An eight-week court-ordered course meant to teach so-called johns about empathy and healthy relationships, about gender socialization and victim-blaming and toxic masculinity? When I asked for a closer look, the men in a recent course were invited to vote on whether they'd be okay with a female reporter quietly observing it all from the back of the room. Remarkably, they said yes.
And so, on a Thursday evening, I shook hands with the men, one by one, as they trickled in, took their seats, and slumped in silence. The usual small talk was clearly moot here.
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What would they say? Each man already knew at least the outline of how the others had ended up in that room, because it was the same way he had ended up there. For Akio, who's 40 but has a shyness that makes him seem much younger, it was a first-time lark. Steve, 60, divorced, fresh from stalking allegations and more than one restraining order, had responded to a daddy-daughter deal on a fetish site. She told him to meet her in the parking lot between a bank and a McDonald's. David, 51 and fairly new to the computer, was on Craigslist looking for deals on auto parts when he noticed there were other ads there, too, ads for young women.
He clicked on one of the ads and got an answer back from someone who gave her name as Jen. David went to meet her at a 7-Eleven, but when he got there, there was no Jen. There never had been.
There was only the police waiting for him. Man after man, the details differed but the denouement was the same: They went to a parking lot or to a motel or to some other rendezvous expecting sex, and got something else. The blood drains, the stomach drops, and instead of the woman he arranged to meet, there's a police detective standing in the doorway or stepping out of the car.
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Some of what followed was predictable: the trips to court, the heavy fees, to say nothing of the shame that must be borne before wives, bosses, pastors. But ending up here in this classroom was far less expected. The idea for the course came from Peter Qualliotine, a co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors, who had worked for years with women caught up in the sex trade.
But long ago, Peter became convinced that his best chance for combating the harms of the sex trade depended on working with the men—with those trying to pay for sex.
It's the sex-work version of traffic school; in some places, the whole thing consists of a minute video. Peter had taught those classes and didn't think much of their effectiveness. He had something grander in mind. Then he drew a box around the list and suggested that these notions created a rather impossible standard for guys, a standard that excludes important things like empathy and vulnerability and gets in the way of deep relationships. He asked them to think about what it would take, in their own lives, to fit within the box he'd drawn, what names they'd get called if they strayed outside it.
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Steve, the man who'd responded to the daddy-daughter ad, told me later that he regarded the activity as just an icebreaker—kind of a fun get-to-know-you exercise. He was sure it didn't have anything to do with the point of the class or the notion of sexual exploitation or why he might have done the things that landed him there. Instead, when I met him outside of class to chat he'd suggested we get together at a Starbucks right next to the county line, which he said he wasn't allowed to cross without permission , he tried to explain away, in an almost unstoppable monologue, the restraining order, the domestic violence arrest, the tracking device he put on his ex-girlfriend's truck, the stalking allegations that got him effectively banned from a hospital and an entire small city, and especially his conviction for trying to buy sex from a person he was told was a year-old girl.
It was clear from the start that Peter would have his work cut out for him. In class, throughout those first weeks, a number of the men showed with their body language that they thought the whole exercise was bullshit, a waste of their time. Several maintained that their arrests had been misunderstandings, and several, including Steve, made it clear that they thought it was nonsense that prostitution was a crime at all. In fact, Peter does nothing to hide his position or his ideas about how best to combat prostitution—notions that stem from years of working with men and women on both sides of the sex trade.
In an age when new ideas are flourishing about the role of sex work in society, Peter stands apart from those who'd like to decriminalize it; he disagrees with activists who argue that regulating prostitution can make it safer. To Peter, decriminalizing sex work won't strip it of its danger and its tendency toward exploitation.
He'd like to see more johns prosecuted for buying sex, but also new attention paid to preventing it. Over years spent talking to johns, Peter says, he's realized that most men feel, at best, conflicted about prostitution. During the s, Peter, who lived in Portland, Oregon, then, pitched a version of the class he imagined—but it was always turned down as too political. It wasn't until , after he had moved to Seattle, that his ideas began to find some traction. That's when Peter met Valiant Richey, a King County prosecutor who had been waging his own battle against prostitution—targeting pimps and traffickers but watching in frustration as the area's sex trade grew.
In , Richey's unit charged more than 50 juveniles—including many girls who couldn't even legally consent to sex—with criminal prostitution. Meanwhile, the unit prosecuted just two buyers that year. Peter heard stories of arresting officers handing the john his money back before sending him on his way and taking the sex worker to jail. Soon they'd flipped their proportions, charging more buyers than sellers by a ratio of three to one.
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And the men they arrested were ordered by the courts to attend the very course that Peter had once imagined—a novel class he would design and implement. During the course that I sat in on, Peter was assisted by a co-facilitator, Juan—a young ponytailed physician who'd been caught in a sex-buying sting himself, then been so captured by the ideas in the class that he voluntarily took it three more times.
The men looked a little shocked; clearly no one in this room was on par with Gary Ridgway. For years, Peter had worked with women and girls who told him shattering stories about being vulnerable young runaways, being manipulated and abused by pimps, being assaulted, raped, kidnapped. By invoking a serial killer, he told the men, he wanted them to think about the kinds of violence that women face, how much higher the risks are for women in sex work—and how lesser forms of harassment are linked to real violence.
Put yourself in the woman's shoes, Peter responded. You might not mean to scare her, but that doesn't mean you're not. With a few jarring exceptions, most of the men in the class seemed to be more clueless than abusive or predatory. Many of them were likable, earnest men. Jason, the young, nervous Mormon, seemed to feel more shame about sex than entitlement. He felt he had, just from talking to Peter. Before long, the diagonal line on the whiteboard filled up with examples of sexual harassment and coercion.
And she's a vegetarian, so it didn't even cost that much! The room went quiet. He asked the men what they did to prevent being raped; they stared back at him like he was nuts. If the classroom was full of women, he told them, correctly, it would be full of strategies. He used to invite former sex workers to speak to his classes, but stopped after one of them walked in to see a man who had raped her sitting in the room.
A truckdriver, he'd spoken many times with resentment about being forced to adhere to the demands of others. Parreira is an occasional sex worker from the US state of Nevada who also holds a PhD, and she researches the sex industry. Abolition would put hundreds of thousands out of work. Bindel believes prostitution is rooted in gender inequality. She also points to data from Amnesty International and the medical journal The Lancet, which both support full decriminalisation.
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They could also negotiate safer sex practices and improved brothel conditions, she argues. They were empowered; even able to sue for rights violations. As for the Nordic model? That fundamentally, the men are predators — but that is not the reality among most sex workers.
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