Inside a two-month program that aims to end prostitution—and help dismantle the patriarchy—by rehabilitating the men who perpetuate it.
The men cross their arms, slouch, and spread their feet wide—and you’ve never felt anything quite like the overwhelming awkwardness, the tangible defensiveness, that surrounds them. All eight have been busted for trying to buy sex. They’ve paid fines or spent time in jail or, in some cases, been forced to register as sex offenders. And now they’re here, in this beige classroom, for the final, and most unusual, part of the punishment meted out by King County, Washington.
For the next couple of months, they’ll be required to think deeply about what led them to the parking lots and motels where they were arrested. They’ll be asked to plumb their emotions and to contemplate their place in the patriarchy. It’s a modest experiment with a rather immodest goal: to solve the sex trade by changing the lives of the men who perpetrate it.
I wanted to see what on earth this might look like in practice. An eight-week court-ordered course meant to teach so-called johns about empathy and healthy relationships, about gender socialization and victim-blaming and toxic masculinity? When I asked for a closer look, the men in a recent course were invited to vote on whether they’d be okay with a female reporter quietly observing it all from the back of the room. Remarkably, they said yes.
And so, on a Thursday evening, I shook hands with the men, one by one, as they trickled in, took their seats, and slumped in silence. The usual small talk was clearly moot here. What would they say? Each man already knew at least the outline of how the others had ended up in that room, because it was the same way he had ended up there.
Offenders’ names have been changed throughout.
For Akio, who’s 40 but has a shyness that makes him seem much younger, it was a first-time lark. He made a point of calling it “hanging out” when he asked how much he and a friend would be charged for an hour with a woman at a Ramada Inn.
Steve, 60, divorced, fresh from stalking allegations and more than one restraining order, had responded to a daddy-daughter deal on a fetish site.
Jason, a 22-year-old Mormon just back from a two-year mission—during which spending time with the opposite sex was strictly off-limits—arranged for a $70 blow job from a girl (she made a point of telling him she was a minor, though he swears he didn’t go looking for that). She told him to meet her in the parking lot between a bank and a McDonald’s.
Laughing, he offered another way to put it: “We’re trying to teach them how to love.” Then he stopped laughing and said, “For real.”
David, 51 and fairly new to the computer, was on Craigslist looking for deals on auto parts when he noticed there were other ads there, too, ads for young women. Back in his military days, he’d bought sex on the street pretty regularly—“I treat ’em just like a human,” he told me later. He clicked on one of the ads and got an answer back from someone who gave her name as Jen. “What if I’m under 18?” she asked him. David went to meet her at a 7-Eleven, but when he got there, there was no Jen. There never had been. There was only the police waiting for him.
Man after man, the details differed but the denouement was the same: They went to a parking lot or to a motel or to some other rendezvous expecting sex, and got something else. The blood drains, the stomach drops, and instead of the woman he arranged to meet, there’s a police detective standing in the doorway or stepping out of the car. Some of what followed was predictable: the trips to court, the heavy fees, to say nothing of the shame that must be borne before wives, bosses, pastors.
But ending up here in this classroom was far less expected. The idea for the course came from Peter Qualliotine, a co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors, who had worked for years with women caught up in the sex trade. But long ago, Peter became convinced that his best chance for combating the harms of the sex trade depended on working with the men—with those trying to pay for sex.
In plenty of cities and counties around the country, men busted for buying sex get sent to a class known as “john school”—usually just a scared-straight afternoon with lectures about STDs and jail time and the harms of prostitution. It’s the sex-work version of traffic school; in some places, the whole thing consists of a 15-minute video. Peter had taught those classes and didn’t think much of their effectiveness. He had something grander in mind.
“My pitch for the men is: Patriarchy hurts you, too,” Peter told me when I first contacted him about the singular experiment he’s launched in King County. “You deserve a healthy relationship that makes you happy.” Laughing, he offered another way to put it: “We’re trying to teach them how to love.” Then he stopped laughing and said, “For real.”
