Friday, August 28, 2009

Educating John

I recently wrote that gender inequality is a men's issue. An initiative aimed at changing the attitudes and behavior of men who pay for sex seems to embody this principle. has a story about 'John Schools' worth checking out:

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- The accused came from all walks of life: Retirees, dads and twentysomethings. An engineer, a business owner and an auto worker. A man in a wheelchair. Men in need of Spanish or Farsi translators.

About 40 men somberly entered a classroom on a recent Saturday morning. About half of them wore shiny wedding bands.

All had tried to buy a prostitute's services and were caught by police. It was their first offense, and a county court referred them to a one-day program called the John School. It's a program run by volunteers and city officials in conjunction with Magdalene House, a nonprofit that works to get prostitutes off the streets.

"Prostitution doesn't discriminate," said Kenny Baker, a cognitive behavioral therapist who is the program's director. "Most of these men don't have a prior criminal history, so our goal is to help these folks understand why they put themselves in a bad position, to prevent it from happening again."

Set in a church in Nashville, Tennessee, the John School is led by former prostitutes, health experts, psychologists and law enforcement officers who talk to -- and at times berate -- the men about the risks of hiring a prostitute.

Prostitution is based on the law of supply and demand. The thinking is: Women won't stop selling sex until men stop buying.

So Nashville and a growing number of cities are shifting their focus from locking up suppliers to educating buyers. Across the country, about 50 communities are using John Schools. Atlanta, Georgia, and Baltimore, Maryland, are among dozens more cities that plan to launch similar programs by the end of the year.

"It will make them [offenders] see that this is not a victimless crime, and they are contributing to the exploitation of women," said Stephanie Davis, policy adviser on women's issues at the mayor's office in Atlanta. "It's hurting them, the man, and it's hurting their families and its hurting the community." (Read the whole thing here)

If prostitution is the "oldest profession", men providing the demand for it may very well be the oldest form of gender oppression. The 'John School' strikes me as an innovative approach to this ancient problem. It does have some limitations however. As mentioned in the article, it does not address men who are violent towards female sex workers, nor does it change the fact that the legal consequences of these transactions are worse for the women than for the men. Because the program focuses on "first time" offenders, it also misses those men who have been paying for sex repeatedly. It does however, have elements which are in harmony with Baha'i teaching about how criminality should be approached and the importance of addressing the attitudes of men.

Regarding crime, the Baha'i Writings state,

"...the communities are day and night occupied in making penal laws, and in preparing and organizing instruments and means of punishment. They build prisons, make chains and fetters, arrange places of exile and banishment, and different kinds of hardships and tortures, and think by these means to discipline criminals, whereas, in reality, they are causing destruction of morals and perversion of characters. The community, on the contrary, ought day and night to strive and endeavor with the utmost zeal and effort to accomplish the education of men, to cause them day by day to progress and to increase in science and knowledge, to acquire virtues, to gain good morals and to avoid vices, so that crimes may not occur. At the present time the contrary prevails; the community is always thinking of enforcing the penal laws, and of preparing means of punishment, instruments of death and chastisement, places for imprisonment and banishment; and they expect crimes to be committed. This has a demoralizing effect.

But if the community would endeavor to educate the masses, day by day knowledge and sciences would increase, the understanding would be broadened, the sensibilities developed, customs would become good, and morals normal; in one word, in all these classes of perfections there would be progress, and there would be fewer crimes" (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 271).

Regarding the attitudes of men, the Baha'i Writings make it clear that such attitudes have consequences that far exceed the negative social impact of prostitution. World peace itself is at stake.

"The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is one of the most important, though less acknowledged prerequisites of peace. The denial of such equality perpetrates an injustice against one half of the world's population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological, upon which such denial can be justified. Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge" (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)