A second so-called “john school” in Minnesota has opened in St. Cloud for a growing number of sex buyers caught in undercover prostitution stings in the region.
For years, the only such program in Minnesota has operated out of St. Paul, put on by Breaking Free, a nonprofit that provides housing and services to adult victims. But as Stearns County ramped up prosecution of sex buyers, it asked the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center to create its own program.
The “Not Buying It” School started last year and will hold its fourth meeting in October.
“The point is to break the cycle of denial,” said Rebecca Kotz, the center’s human trafficking services coordinator. “[For] most individuals who were exploited this way, this was the last option. … Bribery is not consent.”
Just this month, a first-of-its-kind University of Minnesota study analyzed sex buyers across the state. The report found that buyers typically travel 30 to 60 miles for sex, often before or after work or while on business trips. They live all over — from rural towns to suburbs — and tend to be married, between 30 and 50 years old and white, reflecting the state’s population.
“We … had to turn guys down because we arrested so many people on our first [sting]. It was just constant,” a Central Minnesota law enforcement officer told researchers.
The report didn’t try to quantify the number of buyers but estimated based on a national study that 26,000 Minnesota men, or 1 percent of the state’s male population, may have bought sex in the past year, while 380,000 men, or 14 percent, have done so sometime in their life.
From Duluth to Mankato, agencies of all sizes across the state are cracking down on johns as well as pimps. But, the report estimated, likely less than 1 percent of buyers ever get arrested.
Stearns County, which has the highest number of sex ads in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities, has arrested and prosecuted more than 100 sex buyers in the past few years.
In St. Cloud, “Not Buying It” has worked with about two dozen men so far. Unlike Breaking Free’s program, not all men who attend are first-time offenders, but all were convicted of solicitation and ordered by courts to take part. They pay $750 for the eight-hour program with the goal, Kotz said, of better understanding the realities of sexual exploitation.
At each course, Kotz reads three “Dear John” letters from survivors. Survivors also share their story in person, and presenters such as Chuck Derry, co-founder of the Clearwater-based Gender Violence Institute, discuss male socialization — from objectifying women to aggressive porn.
“Hostility to women is a just a cultural norm. … Men are getting pleasure at women’s pain,” Derry said. “It’s time for men to step up … to end all sexual violence.”
Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, passed in 2011, was fully implemented in 2014, decriminalizing sexually exploited youth under 18 years old. And this year, the Legislature approved the final funding piece in a $13.3 million, five-year plan, adding shelter beds and resources for victims statewide.
Central Minnesota doesn’t have any sex trafficking victim-specific housing yet like the Twin Cities, which has facilities such as the Link’s Passageways program. But the St. Cloud-based sexual assault center has free counseling and support groups. Kotz also speaks to boys at middle schools and high schools and men at nearby universities about sex trafficking, sexual violence and healthy relationships. But education is limited; even the “Not Buying It” program reaches a small fraction of buyers.
“It’s so rare for the buyers to get caught in the first place,” she said. And “we know there are some individuals who will continue to buy and don’t care what the cost is to women’s lives.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141