Elliot Penner and Shelley Cook of the John Howard Society talk about a Prostitution Offender Program that 13 men arrested for soliciting prostitutes recently participated in.
The men were caught in undercover operations that involved a female officer posing as a prostitute in Kelowna and Vernon. Other Mounties were nearby and arrested them as soon as they asked what services she provided.
If the "johns" had no record and were co-operative, they got one chance to dodge their date in court and learn how to change their behaviour. Those willing to pay $600 took the Prostitution Offender Program and listened to a series of experts for nearly 10 hours in late November.
"This isn't necessarily an easy out," said Shelley Cook, executive director of the John Howard Society in Kelowna. "It's putting them more on the hot seat, making them more accountable and uncomfortable with their behaviour than if they . . . hide behind a lawyer."
Community agencies teamed up to teach the johns how communicating with sex workers affects the women, themselves and downtown businesses along the stroll. Thirty per cent of their fees - $2,500 in all - financed a similar program for women working as prostitutes.
The pilot program taught four women from Kelowna and Vernon how to say no to men, ways to respect their bodies and themselves, and how to avoid situations that degrades or endangers them. Like the men, if they completed the 2.5-day course, they avoided a criminal charge.
Former prostitutes on the road to recovery shared their stories with the women. The goal is to get the women out of their risky lifestyles and into transitional housing, said Jenn Straume of NOW Canada, a non-profit agency that serves women at risk.
"Most women in the sex trade come from a history of sexual abuse and violence," she said. "That makes them go and work on the streets . . . Anxiety and depression are big components."
Although prostitutes work in bars, clubs and massage parlours, police arrested only those on the street. One participant was 62 years old. All four completed the program.
The men ranged in age from 22 to 65. They watched a documentary that gave a sex worker's perspective. They learned about sexually transmitted infections and the risks of contracting a disease like HIV when not using a condom.
They found out the consequences of a criminal conviction and the risk to their family relationships. It's not uncommon for men to be married and have baby car seats in the back when they pick up a woman, said Cook.
The men also learn the potential hazards they may face when encountering a prostitute.
"There's a lot of danger in that line of work, for the worker and the john. You're entering a vehicle with another individual. That individual usually has a pimp," said Elliot Penner, who runs the program for the John Howard Society.
"They've vulnerable. They could get attacked. They won't go to the police because they're doing something illegal as well."
A high proportion of sex workers in the Okanagan are addicted and unwell, said Cook. Businesses can suffer because of the type of people they attract. The women may leave needles or use dirty crack pipes.
Performing a trick in a man's car has other pitfalls. The contents of her purse may dump out and leave needles or drugs in the vehicle.
"They can take that home to their family. They can have their kids or wife get in the car. A lot of these gentlemen never think of that," said Ron Beahun of the Downtown Kelowna Association.
So far, the 13 men seem to be staying away from the downtown stroll. Penner is unaware of any who've been caught communicating with prostitutes.
NOW Canada plans to hold the course for women three times a year. The John Howard Society plans to tie in the men's classes with police sting operations.
Also participating in the programs are the Living Positive Resource Centre, United Way, the RCMP and UBC-Okanagan's forensic psychology department.