On the first day of class, Peter stood at the whiteboard and wrote the phrase “Act Like a Man.” He then asked the class to give him examples of what the phrase meant to them, writing down the answers they called out: strong, tough, good at sports, lots of sex, fighting, devoid of emotion, disciplined.
Then he drew a box around the list and suggested that these notions created a rather impossible standard for guys, a standard that excludes important things like empathy and vulnerability and gets in the way of deep relationships. He asked them to think about what it would take, in their own lives, to fit within the box he’d drawn, what names they’d get called if they strayed outside it. The men offered up “sissy” and “queer” and other words that questioned their sexuality.
Steve, the man who’d responded to the daddy-daughter ad, told me later that he regarded the activity as just an icebreaker—kind of a fun get-to-know-you exercise. He was sure it didn’t have anything to do with the point of the class or the notion of sexual exploitation or why he might have done the things that landed him there. Instead, when I met him outside of class to chat (he’d suggested we get together at a Starbucks right next to the county line, which he said he wasn’t allowed to cross without permission), he tried to explain away, in an almost unstoppable monologue, the restraining order, the domestic violence arrest, the tracking device he put on his ex-girlfriend’s truck, the stalking allegations that got him effectively banned from a hospital and an entire small city, and especially his conviction for trying to buy sex from a person he was told was a 15-year-old girl.
It was clear from the start that Peter would have his work cut out for him. In class, throughout those first weeks, a number of the men showed with their body language that they thought the whole exercise was bullshit, a waste of their time. Several maintained that their arrests had been misunderstandings, and several, including Steve, made it clear that they thought it was nonsense that prostitution was a crime at all. He was already turned off by the class’s official title, Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men, because of the word exploitation: “It kind of gives you an indication of what their position is.”
Peter wanted to address what he saw as the real roots of prostitution: patriarchy, male privilege, and the barriers to healthy relationships.
In fact, Peter does nothing to hide his position or his ideas about how best to combat prostitution—notions that stem from years of working with men and women on both sides of the sex trade. In an age when new ideas are flourishing about the role of sex work in society, Peter stands apart from those who’d like to decriminalize it; he disagrees with activists who argue that regulating prostitution can make it safer. To Peter, decriminalizing sex work won’t strip it of its danger and its tendency toward exploitation. He’d like to see more johns prosecuted for buying sex, but also new attention paid to preventing it.
Over years spent talking to johns, Peter says, he’s realized that most men feel, at best, conflicted about prostitution. The problem, he believes, is bigger than sex and boils down to “men not having the social and emotional learning to deal with our shit.” And so, in a bid to solve some of that, he envisioned a course that attacked what he considered to be the roots of the issue: patriarchy, male privilege, and the social barriers that stand in the way of healthy relationships.
During the 1990s, Peter, who lived in Portland, Oregon, then, pitched a version of the class he imagined—but it was always turned down as too political. It wasn’t until 2012, after he had moved to Seattle, that his ideas began to find some traction. That’s when Peter met Valiant Richey, a King County prosecutor who had been waging his own battle against prostitution—targeting pimps and traffickers but watching in frustration as the area’s sex trade grew. Analysis had concluded that his office was, as he put it recently, “overwhelmingly and disproportionately prosecuting the wrong people.” As was—and still is—the case in many jurisdictions throughout the country, the large majority of prostitution-related arrests were of women.
In 2009, Richey’s unit charged more than 50 juveniles—including many girls who couldn’t even legally consent to sex—with criminal prostitution. Meanwhile, the unit prosecuted just two buyers that year. (Peter heard stories of arresting officers handing the john his money back before sending him on his way and taking the sex worker to jail.) “It was not,” Richey says now, “a proud time for us.” Like Peter, Richey was interested in trying something different.
