Texas

Inside the ‘school’ for men caught paying for sex | Sex

Pizza had been ordered for lunch, and greasy police fingers were now all over the officers’ weapons. Not their guns – their holsters were slung in a corner of the roadside motel room. For this sting operation, the detectives were armed with iPhones, texting their way into the coming frenzy.

“I know what the eggplant emoji is,” said Det Gene, referring to the oft-used sexting symbol, “but do we know if the prosecutors will take it as an agreement for sex?”

The youngest of this sting team in Brazos county, Texas, Gene’s thumbs were called into action for maximum authenticity whenever older detectives had someone on the hook.

Police in Texas and many parts of the United States regularly conduct these operations to catch men buying sex. This is, after all, a country in which consenting adults selling and buying sex remains illegal in all but a tiny strip of Las Vegas.

I had been invited to witness frontline policing of the sex trade in what they believe is a radical change to the way they go about it – going after “johns”, not “janes”.

But before we could reel in any johns, we had to put our guesses up on the whiteboard: how many we’d bust today, and of those we would bust, how many would cry, possess drugs, carry unlicensed guns, or have outstanding warrants. I had just finished my tally when the room suddenly came alive.

“He’s coming,” crackled the police radio, and we moved into position.

Sgt Paul Mahoney, the officer in charge, grabbed my wrist and led me into the bathroom. There, he and his largest officer strapped on their gun holsters and selected a pair of handcuffs. Gene and another detective waited silently behind the motel room door, opened by a female cop in jeans and ill-suiting makeup.

“Come in,” she greeted the john with a huge smile, moving backwards into the room.

She was dancing to the words of the district attorney, who had strictly warned Mahoney that a foot has to be inside the door for an arrest to stick.

Once the guy had stepped in, the moves were precise. By the time I made it out of the bathroom, the john was in cuffs and his pockets were turned out.

“Fuck,” Mahoney said, his crew looking for anything that might get the john on the scoreboard. “He’s pissed himself.”

The other men arrested that day would fight, or promise that they weren’t going to fight, but Fernando stood quietly as the officers went through his pockets, his fear spreading across the front of his work trousers.

Gene, the male cop Fernando had been unwittingly sexting with, asked him why he’d been so stupid. Fernando replied softly: “I got to live with what happened.” He went on to calmly, politely answer questions that revealed a wife, two jobs and two toddlers at home.

Pissing himself would only be the first in a series of humiliations for Fernando, and thousands of guys like him caught in john stings around the country. His mugshot, name and engagement in “sex crimes” were splashed on the local evening news as a matter of course, and will live on the internet forever.

Puritanical readings of sex and social relations have long bound faith and politics to one another, but the Pentecostal movement that exploded in Texas has put a new veneer on American efforts to combat the world’s oldest profession, coating advocacy in the language of social justice and sisterhood. And across Texas, this amounts to leading a war on sex that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

Fernando is another casualty in a moral panic that is destroying lives in order to save souls.


A week after Fernando’s arrest, I was in a church basement in downtown Waco, Texas, with 11 johns who had been busted while attempting to procure sex. They were avoiding each other’s gaze, keeping their heads down under their baseball caps – and even more carefully evading the eyes of the man standing before them.

“This won’t be a hugathon,” warned Brett Mills, coordinator of an anti-prostitution programme known as a “john school”. “We’re kind, but we’re not faint of heart.”

Mills has been running this john school – a mandatory education programme for men convicted of first-time solicitation offences – since 2016, through Jesus Said Love, a not-for-profit organization that he runs with his wife Emily. Each man attending the class had to pay $525 for the privilege, as part of a misdemeanour charge for soliciting a prostitute online.

Unidentified men attend a ‘prostitution diversion program’. The program will allow them to have that conviction expunged from their record. Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Class rules were read out: sleepers and phone-checkers get one warning before being asked to leave the room; anyone showing up drunk, high or late will be kicked out of the program altogether. Mills instructed the johns to “own their story” by sharing how they had been arrested – he wasn’t going to tolerate anyone protesting their innocence.

If Mills had his way, the class would cost 20 times more than it already does, so that the johns would feel the true weight of their crime. For instance, he says, the average DUI costs in excess of $10,000 when impounding, fines, court and attorney fees are taken into account. “And don’t tell me that legalization is the way to go. The only one who wins there are the regulators, ’cos they get the money. Go to a bar and meet someone!”

The guys had been arrested in a series of police stings, which are increasingly taking place across Texas. Of the johns in the room, seven were Latino, one was Asian, and all were blue-collar workers. The three white guys were all serving military personnel, low-level.

Mills commanded the room, switching between cool youth group leader and drill sergeant. “There are eight women in our office right now that have been perpetrated on by guys like you!” he yelled, to silence and soft expressions.

Jesus Said Love, or JSL, is primarily focused on helping “janes” leave the commercial sex industry, and its john schools, which teach that women should not be bought and sold, have become a core part of that mission. It does no harm that they have also become a lucrative line of business, and attracted significant political support.

