Johns of the world, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your shame. In fact, you deserve protection like any other consumer.

Published April 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when Dick Morris, President Clinton's former chief political adviser, was revealed as a john, he claimed to be a recovering sex addict. When Republican State Senator Drew Nixon was caught up in an Austin street sting -- he propositioned an undercover police officer done up as a decoy hooker -- he apologized to his mother after first being encouraged by Gov. George W. Bush to "seek help."

Atoning in public and agreeing to seek counseling is the modern john's way of getting off the hook. While it may not be the newest trick in the book, it's certainly one worth learning. How many of us would not identify with the Morrises and Nixons of the world? By confessing to an illness, we can perhaps at least add a layer to the face we've already lost. As a child, I felt both smug and safe when I successfully faked an illness to stay home from school. Had I then known what a mental disturbance -- like addiction -- could have done for me, I would have faked that, too.

Another method is outraged martyrdom. In 1994, Hugh Loebner outed himself as a john on the letters page of the New York Times because, as he puts it, "Under Mayor Giuliani, my people were being oppressed, and I wanted to do something about it. My fellow sleazoids are being hunted down and arrested -- their cars are taken from them." He was equally upset by the injustices endured by working girls. A prostitute he knows "was incarcerated for almost two years during her peak earning years. It's like locking up a football player at the height of his physical powers." Loebner has gone so far as to post a "Manifesto Of Sexual Freedom" on his own Web site.

Joe Lavezzo, a member of the New York Conservative Party, turned his peccadillo into a virtue. He came out as a john on "20/20," after running on a decriminalization of prostitution platform in Manhattan's 14th Congressional District last November. "Morris is saying he's a sex addict? You might as well say you're a food addict because you have to eat once a day," Lavezzo says with a shrug.

While nobody would call this a mass movement, activist johns are coming into their own, almost as a new species of consumer rights advocates. Ralph Nader does not exactly figure as their role model, though. "It's a different kind of consumer activism. I'm more like an AIDS activist importing drugs illegally from Mexico because they haven't been approved by the FDA," says Lavezzo. "Or the cancer patients who wanted to buy laetrile and couldn't in the 1970s."

The acknowledged pioneer of john activism, Fred Cherry, began his one-man campaign against New York state's prostitution laws in 1962, when patronizing a prostitute was not yet a crime. His concern was for prostitutes, mostly women, who were being arrested. "I tried to make a speech at a meeting of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and I was hooted down," Cherry recalls.

Cherry began seeing call girls in 1956. The going rates then "would astound you," he says. "I used to visit a very nice brothel on Sutton Place South for $20." In the summer of 1964, the New York City League for Sexual Freedom held a protest against prostitution laws in front of the women's house of detention in Greenwich Village. Cherry seized the moment: "There was a law forbidding the use of a petition table on the sidewalk, and I was sure it was unconstitutional, so I set up a table, and we got a lot of publicity as a result."

Soon after, members of the Mattachine Society -- a gay rights organization -- "joined the League for Sexual Freedom en masse," says Cherry. "The Mattachine Society members took over and changed the policies so that the League became an anti-prostitute organization. If those homosexuals had not taken over the League for Sexual Freedom, the League might have achieved the decriminalization of prostitution." Cherry does not forgive easily, and has developed a reputation as a homophobe, for which he does not apologize. Last year, he was told by a prostitutes' rights mailing list group to stop making anti-gay remarks -- or risk expulsion. His over-the-top anti-gay attacks -- and his penchant for aggressive cross-posting -- have made him persona non grata on many a BBS. "I've been kicked off three ISPs," he admits.

In Springfield, Mo., Marc Perkel maintains a Men's Guide to Escort Services, a Web page that tells men "how to be a Quality Customer, the kind prostitutes want to see," says Perkel. "I also tell them how to avoid some legal problems: 'You're paying for a girl's company, and if she has sex it's because she's overwhelmingly attracted (to you).' You have to go along with some romantic myths and rituals to protect yourself legally."

At the International Conference on Prostitution held at California State University, Northridge, in Southern California in March, Perkel met Hugh Loebner and Jim Korn for the first time. Korn, a San Francisco john in his late 40s, describes his orientation as "queer" -- not exclusively into men or women. "I fear that sex work may always be maligned," Korn said during his presentation, "because it's a melding of sex and commerce. The conservatives don't like it because it's sex, and the liberals don't like it because it's commerce."

For all of the activist johns' efforts, mainstream society has yet to get the message. While harsher penalties are still reserved for prostitutes, johns all over North America are being targeted by police departments and prosecutors. In February, Vancouver's vice squad announced that it would stop busting street prostitutes and start focusing on the johns. "We firmly believe these men are predators," Inspector Den Doern announced, adding that his officers now consider prostitutes to be victims. Outreach workers who counsel prostitutes support the policy, which appalls Andrew Sorfleet, a prostitute and founder of SWAV (Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver). "Real 'predators' are men who pretend to be clients in order to rape, beat or rob prostitutes," he says. The campaign against johns, he adds ominously, is "a moral crusade" fueled by "the misconception that sex workers need to be 'rescued' -- with or without our consent."

John sweeps are typically conducted by street corner decoys dressed in provocative gear. Delvida Clarke, a California police officer, is reputed to have made more than 1,000 john arrests, including an elderly man from a nursing home. Clarke reported that one john who was hearing-impaired conducted his negotiations on a notepad.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, arrested patrons are encouraged to weasel out of an embarrassing situation by pleading guilty and attending john school for a day. There they are subjected to Oprah-style presentations by former prostitutes who try to convince them that the only women they'll meet on the street are bitter dysfunctionals who don't know how to have a good time -- or vice cops with a quota to fill. (There's a joke circulating in the hookers' movement: "Those who can't hook, snitch. Those who can't snitch anymore call up their ol' buddy and start a john school.") In San Francisco, busted johns pay $500 to attend the one-day seminar -- roughly equivalent to three hours of consensual punishment with a mid-priced dominatrix (before tipping).

There are similar programs in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. Proponents say men there learn about sexually transmitted diseases. But Julian Goldstein, a Vancouver prostitute, points out that in communities where john schools are popular, residents are also complaining about finding condoms in their yards. If that's the case, he observes, johns need a course on littering, not STDs.

Canadian johns might well be the latest victims of U.S. cultural imperialism. In Canada, Goldstein notes, prostitution itself is not a crime, though a soliciting law bans "communicating in public for the purpose." If Canadian john schools can't keep their focus on the illegal behavior -- solicitation -- "they are overstepping their bounds by talking about the morality of prostitution," says Goldstein. Sadly, NAFTA does not regulate the way in which we in the U.S. export our morality surplus.

By Tracy Quan

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