- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

Only one of the more than 500 men who have taken the District’s 2-year-old anti-prostitution course has been arrested again for solicitation.

“I think it’s certainly fair to say [the program is] a resounding success,” said Anthony Asuncion, chief of the misdemeanor section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “The only big change that has happened in the last two years is we have become very successful.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Metropolitan Police Department started the program in 2001 to dry up the customer base for prostitutes in the District. They point to the lack of repeat offenders as proof that their joint effort is working.

In a city sometimes noted for crime and mismanagement, a group of dedicated professionals has put together a program that appears to be preventing crime.

They do it by telling sex customers that prostitution is illegal, immoral and unhealthy. But they also tell the clients to value themselves and think through their temptations.

Those convicted for the first time for soliciting streetwalkers can volunteer to take the course — known as the “John School” — and wipe the conviction off their records. Participants also must have no convictions related to violence and pay $300 each to attend the one-day session, where they learn about the perils of buying sex.

The session is offered monthly and generally fills up. Class leaders noted at a session last week that men caught in a huge mid-July sting operation in Southeast have begun to enroll.

About 40 men attended that session, which was led by Rita T. Flynn of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Mostly young to middle-age and dressed in clothing that varied from jackets and ties to muscle shirts, the men slouched on the benches of a D.C. Superior Court room. It was 3 p.m. and they had been sitting, with occasional breaks, since 8:45 a.m. Miss Flynn clapped her hands to wake up one of them.

Then psychologist Roosevelt M. Johnson got them focused. He asked blunt questions: “How many of you almost didn’t go out that night and do what you did?”

About a fourth of the men raised their hands, smiling self-consciously.

What lured them out in the first place, Mr. Johnson said, was sexual addiction.

“That’s how you know it’s an addiction,” he told the men. “When you override your rationality and do something that is detrimental to you.”

He said the men must fight the “negative energy” that draws them to buy sex, and instead look for a “meaningful relationship, where sex is an expression of that relationship.”

The previously yawning, fidgeting men, some wiping their brows, listened intently.

They usually do. A study by a Marymount University professor showed that the men gave Mr. Johnson the highest marks for holding their interest.

The johns left with clearer knowledge of the law and more inclination to believe that buying sex is wrong, according to a study of the program’s first year by professor Michael F. Cassidy of Marymount University.

“It was a significant impact in regard to legal knowledge,” Mr. Cassidy said. “People knew more when they walked out in regard to the law and prostitution.”

D.C. police Detective Mark A. Gilkey also was a favorite among the men because of his casual humor. During a break, he joked with them — even though his work with the prostitution enforcement unit had led directly to their arrests.

Comments written by class participants on their surveys indicate why they believe John School has helped them.

“All parts of the program were appropriate because I found I was responsible for my own actions,” one man wrote.

Another wrote, “They put a scare into me that will have more effect on my future decisions.”

Still another said the school “maybe opened my eyes to what I never thought or expected from my actions.”

And one wrote, simply, “I will never do it again.”

The men cited Mr. Johnson, Detective Gilkey and the health department for teaching them well about the consequences of soliciting sex.

Some of the men betrayed tension in their responses to a segment of the Marymount study in which former prostitutes spoke about how johns abused them.

One former prostitute, who has been speaking at the classes since the program began, said she believes people now are more aware of the abuse that sex workers endure.

“But I don’t know if the men are more aware,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Johnson, who has worked with the John School since the beginning, said, “I’m using cognitive therapy with them. They don’t see it as a clinical approach, but the approach is very clinical.”

Month after month, Herman D. Jones of the D.C. health department has come to the sessions to tell the men about sexually transmitted diseases and to administer HIV and syphilis tests to those who want them.

Mr. Jones said about 200 of the attendees have asked for the tests.

The tests have identified two cases of HIV and six cases of syphilis, the disease intervention specialist said.

“In D.C. we have a very large sex trade,” Mr. Jones said. “What happens is, if we can get people tested, a lot of times people have infections they are not aware of.”

John School sessions are held monthly to keep pace with the prostitution enforcement unit’s rising numbers of arrests. The unit arrested 432 persons in 2001 and 968 last year.

This year, officers have made more than 800 arrests and expect 700 more, Detective Gilkey said in a previous interview.

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