Men who solicit prostitutes in Ottawa could end up being sent to “John School.” But, this is only for those who behave themselves.
Ottawa police Insp. Chris Rheaume told the Ottawa Citizen that it’s part of an effort to “clean up the area.”
Staff Sgt. Dana Reynolds told the Citizen, “If they’re unco-operative, argumentative, denying what took place, minimizing… we don’t feel they’ll benefit greatly from the John school.”
The school is run by the Salvation Army, usually around 15 times per year, depending on demand. The men pay $500 to attend six evening classes to learn about how their actions harm themselves, the community and sex workers.
No doubt, prostitution does have the potential to harm men who solicit prostitutes. It can be an expensive proposition and can harm relationships with family and friends. But, what John School teaches these men is the harm that can come to their health and reputation if they visit prostitutes.
This just perpetuates the ugly stereotype that sex workers are disease-ridden and unclean.
This is inherently dehumanizing and marginalizes workers more thoroughly. This, in turn, is one of the factors that can make sex work dangerous.
The reality is that many prostitutes do practice safe sex, as do many clients. POWER, an Ottawa-based sex workers’ rights group writes, “Sex workers are safer sex experts and use safer sex supplies at rates that are much higher than the general public.”
There can indeed be health risks from seeing a prostitute — but there are health risks from sex generally. The answer isn’t to label sex workers as unclean, but instead to emphasize how important safe sex is.
The implication that these men can suffer harm to their reputations is probably true enough. Of course, the reasons for this are problematic in and of themselves. However, forcing men to cough up $500 to attend a re-education camp is a pretty good way to out them to friends and family.
But, what about the benefits?
American escort Charlotte Shane relayed this story from her days as a cam girl (an occupation she says was significantly more degrading than actual prostitution):
Then came another regular who had only days earlier attempted suicide after a breakup with his fiancée. A year after we first met, he told me that our friendship – which many people would dismiss as illusory and degrading – was sometimes all that kept him from making a second attempt.
The suggestion that paying for sex harms men in some inherent fashion is just plain wrong. Informed by the release of the film The Sessions, stories have cropped up recently about the relationship between disabled clients and sex workers, and the benefits this can have.
Writing for xoJane, Jessie Nicole says these stories make “the implicit suggestion that clients with disabilities should be considered completely differently than other clients.”
But casting disabled clients as somehow more legitimate than other clients does a disservice to everyone… Sex workers AND clients come from all communities with a myriad of motivations and behaviors. Addressing the sex industries without accepting this basic truth is not only misguided, but harmful. Pervasive stigma against clients of the sex industries is dangerous. It helps keep sex work criminalized and underground, ironically empowering abusive and violent clients while silencing all the others.
The second half of the John School teaches men about how they are harming women and communities. The Citizen reports that a former prostitute will teach the men about how it hurts workers physically and emotionally.
This is absolutely true in some circumstances. But, it is hardly true across the board.
Again, POWER cautions against the perception that all prostitutes are victims, which “reinforces the notion that we are incapable of making and taking responsibility for our own decisions, and renders the context in which our choices are made, invisible.”
Writing for Tits and Sass, Shane explains:
Over and over again, we say we do our jobs for the money. There are other perks tied to that: the flexibility of the hours, the independence, the ability to come and go from most clubs or agencies without much hassle. Those might also be listed as answers to the “why do you do this?” inquiry, but they’re all part of the same single answer, which is that, right now, for that person, it’s the best way to make money.
My screed could almost certainly go on.
There are so many things wrong with the police endorsing a strictly abolitionist program from a faith-based organization that it is difficult to know exactly how to tackle it. However, the most problematic claim inherent in the idea of a “John school” is that sex work, and those who see sex workers, are inherently degrading and degraded.
As the Supreme Court of Canada prepares to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Criminal Code provisions that criminalize prostitution, perhaps we’ll see a change in the social perception of sex work in this country.
But this change will require police to think a little harder about how they approach the industry. And it’ll require journalists to seek a bit more information before reporting the dominant narrative so carelessly.