Reducing demand for prostitution through Johns School, educating and preventing repeat customers

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Juanette Stephens, a former prostitute, tells her story to a group of men in Johns School, a Los Angeles city diversion class offered to some men in efforts of trying to prevent them from becoming future customers.

This is second story in a five-part series on prostitution in Los Angeles. See part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

For lack of a better name, Johns School is what it sounds like. Not a training facility for creating future johns, but the exact opposite.

About once a month, 30 to 40 men file into a classroom for eight hours of lecture — and shame — on why they were put in handcuffs for soliciting sex, and why they should not do it again.

This Saturday morning, the men arrive sleepy-eyed at the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Division in South L.A. The classroom is stuffy, the air is still, windows are opened, yet some of the men pull hoodies over their heads.

“Does your family know you’re here?” asks LAPD Captain Ann Young. Eyes dart.

“This is a little secret that just goes away, you don’t ever have to talk about it, you just have to never get in trouble again,” Young tells them.

Instead of jail time, a fine and maybe an embarrassing talk with your family, wife or girlfriend, the men can pay $600 to attend Johns School and, at the end of the eight-hour class, get a certificate of completion to show a judge. To qualify, the men must not have any violent crimes on their record, no drug arrests and this must be the first time they were arrested on prostitution-related charges. After completing the program, the charges can be dropped on the one condition that the man never gets arrested again for any violent crime or picking up prostitutes.

The program began in 2008 when a Los Angeles city neighborhood prosecutor and a now-retired LAPD cop had been noodling on the idea of a diversion program for the hundreds of men who were arrested along the Figueroa Corridor, infamous for its long history of prostitution.

“Everybody wants everybody to go to jail, but everybody’s not going to jail,” said Sonja Dawson, former city neighborhood prosecutor in South L.A.

It was a hard argument to win, Dawson said. Imagine telling a community that the city was going to allow men, who park in front of their homes and throw condoms on the sidewalk, to sit in a class all day for the crimes they’ve committed. Dawson said it took a city budget crunch and the growing problem of overcrowding prisons and jails to convince prosecutors to pilot Johns School.

“It’s been difficult in the sense of diversion. For a prosecutor, that’s language we don’t speak. So it’s been a paradigm shift,” Dawson said.

The class is framed as a “scared-straight” kind of thing. All the men are required to get HIV tested during the class, and results are given to them the same day. Health counselors show graphic photos of sexually transmitted diseases gone wild. They talk about living with AIDS. Men from Sex Addicts Anonymous tell their stories of addictions.

Then it’s time to hear from the women that johns pick up.

“She could be your sister, your daughter or your mother,” says Cathy Washington, a woman who’s been out of the life for 15 years.

“I’ve seen people getting their brains blown out. I’ve seen and been involved in robberies because I don’t feel like performing, so I’m going to just take your money,” she warns.

Juanette Stephens, a former sex worker, points a finger at the men in the audience.

“If it wasn’t for men like you, picking me up and offering money for sex services, I would not have continued that lifestyle for over 15 years,” she says.

Stephens, who says she was raped three times by johns, talks about the psychological grip prostitution had on her and the stigma that still lingers.

“I still get treated as if I can’t be anything other than a prostitute,” she says.

It’s a rude awakening for some of the men. A few who slumped in chairs with sunglasses, nodding off, now lean forward with their elbows resting on their knees, hands locked.

“I guess I just don’t think of the others or think of the consequences,” said Victor Castro. An undercover LAPD officer in Hollywood busted him. He said this wasn’t the first time he’d went out looking for paid sex. Castro said the testimony from the former prostitutes really hit him.

“I didn’t see it that way. I would just go and mess around and not have a care in the world, and I would just go home and that’s it,” he said.

Approximately 600 men have gone through Johns School since 2008. Only four of them have re-offended. City prosecutors and program managers call it a success.

Erikson Albrecht sits on the board for the Mary Magdalene Project, a Van Nuys-based nonprofit helping women leave prostitution. Many women arrested for prostitution are sometimes court-ordered to attend counseling and get services from the nonprofit. Albrecht said that although the numbers for Johns School are promising, he worries the men might be finding better ways to avoid getting caught, like using online ads to find sex workers.

“There are underlying reasons why you think of women in this particular way, why you resort to this behavior, that can’t possibly be addressed in a one day — no matter how long that day is,” he said.

Still, Albrecht said he appreciates the city’s effort to find a long-term solution to eradicating the demand for prostitution.

Johns School is not in all parts of Los Angeles. City prosecutors are working with different LAPD divisions, such as the Foothill Division, to bring the program to other areas — such as the Valley.

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