Solving America’s prostitution problem starts with boys in middle school.
That’s how Peter Qualliotine, who runs a treatment program for johns through the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, sees it.
“We need to be working with boys starting when they’re very young, teaching them about empathy and respect and gender equality,” he told KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel. “In middle school and high school, we need to make sure that issues of commercial sexual exploitation are dealt with as well as dating violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
Most of the people who come to his program are sent there by the courts. Those buyers, or johns, are one side of prostitution. The latest Local Wonder story looks at the other side, the world of prostitutes along Aurora Avenue North.
Qualliotine says that getting johns to recognize that prostitution is not a victimless crime is a first step. It’s a realization that he himself came to when he began working on domestic violence 25 years ago and started meeting women who had become prostitutes at teenagers.
“They had experienced physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect in the home, had run away to escape that abuse and then were preyed upon by pimps who used the same forms of abuse to gain power and maintain control of them,” he said. “They were vulnerable to physical assault, kidnapping, torture, murder rates that were off the charts, suicide rates that were higher than any other group I looked at.”
So getting johns to recognize that is one step, but the program goes deeper into what they learned about sex and sexuality and what it means to be a man in society. For johns, it’s a subject-object relationship, not a healthy form of sexuality, Qualliotine said.
“Sex with women and girls for many young men serves as almost currency with their all-male peer group,” he said.
The program is just a year old and Qualliotine acknowledges that there’s not much data yet. But he says initial results are encouraging.
“Round about week five of the 10-week program, a lot of the men are actually saying, ‘I'm glad that this happened to me, I'm glad that I got arrested, and I'm glad I came to this program,” Qualliotine said. “We also have a significant of the number of the men who after they've completed the program have wanted to stay involved with the organization.”
Efforts to criminalize the buying of sex have been met by fears that there may be negative effects on prostitutes themselves: that they would have trouble screening clients and be more at risk of violence or sexually transmitted diseases.
Qualliotine says a large study out of Norway doesn’t bear that out.
“What six years of data showed was that in fact it did not. It decreased the amount of violence that was happening,” he said.
Qualliotine said efforts to change young people’s perception of prostitution should be part of a broader effort to shift social norms on wider issues of sexual violence and harassment.
“We're not the first ones to be doing this,” he said. “We just move the needle ever forward toward gender justice.”