The two teamed up on a new approach and began by persuading police to go after buyers—a strategy so unusual that it’s known as a “reverse sting.” Detectives in King County began posting online ads (they often included words like “fresh” and “young” in order to find men who looked for minors); they’d get hundreds of responses within an hour. Soon they’d flipped their proportions, charging more buyers than sellers by a ratio of three to one. And the men they arrested were ordered by the courts to attend the very course that Peter had once imagined—a novel class he would design and implement.
During the course that I sat in on, Peter was assisted by a co-facilitator, Juan—a young ponytailed physician who’d been caught in a sex-buying sting himself, then been so captured by the ideas in the class that he voluntarily took it three more times. The goal of the class, Juan told me, was “to turn the lights on to those questions that men hate to ask themselves.” These eight men were his first students, and he was anxious about whether he’d be able to lead them to some of the same kinds of discoveries he’d made about himself during all those classes—discoveries that came from exploring what he called “a place of discomfort inside me.” But many of the students, he was afraid, were just as happy to leave the lights out and the uncomfortable places alone.
During the third class, Peter drew a slanted line on the whiteboard and wrote “Gary Ridgway”—better known as the Green River Killer, who confessed to taking the lives of more than 70 women, many of them under-age prostitutes and runaways, in and around King County in the ’80s and ’90s. The men looked a little shocked; clearly no one in this room was on par with Gary Ridgway. For years, Peter had worked with women and girls who told him shattering stories about being vulnerable young runaways, being manipulated and abused by pimps, being assaulted, raped, kidnapped. By invoking a serial killer, he told the men, he wanted them to think about the kinds of violence that women face, how much higher the risks are for women in sex work—and how lesser forms of harassment are linked to real violence.
The men stared silently back at him.
“Let’s back way, way, way up,” said Peter. From the murderer’s name, he followed the diagonal line to the bottom, where he wrote the words “catcall” and “rape joke.” David clearly couldn’t believe the comparison he was seeing develop between killing and catcalling—“That’s the most standard pickup line at the bar!” he said. Put yourself in the woman’s shoes, Peter responded. You might not mean to scare her, but that doesn’t mean you’re not. When David defended “complimenting” a stranger by wolf-whistling at her, it was another student, Anthony, a burly, tattooed guy from the Philippines, who chided him: “If she wanted to know what you thought, she’d ask you.”
With a few jarring exceptions, most of the men in the class seemed to be more clueless than abusive or predatory. Many of them were likable, earnest men. There was Musa, from the Gambia, who told the room about fleeing a domineering father; José, from Mexico, whose eyes were wet when he talked about his fear that after his arrest his wife might no longer trust him. Jason, the young, nervous Mormon, seemed to feel more shame about sex than entitlement.
He asked the men what they did to prevent being raped; they stared back at him like he was nuts. If the classroom was full of women, he told them, correctly, it would be full of strategies.
I asked Valiant Richey about this, and he agreed that while some men he prosecuted were genuinely dangerous (and those men are generally sent not to Peter’s class but to “deviancy treatment”), most really aren’t predators but instead “lonely, emotionally stunted, challenged about how to act in the world.” Still, he said, all the men had broken the law, and their actions had helped propagate a system that regularly exploits women and girls; even if they were “nice guys,” the result of their behavior, on a mass scale, was a lot of damage to a lot of vulnerable people. That was what interested him about attempting to change behavior with the class: “We could arrest until the end of time and never get a grip on this problem.” And, as far as he was concerned, most men—whether they are sex buyers or not—could probably benefit from the class. He felt he had, just from talking to Peter. “As a human—not just a prosecutor—I’m fascinated by how much this has overhauled my life,” he told me. “I really have had my eyes opened to the scope of gender inequality in our society.”
Before long, the diagonal line on the whiteboard filled up with examples of sexual harassment and coercion. Anthony told a story of a date his sister had gone on, where a man had taken her to a restaurant: “He said, ‘If you’re not sleeping with me tonight, you’re paying for that.’ I shit you not! And she’s a vegetarian, so it didn’t even cost that much!” Then Peter began to discuss outright violence. The room went quiet. He asked the men what they did to prevent being raped; they stared back at him like he was nuts. If the classroom was full of women, he told them, correctly, it would be full of strategies.
