Changing attitudes toward prostitution?

A new program aimed at cleaning up the streets through education has sprung up in Kelowna.

The pilot programs, initiated through the RCMP, John Howard Society, NOW Canada, Living Positive Resource Centre, Elizabeth Fry and others is designed to work with street level sex trade workers (Janes) and their customers (Johns).

The program is offered to men and women who have already been arrested.

Successful completion of the program means charges are usually dropped.

In November, 13 men were arrested in various sting operations in Kelowna and Vernon they were offered the opportunity to take part in the Prostitution Offender Program (POP Okanagan).

All 13 took advantage of the course at a cost of $600.

"Essentially, it's a community driven strategy, by that I mean you have a number of people in the community who see the negative impact of sex trade involvement, to provide an educational opportunity," says Shelley Cook, Executive Director of the John Howard Society which put on the John School.

"It's a day long school with a variety of different components. Health care, impacts from a legal and criminal justice point of view, impacts from residents, communities and businesses. I think very often people are not thinking about the impact of their behaviour."

How it affects their lives, their family and the health says Cook.

Cook says all 13 men successfully completed the program.

The John School was patterned after a program run for more than 20 years through the John Howard Society in Vancouver.

Research from that program shows as many as 60 per cent of men soliciting sex trade workers are either married or in a committed relationship.

"It's not uncommon to see baby car seats in the back seat of a vehicle when the men are picked up."

In Kelowna, those arrested ranged in age from about 22 to 55 years of age.

As a companion to the John School, NOW Canada has instituted a Sex Workers Alternative Program (SWAP).

Liz Talbott with NOW Canada says the women's program is brand new.

"We were approached by the RCMP because they were seeing a need on the streets for the women to be basically offered the same opportunity as they guys were getting," says Talbott.

"This was truly a pilot program for us. Our goal was to be a two-and-a-half day program. We decided this program needed to be longer. The women coming for two days and then coming back a couple of weeks later for half a day."

Like the men's program, Talbott says it's a one time opportunity for the women to avoid prosecution and a criminal record.

In Kelowna four women were arrested as part of the sting operation; two of those women volunteered to take the program.

There were two other women from Vernon in the initial program as well.

Jenn Straume, also with NOW Canada, says a large component of the women's program surrounds health and trauma issues.

"Most of the women that are involved in the sex trade come from a history of sexual abuse and violence," says Straume.

"Many issues that do really impact them ... makes them go out and work on the streets."

Straume says there was also a safety component to the class, learning healthy boundaries and how to set boundaries in relationships.

The women in the program ranged in age from 30 to 62.

Talbott says she believes the programs should be offered at least three times a year and hopes the pilot program will run for at least a year to see how it works.

She says there has already been interest shown from Kamloops and Penticton.


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