One Richmond man pondered seeking out a prostitute for a year before he took a chance and was arrested. A co-worker had told him about an online soliciting service for escorts, and he became curious.
After overcoming alcohol and drug dependency following four years in jail, getting his life together and enjoying a 15-year marriage, he said he was ashamed of being in trouble with the law again.
The man, who asked not to be identified, has yet to tell his wife about his recent arrest and conviction for attempting to pay for sex in a Henrico County hotel. In December, as part of his sentence, he took one of Henrico’s “John School” classes designed to identify motivations of those who solicited for sex and educate first offenders about the victimization of prostitutes and the larger impact on communities.
Almost a year into the program, organizers are optimistic about its impact to reduce demand for prostitution in the region. Though the concept is not new, it’s the first of its kind in the Richmond area.
The program is in collaboration with Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Henrico Community Corrections, Gray Haven and Henrico Public Health.
Most of the 36 men assessed for the class since March 2013 were educated, married white men with no prior arrest record, according to data gathered by Commonwealth Catholic Charities. About a third lived in western Henrico, compared with 5 percent in the eastern portion of the county. The rest were from other parts of the Richmond region, Virginia or out of state.
Safe Harbor Shelter and The Gray Haven Project, two local shelters for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, each receive $50 of the $200 fee paid by johns. The rest goes to class supplies, facility fees and other overhead expenses, said Marie Olenych, director of counseling services at Commonwealth Catholic Charities.
The class is part of a plea agreement defendants are offered depending on criminal history. The plea agreement also includes six hours of jail time, HIV and hepatitis C screening, a ban from all Henrico hotels, 24 hours of community service and probation.
Many similar programs — including those in Norfolk and Newport News — trace their history to the First Offender Prostitution Program started in San Francisco in 1995. Olenych said there is not a nationally recognized central organization tracking existing John Schools.
The eight-hour class starts with an evaluation of the offender to determine his motivation for seeking prostitution. The most common answer — 37 percent — was a desire for excitement or to alleviate boredom.
Henrico Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Feinmel leads a session on how prostitution fuels substance abuse, violence and other crimes. Many in the audience know him as the prosecutor who landed them there.
“The money you give is more than likely going to end up in the hands of a pimp or drug dealer,” Feinmel tells the participants. Often the pimps purchase drugs for prostitutes to more easily control them, he said.
Convictions do not distinguish between buyer, seller or pimp when it comes to state law code. In the past six years, prostitution convictions statewide rose to almost 800 in 2010. The total decreased to slightly fewer than 500 last year, 127 of which came from Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.
In Henrico, prostitution arrests rose to 75 last year — compared with four arrests 10 years earlier — after Henrico police launched “Operation Innkeeper” to monitor county hotels for prostitution rings.
Director of Henrico Community Corrections Jane Hardell oversees probation and pretrial supervision for men in the program and said the Henrico police operation created a larger need for services among convicted prostitutes and solicitors.
“If they hadn’t started with the arrests there,” she said, “we wouldn’t have had a need to initiate the John School.”
Henrico Police Chief Douglas Middleton said the majority of prostitution in Henrico involves pimps and prostitutes traveling around the nation who aren’t from the area.
“We have also seen the prostitutes as targets of robberies, rapes and assaults,” Middleton said in a statement. “We have seen persons posing as prostitutes that have committed robberies and fraud-based offenses on their prospective johns.”
The johns hear from Feinmel and get a health segment on sexually transmitted diseases commonly associated with prostitution. Then Josh Bailey, CEO and co-founder of Gray Haven, talks to the men about the exploitation of women involved in prostitution and human trafficking.
He said that years ago seeking prostitution meant going to a certain area of town, trying not to be seen.
“Now because of the Internet, people could buy sex as quickly as they order a pizza,” he said. Prostitution “normalizes that girls are objects, normalizes that (men) have the right to take advantage of that.”
Bailey also shows videos of victims at Gray Haven sharing their stories of emotional and physical abuse and manipulation.
The class helps them realize the full impact of their actions and create a plan to avoid prostitution in the future, Bailey said, adding he doesn’t believe the men should be shamed into change.
“Consequences are important and we need stiffer penalties. I’d also like to see a redemptive process where men have the opportunity to change, and that begins with education,” he said.
The December participant said the anonymous nature of prostitution blocked him from thinking about what a prostitute might be going through.
“This really shook me up. … It really opened up my eyes,” he said. “I get on the website and I’m just looking for a girl. I don’t think: Why is this girl doing what she’s doing?”
When he took the class, he approached it like the substance-abuse support groups he had been in years ago. He exchanged numbers with some of the other men in the class so they could call each other for support when they thought about buying sex again.
“Whoever you go out and seek, that’s somebody’s child,” he said. “I wanted to be in a room with people who asked a lot of questions, who really wanted to utilize the program as much as possible. … That’s how people survive. That’s how people get out of those conditions.”
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