For me, the night’s most interesting cracks came after Peter read a disturbing, anguished poem called “While I Was Pleasuring You,” written by a woman he knew who’d worked as a prostitute. (He used to invite former sex workers to speak to his classes, but stopped after one of them walked in to see a man who had raped her sitting in the room.) He read, “While I was pleasuring you / I learned not to sleep / Wide awake, overwhelmed by my thoughts / Sobbing uncontrollably, unable to fill the room / You tore open inside of me.”
Peter let a long silence pass, then asked for responses.
“We all know how she feels,” said Anthony, after a moment. A truckdriver, he’d spoken many times with resentment about being forced to adhere to the demands of others. “How many times have you wanted to tell your boss to kiss your ass?”
“We kind of contributed to it,” said Musa. It was hard to ignore the fact that the poem was directly addressed to men like him. “Even if you might not want the guilt.”
“Something drove that guy to be there,” said Jason, echoing Peter’s frequent reminder to the men not to focus on the decisions of sex workers but to interrogate their own motivations. It seemed clear, though, from his quiet voice and downcast eyes that his thoughts were very personal. “It’s sad that both people feel trapped.”
“What about you, David, did you think it was powerful?” Peter asked.
“Well, yeah,” answered David. “There’s feelings in it!”
The next week, Peter asked some of the men to role-play a transaction. Anthony volunteered to play a sex worker (he was handed a few details to help him form his character, whom he called Destiny), and a protesting, red-faced Jason was chosen to be the john, after insisting, again, that due to the sting, he’d never actually met a sex worker in person and didn’t know how it was supposed to work. Finally, he offered $40 and a meal at Taco Bell.
“You’re terrible at this,” Anthony told him.
Peter pushed them to empathize with their characters, to consider what they had in common, whether they were afraid or in control. He asked them to think about the mystery of the other person’s intentions and history, what that felt like. “I was thinking, I’m a nice guy.” Jason said. “But this shows it’s still scary for her.”
Anthony handed back the piece of paper with details of his role as a sex worker. “I don’t need this in my pocket if I get pulled over,” he said.
The weeks multiplied and the discussions grew more intense. There was a session called Power and Violence, about the difference between domination and partnership. The men squirmed visibly as the talk turned to destructive relationships. José shared that his father had abused his mother but she hid it from her son, telling only José’s sister. Peter shared with the men a story about a past student who’d treated the class as a bunch of useless nonsense until he complained about it to his wife and she stopped him to say, “You should listen to those guys.” She’d been sexually assaulted more than once, she told him, but had never felt that he was a safe person to tell. The man was stunned, he told Peter the next week; afterward, his whole attitude toward the class, down to his body language, was different.
Slowly, I watched as the men built a strange camaraderie. They laughed more, shared more. Jason finally told the other men about his religious upbringing and his recent disillusionment. In week seven, he announced that he’d had a kind of breakthrough: He’d hated himself for trying to buy sex; he felt like a monster afterward for disappointing his parents and church elders, and could never explain why he’d done it. Now he found it meaningful that he had arranged the meet-up that got him arrested not long after he’d discovered that a woman he’d been seeing was married. “That’s, like, the second-worst thing you can do in my parents’ religion, after murder,” Jason said. “It festered, and one thing led to another.”
“I always feel so damn sensitive after I leave this class on Thursdays,” Anthony said one night. “It’s like I have to go drink a beer and scratch myself. Y’all are gonna see me on Oprah.”
Another night he told Peter, “When I hear you talk, I think, ‘His wife must love him so much!’ ” Peter laughed and told the guys that his wife had once threatened to follow him to the class and tell everybody what a damn hypocrite he could be.
Outside of class, Peter talked with me about how he sometimes felt he had to walk a razor’s edge between holding the johns accountable and empathizing with them. In the early days, he’d felt more anger toward the men in his classes—“I used to feel like I was talking to my father,” an abuser. Lately, he’d been seeing them more compassionately, as victims of a sexist society. “Now,” he said, “it’s like I’m talking to myself.”
