John School Teaches About Ills Of Sex Solicitation

One Saturday each month former prostitutes, health experts, psychologists and law enforcement officers convene in Nashville to teach Johns about the damaging effects of their choice to pay for sex. The John School program's director, Kenny Baker, explains.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Throughout the course of this year, about 400 men will walk through the doors of an unassuming church in Nashville, sentenced to attend an all-day course designed to change their actions and their attitudes towards women. These men are Johns, all arrested for solicitation. If they pay a $300 fine and spend eight hours listening to former prostitutes, health experts, psychologists, DAs and police officers, their records will be expunged.

If you have ever been to John School, we'd like to hear from you, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kenny Baker is a cognitive behavior therapist who runs The John School in Nashville and joins us from a studio there.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. KENNY BAKER (Program Director, The John School, Nashville): Thank you for having me, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: And, obviously, this is not a voluntary thing. Men presumably go with varying degrees of reluctance. So what does your program accomplish do you think?

Mr. BAKER: You know, the goal is to show clients what it means to put themselves in a bad position. High-risk situations lead to bad positions. That's one of the things that I start off with right off the bat.

There's a great little treatment methodology that I'd like to call the bucket of crap theory, and it goes like this. The world is like a checkerboard where buckets of crap occasionally crash down from the sky, and even being near the vicinity of one of these squares is putting yourself at risk because it's only a matter of time till a bucket of crap will hit. Some squares get hit more than others because of where they are and what they are.

So what would be an example of putting yourself in a high-risk situation that could lead to a bad position in reference to being rearrested again for patronizing prostitution? Well, you could get splattered if you were looking at Internet porn possibly. Alcohol, drug use, not dealing with your family problems at home, you could get splattered.

And the idea and the concept, Neal, is if you don't understand what it means to put yourself in a bad position after everything you've been through - going to court, being arrested, having to hire a lawyer, maybe losing your family, your wife, your job - what would you be considered if you go out and do this again? Well, the answer would be just plain stupid, pathological, sex-addicted, poor decision et cetera.

CONAN: And these are first-time offenders. They get their records expunged if they're first-time offenders and go through this.

Mr. BAKER: Correct. It is expunged and taken off the record. The only people that have access to that would be the district attorney's office.

CONAN: And what happens if they're arrested again?

Mr. BAKER: It is a mandatory seven days in jail, I believe, and there's more punishment. You know, I'm on the counseling side of that. So I'm not sure exactly, but I know it's seven days for sure.

CONAN: And what do the men say after this day in school?

Mr. BAKER: You know, it's one of those things where some guys really get it, obviously. Some guys don't get it. Some people will realize that they have a problem. Obviously, there's something going on. Some issues that they're not dealing with.

Some people will tell me, you know, it was the devil made me do it. I've heard that one quite a bit. I've heard I was just giving her a ride.

There is this level of complete denial that exists in almost all of us. It seems like it's human nature. And in that regard, everybody seems to have an addictive quality if you think about it. Everybody has something - food, sugar, alcohol, sex, drugs, pick your poison. If you don't deal with the problem -people tend to do the problem if you don't deal with the problem, if you know what I mean.

CONAN: Well, some might argue that this is not much more than a traffic school for Johns, giving these men an easy way to expunge their record. The women involved in these cases, the prostitutes, have no such option.

Mr. BAKER: Well, I understand what you're saying, and I'm not one of these guys that's - I believe in education treatment and rehabilitation. So I'm not really a big fan of huge penal consequences. However, you know, this - the issue is a lot of the prostitutes in that lifestyle are addicted to some form of controlled substance, and they are victims of sexual abuse, almost 99 percent, and addicted to some form of controlled substance, usually crack cocaine. And that little element of crack cocaine makes it a felony, and police are going to react differently to that, but I do understand what you're saying.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We have an email from Tucson, a man who's asked us to withhold his name: As a recovering sex addict, I was invited to speak at the Columbus, Ohio, John School on several occasions. I think it's important to recognize and understand the underlying health issue, addiction, that is often at the heart of the issue of seeking out prostitutes. Like drug addiction, my thought is that society will be much better off and more refocused on why people engage in these behaviors and get to address those roots. John School is to my mind part of the solution. I hope those involved will consider members of the recovery community to participate.

Mr. BAKER: I couldn't agree with him more. I mean, the idea is - my approach in this is cognitive behavior, which means reasons or beliefs-caused behavior. We all have reasons for everything that we do. It doesn't necessarily mean those reasons are good ones if we're not getting us the desired behavioral outcome, and these guys are certainly not getting that.

Feelings and emotions attached to our reasons for why we do what we do - I even make this statement. Neal, I say, you know, you got to deal with your feelings of horniness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: You might say, working with your mind. I mean, the reality of the situation is there's something going. They're exhaust in their minds with this stuff. They're making a decision very fast. And everything I know about alcohol and drug use - I see some strong similarities between substance abuse and alcoholism and drug abuse and sex addiction, in sexual compulsive behavior. There's certainly a link. And I think that sex, in general, is a normal and natural carnal thing. They're crossing the line with an agreed upon price for a sex act. And once you do, obviously, it makes it illegal.

