“I was horny.” That’s the line Peter Qualliotine says he often hears when he asks men why they bought sex from a prostitute. His stock response: “Let’s unpack horniness a little bit.”
If that sounds like he’s leading a class, it’s because he is. Qualliotine, co-founder of a Seattle group called Organization for Prostitution Survivors, has for several years been teaching a local “john school” for men (and, he says, they are always men) who have been referred by the courts after being charged with patronizing a sex worker. The men, who are attending either as a condition of their sentence or to escape jail time, don’t want to be there. And little evidence exists to show that the class is changing anyone’s behavior, Qualliotine admits. He himself feels it’s likely having a limited effect. “There’s nowhere near enough time,” he explains.
And so, with the help of the King County Prosecutor’s office and a grant from Demand Abolition, a national nonprofit that seeks to eradicate the sex industry by eliminating demand, he recently began a new county-wide john school that runs for 10 weeks—longer than almost any other comparable program in the county.
His first class in this intensive program began in January. It takes men who have been brought up on felony charges of soliciting a minor as well as those charged by municipalities other than Seattle with the more common misdemeanor offense of patronizing an adult prostitute. The men pay $900 to attend—considerably more than the $150 sex solicitors pay for the Seattle class.
“I am very excited and hopeful,” says county deputy prosecutor Valiant Richey, who works on juvenile-prostitution cases and is a point person in his office for developing strategies aimed at ending the illegal-sex industry. Over the past couple of years, he says, there has been a “huge shift” toward cracking down on sex buyers rather than workers—an approach that follows what has become known as the “Nordic model” due to its early adoption in Scandinavia.
This approach is playing out at the legislative level as well. This session in Olympia, a flurry of bills sought to increase penalties for johns, including one that would subject three-time offenders to a year in prison and another that would seize their assets prior to conviction. These bills don’t appear to be going anywhere this year, but they did whip up controversy and re-energize debates about the nature of the sex industry and who, if anyone, is being harmed.
Meeting for coffee in Pioneer Square one day last week, Qualliotine, a tall and bearded 49-year-old with a sociologist’s vernacular, tells a story about one of the first sex-buyer classes he taught, after starting a program in Portland in 1995. A former sex worker came in to speak. After scanning the crowd of men, she suddenly ran out of the room.
“I caught up with her on the front porch,” Qualliotine recalls. “She was leaning over and throwing up.” She told him, “Peter, that’s him.” According to Qualliotine, she was referring to a onetime john who had taken her to a cemetery, raped her, and strangled her until she was nearly dead.
“Many of these men really are dangerous sexual predators,” Qualliotine says. Many, of course, are not. But even the nonviolent men, Qualliotine argues, cause harm—by perpetuating an industry that traps prostitutes (“survivors” in his lexicon) into what he deems degrading work while sexually objectifying women at large. He also contends that these men are harming themselves.
He says that of all the johns he’s met, almost none have said they “feel great” about buying sex or that prostitution is meeting their needs. As Qualliotine sees it, that’s because they’re coming to prostitution from a place of “brokenness” and “desperation,” wanting a genuine human connection rather than mere sex. “You can’t get there from here,” he says, meaning that a genuine connection is not something a financial transaction can provide.
And so in his new john school, he spends a lot of time trying to draw the men out about why they’re going to prostitutes and how they feel about it. He also takes them through a “gender-socialization” exercise that explores the way men learn to behave, including sexually. He has them look at poetry and other works of art created by sex workers, in an attempt to get the men to see prostitutes as human beings. And he talks about other ways besides prostitution that the men can meet their need for connection.
Having just finished his first 10-week session, he says he’s never seen johns “more open” to what he has to offer. He’s consequently hoping that Seattle, too, will eventually send solicitors of sex to this more intensive class.
Lan Pham, the manager of Seattle’s Office on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention who oversees the city’s john school, says it’s a possibility, but the city would first want to see evidence that the program is actually changing behavior.
