John School 101
A John School is anything but a school. It is a punishment for purchasing sexual services. John Schools target clients of sex workers - sometimes referred to as “Johns” by sex workers - by coercing them to go through the John School program under threat of criminal charges. John Schools are framed as a “diversion program,” which means it is offered as a way to avoid jail time.
John Schools are offered at a cost in order for clients to attend a day of misinformation and shaming disguised as ‘education’ to avoid facing more serious charges. In other words, the program profits off the sex work industry by using the criminalization of purchasing sexual services to entrap clients and coerce them into a John School. The program uses harmful myths about sex work to shame participants, and diverts money that would have gone to sex workers for their labour into the pockets of the John School instead. In effect, John Schools push stigmatizing narratives about sex workers while simultaneously making profits off of the sex work industry.
In Manitoba, the Salvation Army, the Winnipeg Police, and Manitoba Justice jointly run a John School called the Prostitution Offender Program (POP). The POP costs users around $800. The targets of the POP are adult men who purchase sexual services from adults.
Five reasons why John Schools are Problematic
- About sex workers, without sex workers
John Schools claim to have the ‘best interests’ of sex workers at heart, but they are not designed in consultation with sex workers to address their concerns about workplace harassment or abuse. Rather, John Schools are specifically designed by police, criminal legal professionals, and Christian non-profit groups like Salvation Army.
Salvation Army has a known history of discriminatory religious, ableist and homophobic practices. Giving a non-profit organization, particularly one with a rife history of discrimination against diverse groups the power to intervene on, profit off of, and enforce control over the sex work industry is another way programs like the POP use moral panics about sex work to speak over sex workers, distract from the needs and concerns sex workers voice, and undermine the agency of sex workers.
Although John School facilitators argue that these programs are run in the ‘best interest’ of sex workers, they refuse to see sex workers as agents of their own narrative, bodies, and lives. Rather, sex workers are portrayed as passive victims of abuse and frequently as complicit in their own abuse. Program facilitators see themselves as benevolent saviours, navigating people out of the sex work industry through shaming and criminalizing their clients as well as depleting sex worker’s income sources.
2. John Schools are not a restorative alternative to jail
The POP program in Manitoba claims to be a community-based, restorative alternative to criminalization, yet the program works hand in hand with police and the court system to ensnare clients and use the threat of a criminal conviction to draw them into the program. This is not a restorative model of justice, it is a coercive model of entrapment. In other words, rather than providing an alternative to a criminalizing response to sex work, John Schools expands the reach and policing power of non-government agencies over sex work.
3. Criminalizing clients harms sex workers
Criminalizing clients and shaming them does nothing to help sex workers. In fact, the POP uses the language of ‘protecting’ sex workers from trafficking without understanding or addressing the root causes of exploitation and abuse. John Schools also ignore the nuanced conversations amongst sex workers about agency, consent, and the protections they advocate for that would address workplace harassment and abuse.
Sex workers have diligently explained how workplace exploitation and sexual abuse occurs in every work environment. In We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, Burlesque performer Maggie McMuffin makes clear that “it is not sex work’s fault that sex workers are assaulted. It is the fault of people who choose to assault sex workers and a society that considers sex workers less than human.” The dehumanization of sex workers is aided by the criminalization of their professions and existence. So, as professor and advocate for survivors of trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence Christa Marie Sacco suggests in the same book, instead of trying to “define sex workers out of existence” through coercive and punishing programming, we are better suited listening to sex workers and supporting their existence.
John Schools avoid consulting sex workers and justify themselves using the argument that sex work is inherently exploitative. However, when we listen to sex workers and survivors of sexual abuse we know that the problems of exploitation and abuse are tied to capitalist and globalizing labour exploitation, rape culture, and the stigmatization of sexual expression. These problems are everywhere and are made worse by criminalizing sex work and clients. Instead of addressing the larger root causes of sexual harm and exploitation, the POP relies on these exploitative structures and assumptions to stigmatize and intervene on sex work and body sovereignty.
Shaming clients to persuade them to not buy sexual services is not going to eliminate the underlying conditions or complex reasons that factor into why people sell sexual services. For example, poverty is often one of the reasons that people become engaged in sex work. Bills still exist, rent still needs to be paid, and food still needs to be put on the table.
The POP does not change the reasons many people decide to make the choice to sell sexual services, nor does it address the root causes of structural inequality, poverty, ableism, racism, sexism, and sexual discrimination that lead to sexual exploitation and abuse across all workplaces. In fact, by reducing sex worker’s client base and siphoning money from sex workers through clients, the POP is actually contributing to the conditions of exploitation and abuse by making the workplace more dangerous for sex workers.
Additionally, shaming clients only serves to further contribute to the negative stigma surrounding the sex work community and industry. This only adds to the threat of harms sex workers live within, particularly in the midst of ongoing and extreme violence against Asian, Black, Indigenous, and racially marginalized sex workers in “North America.”
Finally, sex work is work, and sex workers have the right to safe and supportive work environments. The POP is not working to improve sex worker safety, it is attempting to eradicate the sex work industry altogether using a failing approach that increases workplace risks for sex workers.
4. No Supporting Evidence
There is no data proving that John’s Schools “work.” The POP is designed under the terms of duress and coercion - clients are required to complete the POP program in order to have their criminal charges dropped. This coercive climate means that any results are muddied by the client’s desire to avoid a criminal conviction rather than the intended goal of the POP to end the demand for sexual services.
In addition, participating in the POP program can be later used against a client if they are found purchasing sexual services again. Clients have a higher likelihood of conviction if they continue purchasing sexual services after going through the POP program. In effect, the POP not only fails to reduce demand, it also contributes to mass incarceration by acting as a conduit for charging, arrest, and conviction.
