Teaching the 'Johns' a Lesson in North Dakota About the Dirty Side of Sex for Hire

Winter nights are cold and lonely in North Dakota, a state filled with oil industry workers whose wallets are bulging with cash. As a result, organized crime, knowing an opportunity when it sees one, has flooded North Dakota with prostitutes.

“We have seen a rise in human trafficking,” FBI spokesman Kyle Loven told CNN. “Because of the opportunities which exist, that’s a natural thing.”

It’s never been easy fighting organized crime or a young man’s libido, but Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider sold his fellow legislators on the idea that the best way to keep prostitutes out of North Dakota was to cut off demand for sex.

He’s proposed a concept that has worked successfully in another Upper Midwest community, St. Paul, Minn.: send the johns to school and show them the seamy side of prostitution.

The idea seems simple enough to Schneider. Cut off the demand and no matter how strong the supply chain, the product will die. Of course, he is talking about stopping the oldest business in human history.

And the way he sees it, the best way to get guys to stop paying for sex is by re-educating them.

So, Schneider introduced the legislation in 2015 to set up North Dakota’s first school for “johns,” the customers of prostitutes. It was part of a package approved in April that included legislation stiffening the penalties on people who pay prostitutes for sex.

It’s all about education: Offenders will be sentenced to the school as part of their punishment. Hopefully, according to Schneider, once they learn the grim realities of the prostitution business they will change their ways.

The idea of sending johns to school for re-education about the seedy side of the sex-for-cash industry looks good to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (R-N.D.).

“N.D. is taking important steps to combat #humantrafficking -new law creating ‘John School’ 4 perpetrators is in effect,” Heitkamp tweeted.

But what are those steps? Just how do you convince a man, an oil industry worker, for instance, on a lonely night in North Dakota, to ignore a woman offering sex for the money in his pocket?

Christina Sambor, the coordinator of one of the groups organizing the school, did not respond to a PJM request for more information. Her organization, Force to End Human Sexual Exploitation, and the North Dakota Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission are still developing the in-class program.

However, an inkling of what’s ahead in North Dakota can be seen by taking a look at the Offenders Prostitution Program in St. Paul that inspired Sambor and Schneider in North Dakota.

Organized more than 10 years ago by a community group, Breaking Free, the St. Paul program was a response to complaints from people who lived in two neighborhoods that their sidewalks were filled with hookers.

St. Paul police had been doing the usual — they busted the women and their customers, throwing the prostitutes in jail and fining the johns.

It didn’t work. The women didn’t stay in jail long, and even if they did, there were others to replace those who wound up behind bars. The johns, who came from upper middle class neighborhoods, were able to quickly pay their fines and return with more money for sex.

Breaking Free worked with local law enforcement in St. Paul to create the Offenders Prostitution Program, or John School as it has come to be known. It is an 8-hour, all-day seminar led by Breaking Free Staff.

The program includes representatives from the St. Paul Police Department, the city attorney’s office, and sexual and mental health experts.

Women who are described by the Breaking Free website as “survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution” also make presentations to the students.

“They are folks who have been in the ‘life’ and understand the issue inside and out,” Terry Forliti, a systems analyst for Breaking Free, told PJM.

Forliti said 248 men attended the John School class from 2000-2011, and another 155 men spend a day in the seminars in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

These guys are not arch criminals. Most of them were married, had children, and were 30-49 years of age.

More than 81 percent had never been arrested before, or even visited a strip club in the previous three months, or used drugs. But more than 60 percent had paid for sex more than once.

Forliti said the organization doesn’t have hard empirical evidence that the John School is reducing the number of men who are out trolling for sex in St. Paul.

But, she said they do see a “paradigm shift in the attitudes of the men when they came into the class and when they left.”

Forliti said most of the John School students didn’t even realize what they were doing — picking up women and paying for sex — was illegal, until they had the misfortune to approach a woman who was actually an undercover officer.

The impact of prostitution on their communities and their families is also part of what the men learn in John School. Forliti said they are also shown that the women they are paying for sex are not doing it because it is their chosen profession or even because they enjoy it.

“We teach them the lies that are told in the business of prostitution,” Forliti said, “including the big lie that the women actually care about them.”

Forliti said many of the John School students are shocked when they are told “these women are really not interested in you.”