a 47-year-old Ogden man who finished john school several weeks ago, said he came into his first evening of class refusing to take a seat with the rest of the group. Instead, he marched into the room wearing a dark trench coat, arms folded, face in a scowl. He took a corner chair that day and accused his teachers, representatives of the system as far as he was concerned, of trying to railroad him.

In early November, J, a blue-collar worker who writes as a hobby, was busted when he and a prostitute exchanged money. For five years, J, who has been married for 25 years and has five children, has had the inside track on Salt Lake City prostitution. He has followed these women around shady corners, coffee shops and diners where they congregate so that he could document their lives on paper. He knows, for example, that almost every prostitute carries mace, pepper spray, a knife or a gun. He knows how they can spot an undercover cop. He knows the rap they give johns before they go in for the sale, and that money is always demanded up front. But J never paid to have sex before, he said. He was only a student intrigued by the “darkness” of their secret society.

So he was upset, he said, when he got caught that dismally rainy November evening, for satisfying that part of him that had always been curious about what a man can get from a hooker for $20.

“I look at the guys in here, and what I see are guys society would say look like decent people,” J told instructors his first day. “Yet here we are, a room full of nice guys. What are we doing here?”

“Maybe we’re nice guys because we’re here,” one of the students offered. Most of J’s other classmates that day were veteran students. The Umoja instructors format the class so that new students are continually introduced as old ones complete the program. This cycle provides a built-in support system for first-timers, and it eventually worked for J. The comment from his veteran classmate startled him, but it wasn’t until the final four weeks of class that J said he began to understand what those words might have meant.

Now, although J wants to keep his anonymity, he is one of the class’s biggest supporters. His domestic life has had its challenges, but he and his wife are talking now that she’s discovered the clandestine life he’s since vowed to give up. It’s too early to know if his reform effort will succeed. Give him a year, and he’ll come up with a more solid answer, he said.

Strange Bedfellows?

Kay turned her last “trick” three days before she was interviewed for this story. It was a relapse she hopes isn’t repeated. Heroin use is on and off, too. She’s trying, but all she can do is try. Staying on the john school panel is therapeutic, and she believes it will help keep her on the course toward recovery. She likens her chance at relapse to that of the men’s own chances. She believes most of the men in school grapple with sex addiction, not unlike her own struggle with drugs. But at least she’s willing to own up to it, she said.

Michelle, 32, another prostitute on the panel, who goes by a pseudonym, turned her last trick three months ago. She’s been off heroin for as many months. Because of their drug use, both women have lost their children to the state’s child-protection agency. Both long to be reunited with their offspring.

They’re teetering between two worlds—addiction and recovery. They’re steering toward the cleaner, safer route.

But nothing is easy in their world, and nothing is what it seems. In once sense, Kay and Michelle are traitors. These are women, after all, who have alienated some they know in prostitution and drug circles because they’ve “collaborated” with law enforcement. They are participating in a program that aims at reducing prostitution’s client base. Yet they can relapse and return to their old world, their old ways. Despite apparent contradictions, their alliances have changed, the women said.

Still, the awkwardness of it all is inevitable. On that first day of the panel neither of the women knew who Gill was as he sat against a back wall to observe the session. At the end, Kay, who has been convicted twice of prostitution, said she had a suspicion. She asked Gill “Are you a cop?”

“No,” she said he replied, “I’m the city prosecutor.”

In retrospect, she said she might not have admitted all that she did had she known a prosecutor was in the room.

Michelle said she ran into Gill at the Matheson courthouse, where she was standing before a judge on shoplifting charges. She recalled the ill-at-ease moment of making eye contact with him.

The class defies convention in more ways than one. But because he believes so strongly in its premise, in its ability to bring about behavioral changes, he honors his promise to not use anything the women discuss against them, Gill said.

Mistrust and strains of the adversarial relationships in the program are nonetheless abundantly clear. The women said they couldn’t shake the fact that the system is their enemy, that traditionally women who prostitute are treated more harshly than men who seek out sex.

Gill acknowledges that prostitutes are typically treated more harshly, and he plans to start a prostitution school similar to the john school as an alternative to incarcerating women. But only time will reveal if Manny will drive by a used-car dealership again, or if Kay will turn another trick, or if J will get the urge to write about these lives that so fascinate him, then take his curiosity one step further.

These johns are provided with a comforting classroom environment, but still can’t forget the reason they are sharing their lives with other people as though they had been lifelong friends.

Some prostitutes resent the johns because they might play naïve. Kay gets irate just thinking about it. “Some of them say this is the first time they’ve done it,” Kay said incredulously. “I know some of them are lying. I recognized at least four of them in there.”

Michelle is slightly more forgiving, but still sees some of the men’s actions as veneer of “playing innocent.”

Through all of this, the program’s administrators brim with optimism. Men have actually asked to return to class for refresher courses, and some have, the Umoja instructors and Gill proudly point out. It is the truest testament that the message is getting through, they say.

As for the women, Morgan proclaimed one day after class that she was told that the three panelists had forsaken their lives as prostitutes.

Luciano Colonna, executive director of The Intermountain Harm Reduction Project, a non-profit group that works with women who want to escape prostitution and drug abuse, takes a more cautious view on whether these women will truly give up their trade.

“All prostitutes want to stop their behavior, but we are not going to be able to stop all prostitution,” Colonna said. “This program won’t be the panacea for the problem. But those of us involved in it see ourselves as providing a boost to the existing system so that we can facilitate change. We are trying to change things one individual at a time.”

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Nesreen Khashan

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