When I first heard about john schools, I thought they were places run by sex workers where prospective or current clients could learn how to be respectful and mindful. I thought they sounded like a great idea, in fact. How naive I was!
The belief that criminalizing clients will lead to an end in the sex industry is a prominant one across the globe. Many rescue industry evangelists claim that when clients are made illegal, sex workers will be saved from their jobs and encouraged into other lines of work (they often fail to mention the difference in work hours and pay). So much energy and time is spent on these constructs of “rehabiliting” both clients and workers, diverting attention from the sex workers actual demands and pleas for rights, not rescue.
What’s the big problem with this precedent of rehabilitation? Let’s start with what “john school” is. It’s a place where people who have been arrested for purchasing the services of a sex worker can go, often used as a diversion program to avoid jail time. Once at “john school”, these people are taught about the criminal justice system’s view of its role in the adult industry, along with the possible risks of sex work, such as violence, sexually transmitted disease, and impacts on families or communities. Many programs also cover trafficking, particularly as the media has pushed the issue to the forefront.
All of these topics are important aspects to discuss, especially from the perspective of intersectional oppression. But this curriculum, presented in an 8 hour block, isn’t exactly unbiased. Often taught by women with a strong abolitionist stance, these educators often equate all sex work to forced sex work, a generalization which is actively harmful both to those who entered the industry by relative choice and those who did not. The sex workers themselves do not have a voice within these discussions, a glaring error that leads to the spread of misinformation and silencing of the marginalized.
So, ok, there’s the fundamental issue with this john school thing- the assumptions around who sex work clients are, why they see sex workers, and how they behave. But there’s other issues too. Entrapment is obviously an important one- often times entrapment is a legal way to catch clients, which means that even if someone is purchasing sex work for the first time, they’ll get slapped with a fine the same as a regular. I understand that the idea is to prevent people becoming clients… but, when you make something illegal, the only people who will do it are people who don’t give a shit about the law- not really a “safe” option. Not only that, but, as an article from the Sex Workers of Vancouver points out:
Allowing police forces the power to carry out the full procedure of justice, which is currently reserved for the courts, would set a dangerous precedent. Currently, when someone (usually a police officer) cuts a deal with the police in order to avoid criminal prosecution, it is considered to be an instance of corruption.
I also liked this point:
Speakers at john “school” are typically women with a negative or ambivalent attitude towards johns. This necessarily creates an adversarial atmosphere and discourages johns from voicing their true opinions, or disagreeing with what they’re being told. Johns are made to feel that prostitution is a “women’s issue” and as such their “teacher” is always right, regardless of whether or not she has anything in common with the sex workers the johns see. Sex workers and their clients would benefit more from john “schools” run by sex workers, who could teach johns how to be more courteous, to tip well, and other ways to improve their chances of getting good service.
Throughout the john school process, SWAV points out, clients are treated like they’re women-hating assholes:
John “schools” fail to recognize the diversity of sex workers and clients alike. Sex workers are categorically portrayed as victims of exploitation, while clients are categorically treated as psychopathic manipulators out to satisfy their sexual addictions. While both of these stereotypes may be true of specific individuals, they deny the reality that often sex workers and clients are simply engaging in a mutually agreeable act between consenting adults.
Not surprising, as the media often also paints clients as being unattractive, demanding, and misogynistic. Many of these depictions are ableist and ageist, depending on the “no one else will have sex with him” cliche. Because of these kinds of messages, when I come out as having a history of sex work I get mostly questions about the people I saw professionally and my safety with them. But are clients always messed up men?
To judge by the response currently favoured for criminalizing sex work, the criminal justice system seems to think so. John schools are one example in an ever-growing list of creative ways law enforcement has been seeking to penalize those who purchase sex work, rather than the sex worker themselves. There’s a growing belief that if the purchase is made illegal, the industry will starve. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth, as some countries are discovering who have enacted the Nordic Model.
One particularly telling and tragic case is, of course, the story of Petite Jasmine, a Swedish-based activist and sex worker. The Nordic Model, initially called the Swedish Model, did not help her in any way- in fact, she lost custody of her children to her abusive husband because she “romantised prostitution”. The government told her that she didn’t realize that her work was “self harm”, something that gets taught in the aforementioned john schools. Well, Petite’s husband later murdered her. Sounds like this model isn’t so great for reducing the stigma around sex workers, huh?
When Pye Jakobson was interviewed for Tits and Sass by Caty Simon regarding the state of sex work under the Nordic Model and the murder of Petite Jasmine, she said this:
Street workers have lost valuable assessment time they need before getting into a client’s car. Also, their clients have more control and can say, ” Don’t drive to that spot, I know a better one the police don’t know about.” Police target indoor workers too, trying to catch their clients. That means the focus is now on making clients feel safe enough to see us, rather than us focusing on our own safety. In addition, the pimping laws force us to work alone. It’s also illegal to rent out premises to us. Many work from home, and if the landlord finds out, he is forced to evict you. So they want to save us, but they punish us until we are willing to be saved. And if we say we want to be “saved,” all they offer is therapy.
Pye adds, “The social service state is a state that runs on “saving” sex workers… I’m SURE the added stigma and prejudice fabricated by the Swedish Model played a major role in this whole story. He killed her, but the bloody state gave him the power to think he could.”
Yet this hasn’t stopped countries like France from claiming this model is “the right side” of the war against prostitution and its abolition. The goal, says the Womens Rights Minister, is to suppress sex work altogether. Germany, a country that decriminalized sex work and allowed workers to have legal status, making them eligible for health insurance and pensions, is feeling the push to move towards the Nordic Model instead.
I cannot speak for all sex workers, of course, being white, born middle class and cisgender. But what I can say is that while my work was sometimes fulfilling and sometimes survival, my clients were not horrible people. They did not treat me like meat.
The way that anti-sex work feminists, politicians, and men who “want what’s best” for me treat me is more patriarchal, problematic, and meat-like than the way my clients ever treated me. Because my clients LISTENED. My clients gave me agency. They respected my choices, and my humanity. They were male and female, able bodied and not, straight, bi, and questioning, kinky and vanilla.
I think we need to call out this criminalization of clients for what it is- the government standing in the way of women even independently and safely working the one job where they consistently earn more than men. And while people talk endlessly about ending demand, they are silent on what sex workers can do after they leave the business- a transition that is incredibly difficult thanks to stigma that still punishes the workers. If society wants to talk about treating women like crap? I’d suggest based on the data that we send the anti-sex work activists to school, instead. Sex workers could teach them a lot… starting with history.