Seattle "John School" Educates Men Who Pay For Sex

Jun 4, 2013

People take long flights to pay low prices for sex. In a radio story from WGBH, Phillip Martin explores the international sex tourism industry. Here in the Seattle area, Highway 99 hosts one main corridor where prostitution is easy to see. Hot spots dot the roadway, from Northgate to Sea-Tac. 

Some of those prostitutes are also underage girls, forced by pimps to walk the streets. That's called child sex trafficking.

One way police and advocacy groups are trying to try to stop both prostitution and trafficking is to educate men about the girls they’re soliciting.  So-called "john schools," or men’s accountability programs, are put on by cities like Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett.

Peter Qualliotine is the facilitator of the City of Seattle’s court-mandated program for men who’ve been caught buying sex from a prostitute.

Qualliotine said he’s trying to teach the men in the program about the harm that comes with prostitution.

I think that the biggest point that I’m trying to get across to the men that are attending the program is that prostitution is not a victimless crime, and that there’s a lot of harm that’s involved in the commercial sex industry. There’s harm involved with the women getting into the life. Most of them enter when they’re teenagers and most of them experience abuse in the home before they even get to that point. Many run away from home to escape that abuse and then they’re preyed upon by pimps who use physical, emotional, and sexual violence to gain power and maintain control over them. And then, while they’re in the life itself, they experience violence at the hands of their pimps and at the hands of their customers, too, their "johns."

Qualliotine said the notion of power comes up with the men in his classes.

That’s something we take a really close look at because I think whenever we’re talking about men buying sex, there’s this way that men’s sexual identity gets tied to power imbalance and that power imbalance gets eroticized.

Some of the men who take the accountability classes do recognize that power is an element, but certainly not all of them.

Some do. It depends. I mean it is a court-mandated class. Some men are ready and this has been enough of a shock to their lives. Most of them have wives or girlfriends, and so this has had some serious consequences, and this gives them an opportunity to do some soul-searching and see if this is a change they want to make.

Qualliotine explained why it’s wrong to buy sex from a prostitute.

It’s not an issue of morality. It’s an issue of equality. I think that it’s really important to recognize that we live in a world where violence against women is epidemic. I mean, 1 in 4 women will be raped in her lifetime.  They estimate 1 in 3 women will have an abusive episode in their intimate relationships. And so I think we need to look at prostitution in the larger context of women’s equality, and for me equality begins with integrity of the body.

In the john school classes, Qualliotine tells stories about girls and women he knows.

Well there’s a story I like to tell about men’s accountability, and this probably is more appropriate for men who don’t buy sex, but it’s appropriate for those who do, too. The story I like to tell is a story that’s been told to me by a number of survivors of prostitution who’ve said that when they were working escort services they liked to work bachelor parties and the reason they liked to work bachelor parties is because there was always a good chance that when they got into the room with the groom, having been contacted by the best man, that the groom would say to them, I don’t want to do anything but don’t tell those guys out there. And I really think that says a lot- what is it that makes it so difficult for men to stand up to other men’s judgment and just say this is not okay?

Related series: “Human Trafficking In Washington State.” Sara Lerner reports that human trafficking victims have been found in a variety of businesses in Washington state, such as construction, housekeeping, food service and agriculture. Victims’ advocates and law enforcement say it can surface in any industry. In this four–part series, Lerner takes a close look at the problem in our state and Washington's unique role in combating it.