It's a Tuesday evening in Brooklyn and "John School" is in session. Every couple of months, more than 100 men representing every race, background and social status gather to learn about the dangers of prostitution — to which some have had first-hand exposure.
Sitting in banquet-style chairs in a windowless lecture hall, they wear everything from sweats to designer suits. There are Yankees hats and yarmulkes. Briefcases, sneakers and loafers line the aisles.
But they do share one thing in common: every participant was arrested after offering undercover cops money for sex.
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"John School" is offered in at least six major cities: Washington, New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y. These classes for first-time offenders are subsidized with federal funds. Almost like traffic school, attendees are served bagels and coffee as they sit through a four-hour lecture. Classes can be as long as seven hours depending on the city.
Each class member pays a $250 fee and hears from prosecutors, police, community advocates and an ex-prostitute. Also included in the lecture is a graphic slideshow about sexually transmitted diseases presented by a Health and Human Services representative. After attending, the arrest is dropped from each John's record as long as he isn't caught soliciting a prostitute again within six months. If the men opt against John School, they face trial on a Class B misdemeanor and a possible sentence of 90 days in jail. Defendants with violent criminal records cannot participate.
"The program was initiated largely due to the rising number of women, especially teens, involved in prostitution," said Kings County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Laline during one of the classes. "It was initiated by our Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.
"He decided that one way to address the problem of prostitution was to focus on the demand. The demand was the Johns. And gentlemen, that is everybody here," he told the class. "We call this program the Brooklyn John's School, also known as 'Project Respect.'"
In this session there were Russian, Chinese, German and even Creole translators for the Johns. The room next door was filled with a room of Spanish-speaking Johns.
More than one-third were married, and a show of hands made it apparent that most of their wives and girlfriends didn't know where they were. It's easy to say they are attending traffic school or have another commitment.
Experts want these men to think of the prostitutes as victims, and speakers often try and teach empathy for the women.
The average age that a girl enters the world of prostitution is just 13.
"You have to be more aware of the fact that most prostitutes are under the age of 17. It happens, it happens all the time," said Laline. "Violence against these girls continues to go up and their ages continue to go down … These kids being raped are having serious assaults on their bodies: swollen eyes, busted jaws. I see it everyday in my office, these terrible, violent crimes."
"They are being taken advantage of, and are put through serious danger. These girls are children. They are at an age that if it happened to be one of your daughters and someone was to solicit them for sex I am sure each and every one of you would be absolutely enraged."