5. Abuse, harm, and trafficking are problems that invade all workplaces, and cannot be addressed through John Schools.
Championing John Schools as a solution to sexual exploitation and human trafficking avoids the realities of how sexual exploitation and human trafficking are carried out. Such a narrative conflates consensual sexual labour with trafficking, a strategy used to frame sex work as inherently exploitative by those who seek to end the sex work industry. This erases the broader, more nuanced discussion in which sex workers are understood and treated as individuals capable of agency and occupational choice within the context of structural and systemic limitations and realities.
Importantly, most human trafficking is not sexual. The vast majority of trafficking victims are migrant workers who are being exploited because of migration policies that give employers unfettered power to exploit and abuse them, often under the threat of deportation. John Schools are designed to target street-level clients purchasing sexual services, not the powerful networks of high-status people (predominantly men) and the complicit institutions, politicians, and labour policies that actively create the conditions for labour exploitation and human trafficking.
A prescient reminder of this is the criminal case of Peter Nygard, a disgraced Winnipeg fashion mogul facing numerous allegations of sex trafficking, harassment, sexual abuse, and labour exploitation. It is important to emphasize that people across different occupations and labour fields experience sexual and/or other abuses and that these harms often occur at the hands of extremely powerful white men.
John Schools are not designed to stop the real cases of sex trafficking and labour exploitation carried out by powerful men like Nygard. By suggesting that all transactions related to sexual services are exploitation, John Schools avoid the reality of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, while denying sex workers the agency to define their own boundaries and parameters around consent in their work and what it means to them.
Sex working art historian Brit Schulte debunks the myth that sex workers are unable to negotiate consent in their workplaces and instead provides us a better understanding of survival and agency in sex work:
“Consent in survival work is often mischaracterized as nonexistent: no agency, all exploitation and violence all the time. Providing for yourself and your family while surviving abuse means your ability to consent is under constant threat of attack, but that doesn’t mean it disappears. Lines, boundaries and thresholds shift, flex, and alter based upon what would immediately reduce harm, toward yourself and your loved ones. People do what they have to do to be okay as they can be. We need to talk about what creates these conditions, rather than victim blame folx who make day-to-day decisions in order to survive."
Programs like John Schools are not designed to acknowledge sex workers agency and or the way they negotiate consent in their workplaces. Instead, they are designed to make life more difficult and precarious for people engaged in consensual sexual services. If we truly want to address exploitation and human trafficking, we must understand this problem for what it is: a consequence of globalizing labour exploitation under capitalism that can only be addressed by labour organizing and policy changes that support the rights and well-being of all workers, especially migrant workers, workers in the Global South and sex workers.
By denying sex workers their own agency and making their income source more precarious, John Schools are actually increasing the risk of harm for sex workers. Limiting their choice of clients and thus restricting opportunities for workers to meet their clients in safe spaces (due to client fears of being caught or surveilled) actively works to impoverish sex workers and increases the potential for workplace harm and violence.
To learn more about John Schools register to attend Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC)’s Summit: Disrupt the Harms from May 5-7, 2021 and tune into the panel on John Schools on May 6th from 1:10-2:10pm CST.
SWWAC and WPCH have also teamed up to create the following 3-minute video explaining why John Schools are problematic. Share on your social media with the hashtag’s #SexWorkIsWork and #AbolishJohnSchools
You can also learn more follow the links below to learn more about John Schools, and how to support sex workers globally and locally.
Sex worker’s writing on John School programs and anti-sex worker groups:
- Big Mother Is Watching You: Mistresses of the Universe
- Big Mother Is Watching You: The Swedish Model Goes Stateside
- J. Marlowe: What is wrong with John Schools?
Media coverage of John Schools in Winnipeg:
- 'John school' takes repressive approach to sex
- Salvation army says police have John Schools all wrong
- Winnipeg police clarify information on not naming 'Johns'
Academic Research on John Schools:
Research on John Schools is limited. The following list provides a handful of reports that have been conducted on John Schools.
- Survey of a now closed John School program in Toronto: Vice lessons: A survey of prostitution offenders enrolled in the Toronto John School Diversion Program
- From San Francisco: Do John Schools Really Decrease Recidivism? A methodological critique of an evaluation of the San Francisco First Offender Prostitution Program
- From the UK: Kerbcrawler rehabilitation programmes: Curing the ‘deviant’ male and reinforcing the ‘respectable’ moral order
Links to Learn More about Sex Work Advocacy and Supporting Sex Workers
- Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition
- 10 ways to be a great ally to sex workers
- Frequently told lies
- SWWAC supports sex workers, not police
- Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform
- COVID-19 benefits exclude sex workers in Canada
- Global Network of Sex Work Projects
- The war of sex trafficking is the new war on drugs
- Turning sex workers into criminals is no solution
- Sex work, migration, and anti-trafficking
- What is a ‘representative’ sex worker?
- Criminalizing sex work has not saved Indigenous women
Books to Check Out
- We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival
- Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights
- Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
- Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy
DONATION & MUTUAL AID FUNDS
Grassroots sex worker organizations have been providing ongoing support to individual sex workers throughout the pandmic. Donate what you can to your local sex worker organization!
- SWWAC’s Covid-19 Relief Fund
- Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. (E-transfer email@example.com. For their Black Sex Worker Fund: put “sex workers’ fund” in the memo)
- SWAN Vancouver
- Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network
- Maggie’s Toronto
- Support minimum basic income programs that are fully accessible
- Contact your Members of Parliament and demand that they fully decriminalize sex work, and that the federal government repeal the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act