COLUMBUS, Ohio — On a recent Saturday, about two dozen men are stuck in a dark auditorium near downtown Columbus for a combination of detention and education.
The men — a mix of races, ages and economic status — are in the Franklin County Justice Center because they’d been arrested for trying to buy sex. Some were caught in an online sting that lured them to a hotel room. Others approached an undercover female officer on the street.
The first-time offenders were given a choice: attend a mandatory daylong seminar and the arrest is removed from their records.
“Welcome to the human race,” Columbus assistant prosecutor Michael Allbritain says as he opens the session. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s what we learn from our mistakes that defines us.”
So-called john schools have been offered around the country for more than two decades. They’re part of a criminal justice trend that targets buyers of sex — almost universally men— as well as prostitutes.
The U.S. currently has about 60 john schools serving more than 100 cities and counties, according to Demand Abolition, a group fighting to end prostitution.
Often a one-day class, the schools are sometimes criticized for taking a superficial approach to a serious problem.
In Seattle, after Peter Qualliotine grew frustrated operating a similar school, he co-founded the Organization for Prostitution Survivors about three years ago. Today, he runs a 10-week program.
“When they’re given the space to really reflect and unpack what this practice is about and what the particular experiences are about, they recognize that there’s a whole host of reasons that they were buying sex,” Qualliotine said.
In general, john schools focus on the side of prostitution that buyers don’t see: the drug addition, violence, impact on neighborhoods and health dangers.
Recidivism rates are low, although john school organizers acknowledge there’s no way of knowing how many men continue to buy sex and just aren’t caught. In Columbus, only about a dozen men have been rearrested out of nearly 600 that have taken the class.
In San Francisco, the daylong First Offender Prostitution Program meets every other month, mixing lectures from public health nurses and former prostitutes with smaller discussion groups for the men, who pay up to $1,000 in exchange for completing the class and having charges dropped. The fee goes to programs that help women leave prostitution.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, former stripper and prostitute Vednita Carter has been running a john school for nearly 20 years. In her presentations, she emphasizes the revulsion women experience as they’re forced to have frequent sex with strangers.
“You have to give yourself to someone you do not know, time after time, five, 10, 20 times a day,” said Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a program that helps girls and women leave prostitution. “That is the harm in prostitution.”
In the Columbus program, men give a variety of reasons for soliciting prostitutes, according to their responses on questionnaires handed out by Allbritain: “My wife doesn’t pay attention to me.” ”It was the thrill of the hunt.”
A married man in his 40s who attended the Columbus class earlier this month said he answered an online ad out of frustration over a lack of sex with his wife. He was arrested immediately after telling a woman in a hotel room — who turned out to be a police officer — that he wanted to pay for oral sex. He said it was the first time.
The man said the experience of being handcuffed was a wake-up call by itself. But the class also opened his eyes to things he hadn’t thought about, including what the women go through. He agreed to be interviewed only on the condition his name wasn’t used.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.