During week seven, David—whose discomfort with emotions had by then become a class joke—suddenly came alive with feeling. The discussion topic was vulnerability and shame, which Peter asked the men to discuss. David was the first to speak up, defining it as “a deep-down gut feeling. To me it’s like a sickness.”
For weeks, he’d belligerently stood up for the rightness of his behavior, but now, reflecting on his arrest, he said, “I haven’t done many shameful things, but this takes the cake: to use your one phone call late at night to call your wife and tell her you won’t be coming home.”
Peter said that his goal was to get the guys to move from shame, which can be crippling, to responsibility and vulnerability. “I take responsibility,” said David, for the first time. “I did do it.” He was at least glad, he said, that the arrest “made me and the wife communicate more.” He stared at the floor, nodding to himself, and said, almost silently: “We’ll get through it.”
Akio, who’d spoken before about how much he struggled to connect with other people, said that he’d avoided telling almost anyone he knew about his arrest. “I’m good at hiding these things from everybody,” he said. “That’s kind of my life so far. Does that sound sad?” Later he told me he was making an effort to deepen his relationships with his roommates and co-workers, practicing what he’d learned in the class about listening.
“As you’ve started to realize, this class is about a lot more than prostitution,” he said, to laughter.
Jason told me that the class on vulnerability was big for him, too. He finally stopped thinking of himself as a monster, reached out to friends and family that he’d been avoiding since the arrest, and he even had a new girlfriend. On a date, under the stars, he told her about his arrest and the things he’d learned since—the first person he’d confided in without being mandated by King County.
There have been no studies yet of any long-term effect that the course has on its students or on sex buying—and even Peter is careful to avoid claiming that the program provides unequivocal results. He is adamant that his course should not replace other forms of conventional punishment. But he’s encouraged by what he sees. He’s hopeful that its graduates will discuss what they’ve learned with other men they know, and that slowly the ideas will spread. A few men have been re-arrested; some have stayed in close touch with Peter and the program. It’s a process, he acknowledges. A slow one.
On the last night, Peter taught the promised class on love—not just sexual or romantic love but the three other types that the Greeks talked about: familial empathy, respect between equals, and agape, which Peter described as the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself. They talked about the danger of relying on toxic, substitute versions of these emotions, and Peter asked the men to reflect aloud on the needs that weren’t being met in their own lives and what they could do about it. “As you’ve started to realize, this class is about a lot more than prostitution,” he said, to laughter.
Before the men left, they filled out anonymous evaluations, and I looked through them for the anger and resistance that was no longer obvious in the classroom. Instead, over and over, I saw gratitude.
Even Steve told me he’d learned from the class—and though I hoped in some ways he had, it was certainly hard to see evidence. When he was asked by Peter to reflect on shame, he proudly told the story of the tracking device, yet again. “I get the sense that this particular section is really not landing with you,” Peter told him. Week after week, though, he was an eager participant in discussions—he gave the impression he didn’t have a lot of other people to talk to—Steve stuck to his attitudes of righteousness and victimhood. He kept making sexist jokes, even after the other men began to greet them with silence.
But I never heard Peter give up on anyone as irredeemable. If anything, resistance seemed to make him try harder, to believe more fervently in the possibility of eventually breaking through.
A few months later, I got an e-mail from Peter. He was headed to the second meeting of a whole new class of men, and the first meeting had not gone well. Several of the attendees were unusually challenging; one had casually declared that “some women like to get beaten.” Peter found himself dreading the upcoming classes. It was difficult to hear men talk like that. But it didn’t make him doubt his approach—or the power of his program. If anything, it inspired him to push harder. “I wish,” he wrote, “I could send the men like him to a longer-term program.”
Brooke Jarvis is a writer based in Seattle. This is her first article for GQ.
*Offenders’ names have been changed throughout.