Instead of focusing on the supply side of commercial sex — the prostitutes — in fighting prostitution, a growing number of cities have begun addressing the other side of the equation by establishing what have become known as “john schools.” The diversion programs seek to lessen the demand for sex trafficking by educating the customers about the consequences of their actions.

More than 40 schools or counseling programs have been established in cities across the country, with new schools starting regularly, according to a March 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice on San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). Enrollment in the programs is limited to first-time offenders, and most participants choose to go to the schools to avoid prosecution on the charges they face.

FOPP, which is the model for most of the john school programs, is a partnership between the San Francisco Police Department, the District Attorney's office, and local non-profit Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), which helps women and girls exit prostitution through counseling, substance abuse treatment, job skills training and other programs. The fees charged to johns who enroll in the program not only cover the costs for the school but also help support SAGE programs and police prostitution stings.

FOPP educates johns about the health risks from soliciting prostitutes, the grim reality of sex workers' lives and how the johns' actions support sex trafficking, says Kelly Tyne, SAGE's FOPP coordinator.

Hartford, Conn.'s john school combines counseling with community service, says Community Court Judge Raymond Norko. Johns who enroll in the program are required to attend six weekly three- to four-hour sessions with counselors from the local non-profit AIDS Project Hartford. Unlike the San Francisco program, Hartford's focuses strictly on educating johns about the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Norko says the school has been very effective in reducing prostitution in the city. “Most [johns who] come in are middle class men with no track record. Their desire to have their arrest removed from their record is paramount,” Norko says. “It's very rare we get a repeat offender who has gone through the program.”

Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.

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