Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

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‘John School’ teaches men the uglier facts of life

Vegas police hope horrors of prostitution will scare them off

One guy caught a ride from his wife. She even walked him into the classroom, which caused the other students to shift in their seats and stare hard at the floor. They wouldn’t have been so painfully uncomfortable, perhaps, if this weren’t the First Offender Prostitution Program, otherwise known as “John School.”

When she kissed him goodbye you could almost see her skin crawl.

Six hundred sixty-three men were arrested for soliciting women in Clark County in 2007 double the number arrested the year before. The increase is evidence of the emphasis Metro’s vice section has put on arresting johns, part of a wider war on the vice economy: the sex trade’s supply and demand.

Nine men a small sliver of that demand gathered in a windowless room Dec. 15 on the fourth floor of the Clark County Regional Justice Center. Six were Hispanic and needed a translator. This meant that more than half the men were hiding under wireless headphones, waiting for a man in the corner to whisper Spanish into their ears.

It’s the same on the streets, vice Lieutenant Karen Hughes says. Roughly one of every three men arrested for soliciting sex in Clark County is Hispanic. The lieutenant chalks up this trend to language barriers and conflicting cultural norms. Many foreign-born johns come from countries where soliciting a prostitute seldom leads to punishment by police, she says. These same men are surprised to learn that, despite all appearances, prostitution is illegal in Vegas.

Or at least they say they’re surprised, usually after the woman they’re arranging an evening with reveals she’s a cop.

Getting female officers to pose as prostitutes is the only way to effectively arrest large numbers of johns, Hughes says. The alternative would be to catch a man in the act of soliciting a street walker, which is about as likely as catching a robbery in progress. Merely seeing a man sidle up to a curb and coo at a girl isn’t enough. Police need to confirm there has been some kind of negotiation. So they make themselves part of that negotiation.

It’s dangerous, but it’s not exactly difficult. Officers posing as prostitutes found they could draw “steady streams of cars” to their sidewalk stakeouts, Hughes says. One decoy reportedly secured the arrest of 25 men in an evening. A pied piper of prostitution.

In John School, a bald man with a blue anchor tattooed on the back of his hand swears he was just driving to an XXX theater when a woman on the corner caught his eye. He drove up to the curb, rolled down his window, had a quick and culpable conversation, and got himself arrested for solicitation.

In class, he is shown photos of dead prostitutes while vice Sgt. Gil Shannon explains that death is a workplace hazard for the sexually exploited. He listens as Deputy City Attorney Martin Orsinelli says solicitation cases are “very easy for us to prove” and “we never lose them.” He sits quietly as a health expert shows slides of symptoms of STDs.

He, like the other students, has paid $450 for this privilege, which allows him to have his record purged of the solicitation charge on completion of the five-hour course.

The man rakes his hand across his head after an extreme close-up slide clicks past and says, “I’ll never eat cauliflower again.”

Unpleasant as it is, this sort of sentiment might have a more lasting effect on a john than spending a few hours in jail. Just pushing a person through the Clark County Detention Center, which is so overcrowded most men are out in hours, isn’t enough, says Hughes, who knows “we won’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

Alternatives to sentencing, such as the First Time Offender Program or court-mandated community service, are a way to put the “bite” back into misdemeanor solicitation arrests, she says. But the cash-strapped county is short on such programs, so the lieutenant is searching for other options.

The vice section recently filmed a series of public service announcements in Spanish, designed to reach guys like the six Hispanic men stumbling through John School. The commercials, which will air on Spanish-language TV stations, aren’t so much scolding as they are practical. One reminds men that getting caught picking up a prostitute could bring shame to his family. Another reminds prospective johns that they could be robbed, either by the prostitute or by her pimp. In one commercial, a john is seen parking in an alley with a prostitute, only to be accosted by two men lurking behind a trash bin who take his money and his car.

“These men put themselves in a predicament where they become very vulnerable to street crimes,” Hughes says. “They’re easy targets.”

In the John School classroom, Shannon tells students about the number of men he’s found bewildered in their hotel rooms, drugged by a prostitute, only to wake up and find their wallets gone. Or the men he’s found beaten by a pimp who was waiting outside the room for the right time to burst in and steal something. Or the men he’s found dead.

Johns are unaware that these things happen, Hughes says. This explains, perhaps, why detectives sometimes find men who have children in car seats cruising for prostitutes. Or picking up prostitutes while they pretend to make a quick trip to the grocery store, which turns into a long stay in the hospital.

And yet the real dangers are reserved for the women, Shannon says, who are disposable to predators and considered worthless to the world.

He shows the students photos of a prostitute who was killed by a john who drove her to the desert, ran over her body and got her lifeless figure stuck under his car. Then Shannon shows a photo of a prostitute whose john, frustrated with his performance, bludgeoned her to death.

These sorts of stories, and there are many, contain what is perhaps John School’s central lesson.

As instructor and vice Detective Woody Fieselman explains it: “This class isn’t necessarily designed to tell you the dangers you face. It’s to tell you the dangers the girls face.”

Fifteen seconds later, once the translator has relayed this story, the students shudder under their headphones.

Maybe the police can arrest even more johns in 2008, Hughes says. Maybe they can put more men through the program and maybe, just maybe, it will all sink in.

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