It would indeed be interesting to see evidence of the program’s impact, or even to hear from onetime johns. For some time now, former and current sex workers have been the only ones speaking up, whether to decry prostitution or to defend it. In the latter camp is a group known as the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which has been vigorously fighting the recent bills in the legislature.
In interviews, SWOP leaders have stood up for their clients. Some of these johns, they say, find it hard to have sex outside prostitution because they are disabled, have a sick wife, or are stuck in a sexless marriage, SWOP spokesperson and former sex worker Savannah Sly tells Seattle Weekly.
Johns themselves, though, have largely let sex workers do the talking. Qualliotine asked his classes whether anyone would agree to be interviewed for this story, to no avail. SWOP, however, found a number of men who agreed to speak, albeit anonymously.
“It’s been something that’s been really positive for me, to be honest with you,” says one man, disputing Qualliotine’s contention that johns themselves feel bad about buying sex. In fact, he contends that his longtime “provider,” as he calls the sex worker he sees, is his “best friend.”
“We walk our dogs together. We go out to dinner together,” says the man we’ll call Bruce, a software salesperson who lives on the Eastside. “Obviously there’s an exchange of money.” He pays $200 an hour when sex is involved, $100 for nonsexual “social” activities like dinner. “But I pay a lot of people for their time.”
His wife of 36 years knows about the relationship, and she sees other men (although not prostitutes) too, according to Bruce. As he describes it, he was having sex with his wife, but not that often, when he started seeing his first prostitute 15 years ago. He was in the throes of a midlife crisis, and wanted to act out a submission fantasy involving a dominatrix. The sex worker he saw fulfilled that fantasy and also helped him overcome an ambivalence about being touched.
He says he suffers from low self-esteem, and has niggling questions about how genuine the relationship is, given that it is bought and paid for. But one thing he doesn’t seem to worry about is whether he’s being exploitative. “If I felt I was ruining these women’s lives, I would walk away in a second,” he says.
Similarly, another sex buyer, whom we’ll call Charlie, doesn’t feel like he’s violated anybody’s rights by paying for sex, which he’s done sporadically for seven years, ever since a breakup caused him to go looking for “some fun” online. “It was very civilized,” he says of the encounters, which have led him to both male and female sex workers.
“There were no disgusting, dirty motel rooms,” he says. One woman he’s seen repeatedly had him into her Rainier Valley home—one she owns, he points out. He ventures that the self-employed sex worker, who, he says, advertises her services on a tasteful website, earns more than he does. He sees what happened between them as “a kind of therapy,” conducted by a woman “who was enjoying herself as much as I was.”
Is Charlie deluding himself? “I understand there was a performance aspect,” he acknowledges. He also acknowledges that his experience with upmarket, well-paid, self-employed sex workers represents a tiny slice of the industry—one with a much larger abusive side. Johns who patronize “the bad side,” he says, should be punished more harshly. “I’m surprised to hear myself say that,” he allows after the words come out of his mouth.
It’s true that the sex industry has many sides. It’s one reason the debate about prostitution is so complicated. If Bruce and Charlie were sent to john school, would they come to see their own participation in the sex industry as problematic? It’s doubtful, given how firmly they believe that what they’re doing is positive for all concerned.
Qualliotine, for all his surety that prostitution is harmful, seems to accept that there are people, perhaps many, whom he will never convince. He recalls one student of the Seattle john school who said at the end that his biggest takeaway was to avoid street prostitution and patronize massage parlors instead, so he wouldn’t get caught.
Yet Qualliotine also says that one student in his new 10-week course asked for a referral to somebody with whom he could talk more about “all this stuff.” This was a man who had confided in class that he patronized young prostitutes in order to feel powerful.
It’s this kind of self-examination, rather than a didactic flogging, that Qualliotine says he’s after. He adds, referring to the johns, “We’re just trying to open up some possibilities for them.”