'Change the men', say U.S. fighters against sex trafficking

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 April 2019 12:36 GMT

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Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation

By Ellen Wulfhorst

ST. PAUL, Minnesota, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S chools where trafficking survivors teach men who buy illegal sex to "feel my pain" are growing and succeeding as a way to cut U.S. demand for prostitution, experts say.

In a typical "john school", police, therapists, lawyers and survivors tell first-time offenders about the health and legal risks of buying sex and the impact on women who sell their bodies - which many believe is key to ending sex trafficking.

Tonique Ayler, a survivor of brothels, has taught johns - the U.S. term for sex buyers - how prostitutes are often controlled by violent traffickers who hold them against their will, take their money and get them hooked on drugs.

"I wanted them to know how I felt with the things they'd do to me, what my trafficker did to me if I didn't get enough money from them," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I really wanted them to feel my pain."

Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation, according to a 2017 Senate report. More than 38,000 people were arrested on prostitution charges in 2016, FBI data shows.

About 70 john schools are operating around the country, up from just two in the 1980s, said Michael Shively, a trafficking expert at Abt Associates, a public policy research company.

"It's growing all the time," he said, adding that most are grassroots operations without major or federal government funding. "There are several new ones a year."

Experts estimate 10 to 15 percent of men in the United States have paid for sex, he said.

While classes vary widely, they often feature accounts of trafficking, graphic details of sexually transmitted diseases and discussions about the damage to a john's family. Those who attend are typically ordered to do so by a judge.

Survivors like Terry Forliti, head of the anti-trafficking group Breaking Free in Minnesota's capital St. Paul, play a critical role.

"We've got to change the men. If we're not addressing the demand, we are remiss," she said.


The aim of many john schools is that students return to their jobs and community with a new outlook and ready to make a difference rather than repeat their behaviour.

"The solutions lie with the values we have as a community," said John Choi, Ramsey County Attorney in Minnesota, at a recent anti-trafficking conference in St. Paul.

"We don't have a culture today that says to men or to boys, as we raise them into men, that men don't do this."

Tracking repeat offences after john school is nearly impossible, but "there's evidence that it works," Shively said.

"What's the downside to try and educate guys that are buying sex?" he asked, adding that a variety of approaches can work.

"One size doesn't fit all," he said. "The buyers are complex, and their reasons are all over the place."

Men who are court-ordered to attend Seattle Against Slavery's john school sometimes go on to fundraise or facilitate anti-trafficking groups.

"Things that give me encouragement that the 10-week programme and our approach is working is that we have men that are returning back," said Eli Zucker, its men's accountability director.

The group also uses so-called chatbots - computer programs that use artificial intelligence - to pose as trafficking victims and deter would-be buyers.

Using decoy ads posted online, chatbots communicate with potential buyers and respond with messages about the harms of buying sex and alternatives such as john school.


At Breaking Free's john school, called Men Breaking Free, nearly all the attendees - about 80 men since June - learned from friends or co-workers where to buy illegal sex, said Donald Gault, a consultant with the programme.

"They're sitting around at work saying, 'Hey, you seem kind of lonely. Here's a number. You can call up this woman and she'll come and take care of you'," he said.

"So what we're saying to them is, 'Next time you hear people talking about that, what are you going to say?'"

The school focuses on understanding men, rather than blaming them, said Jennifer Gaines, a teacher who was sex trafficked for nearly three decades.

"If you really want these men to change, you've got to get rid of that judgment," she said.

"I think this is going to be big."

Without denting demand, "we're just spinning in circles", said Jeremiah Witt, who became an activist after his daughter was sex trafficked and works at Men Breaking Free.

"It's time to get inside these guys' heads," he said. "We need to open them up and we need to listen."

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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