With that said, I think that these guys are placing themselves - they don't realize what they're doing until after they actually get caught. And then, it's swift, hard consequences being involved in the criminal justice system. Yes, they're able to get their records expunged. But being arrested, period, being involved in the criminal justice system, you're in a bad position whether you would be guilty or not. I mean, that is trauma and pain in your life that you want to try to avoid at all cost.

CONAN: There are other approaches to this, putting pictures of Johns on the Web, shaming them. And I understand Nashville does that too.

Mr. BAKER: Yes. The Metro Nashville Police Department does post pictures of Johns that had been arrested for patronizing prostitution. They don't put them all up there. Usually, when they do massive stings, big stings, they will post their pictures.

CONAN: And is there any evidence that either of these approaches works? Are the rates of arrest going down?

Mr. BAKER: You know, the reality of the situation is this, Neal. We - I believe that, yes, I think it's successful but that's my opinion. I think it's 60, 70 percent successful. People - like I said, it's not dealing with the underlying problem. People are real - I talked to people about the John School. They're like, oh, it's so bad. It's like the person that's a John, you could be married to him. That's the guy you sit next to in church. That's the guy you play golf with.

People were so quick to judge and to choose sides and side-choose on somebody that we're not really aware of what's going on with this in reality. It seems like there's a lot of people who have a lot of thoughts and ideas and legislation regarding Johns and all this kind of stuff. But everybody has problems.

I mean, that's a whole other conversation. But everybody has problems and we, kind of as a society, choose not to even acknowledge that. We just kind of keep doing our problems and wonder like, well, I can't really figure that out. I just keep doing the same thing expecting different results. Well, you keep doing that, all of the sudden there's consequences. It's time to start thinking about things. So our approach is very cognitive-thinking oriented.

CONAN: And as you step out - I mean, how many men might be there on a typical day?

Mr. BAKER: You know, we might have anywhere from 15 to 65.

CONAN: And I assume they come from all walks of life?

Mr. BAKER: All walks of life. It doesn't discriminate. It gets everybody. I have been doing the John School for 12 years. And every year I do it, I see somebody I went to college with.

CONAN: Hmm. And who do they hear from besides you?

Mr. BAKER: It is me. I start off with this cognitive behavioral approach.

CONAN: Right, right, right.

Mr. BAKER: My girls from the district attorney's office - look, I sound like a John myself, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: Rachel Thomas, Jennifer McMillen and Antoinette Welch, they are key in the John School. They're prosecutors. They tell them how to get the records expunged, what will happen if they do it again. My friend, Brad Beasley, from -the head of the STD clinic here at the Metro Health Department in Nashville talks about how to put your - what - how - what kind of risk these guys are putting themselves in. All STDs are covered.

On the next, a prostitute Magdalene and Thistle Farms comes in and shares her story. Sex Addicts Anonymous comes in. So it's a wide range of people. And all this money for the John School, which is $300, goes to Magdalene and Thistle Farms. And you can go right now to thistlefarms.org and buy their products and balms, solutions right now.

CONAN: All right. OK.

Mr. BAKER: Thanks.

CONAN: I wonder also, how honest are these people about their situation? I mean, they do explain to their partners or their families: Oh, I'm spending the day at John School. That's what I'm doing today. It's why I'm not at work.

Mr. BAKER: I would say no. Some people will come clean. It's like what I was saying earlier, Neal. It's like people - if I was to trade places with one of those Johns, and that's me on the other side and I'm up there talking, the normal, natural defense mechanism of anybody is to deny that there is a problem, period. It just seems like human nature, so we - I chip away at that.

I mean, I understand how they get there. You exhaust your minds with this stuff. It's not real shocking or surprising how people end up at the John School. And it's just not simply - there's a lot of things that aren't talked about with this. There are - these guys are simply trying to get their needs met.

However, there is a subgroup of these Johns who are dangerous and they can't be identified and they'll never be identified until they actually do something really bad or wrong and that's with underage girls, human trafficking, et cetera. But that is not the majority.

CONAN: No.

Mr. BAKER: That would be a minority.

CONAN: And finally, what about accountability? I mean, if they're not required to tell anybody it and their record get expunged, they're likely to walk away saying, I got away with it.

Mr. BAKER: You know, I - my opposition on that is if you don't deal with the problem, it's going to keep coming up. I mean, I live in the real world. We have those talks. I tell those guys - I'm very upfront with them. I'm going to say you have to deal with the underlying problem that led you into this program. If you come in with the same ideas or beliefs that you had when you got arrested for committing this crime or doing whatever you did that led you here, chances are you might be rearrested again. And that's the reality of it. I mean, not dealing with your problems, you tend to keep doing them.

CONAN: Kenny Baker, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you very much, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Kenny Baker, program director for The John School in Nashville, Tennessee, joined us from a studio there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

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