Unable to shrink any further inside himself, Tanner was called on to share his story. A tall, thin, 24-year-old suburban Dallas kid, he clenched his fists around the side of his T-shirt, his eyelids at half-mast. While others fidgeted and downed energy drinks, he talked about the day he was arrested – the day before he was due to go on deployment.

“I just wanted to talk to a female face before being stuck in a box,” he remembered. “I tried to call and got a text back. I thought it was weird, but I just wanted to see a woman. Then these two guys are comin’ at me. I tried to fight back; they didn’t ID as cops. There was no video or audio surveillance – it all seems kind of sketchy to me.”

Mills asked the other johns who had had their mugshot posted on the news. They all raised their hands. “And on Facebook, everyone saw it on Facebook,” Tanner added quietly. Mills yelled: “I don’t give a fuck about your face on the news, I care about these women!”

At the same time, he says that his philosophy is that they can’t condemn the johns. “Holding up a bloody fetus is shaming, and it’s weird,” he told me. “We treat people with kindness no matter how awful they are to women, so that we can get in their ear.”

At lunch time out in the carpark, a number of the guys shared cigarettes and embarrassed jokes, but one figure stood apart. Tanner, the military kid who’d tried to voice an excuse, was walking in anxious lines up and down the empty parking spaces, painfully alone.

He didn’t want to talk about what had happened, but the words tumbled out like a waterfall anyway. “I just want it all behind me. I hope that this is the end.”

Tanner was arrested with 30 others in a sting at a motel near Fort Hood, one of America’s largest military bases. Local media ran his mugshot, plus a report that he had been found in possession of a knife, six strands of rope, duct tape and a body bag. He told deputies he’d brought the rope up to the room because he had a bondage fetish. The other items were later found in a search of his car.

“There was no investigation,” a broken Tanner said. “The sheriff told the media that I was a serial killer.”

Mahoney, from the sting that nabbed Fernando, had also been there that day, participating in a cross-county exercise. “We arrested a lot of johns that day, but I remember Tanner,” he told me. “I was on surveillance. I saw that he had put on his big bowie knife on his hip. They dunked him pretty hard ’cos they knew about this knife. He was a squirrelly dude. I remember after they arrested him that he wouldn’t tell them his name, wouldn’t say he was buyin’. Maybe he wasn’t going to kidnap her, I don’t know.”

The day after class, I arrived at the Waco office of the McLennan county sheriff, Parnell McNamara, to talk to him and his human trafficking team.

“Some of these guys should have been shot,” he declared after showing off his guns and a DVD of his law enforcement triumphs. “The johns are the root of the evil, creating the demand. It’s a big effort: the pimps, the johns, the molesters are all in it together.”

McNamara paused and asked me to write down one quote verbatim: “Child molesters should be tied to a post and horsewhipped every day.”

Anti-sex trade advocates prepare anti-sex trafficking awareness literature for an outreach program near the Super Bowl site in Arlington, Texas.
Anti-sex trade advocates prepare anti-sex trafficking awareness literature for an outreach program near the Super Bowl site in Arlington, Texas. Photograph: LM Otero/AP

Moving on to a gateway theory as to why a guy might want to see a prostitute, McNamara argued that soliciting is like the marijuana of sex. “I think prostitution leads to child molestation. Johns get bored and escalate to something weirder, kinkier.”

McNamara is something of a Waco legend, and that’s no accident. The 73-year-old sheriff was cited as the inspiration for Jeff Bridges’ character Marcus Hamilton in the 2016 Academy Award–nominated film Hell or High Water. Bridges plays an ornery US ranger not ready to face mandatory retirement at age 57 – which is exactly what happened to McNamara after 30-plus years as a Texas deputy marshal. “You gotta get the right lookin’ hat,” was his advice to Bridges, who shadowed the Stetson-loving sheriff to prepare for the role. “If you get a stupid hat, you’ll wind up lookin’ like Howdy Doody.”

Of the Jesus Said Love john school he has not visited, McNamara said: “The Mills are good, good people, and it’s a wonderful program they have. There’s a place for them, at least as an attempt to straighten people out.”

It’s debatable, though, whether john schools, or “stop demand” programmes as they are sometimes called, have any effect beyond humiliation.

The first of its kind was launched in 1981 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was then developed into competing models.

In 2011, Texas passed a state law allowing any county or city to create a john school as an alternative to fines or incarceration. As with drunk driving, it is the local prosecutor’s decision whether attendance at a john school is required under misdemeanor charges for soliciting.

“It’s the wild west, totally unregulated,” says Michael Shively, an independent researcher who has evaluated john schools extensively for the justice department. “It is almost impossible to find out whether they work, and there is almost no accountability. The criminal justice system is heavily discretionary – there’s a lot of latitude on restitution versus punishment.”

Shame is driving so much of this activity. Convicted johns live with the very real possibility of losing their jobs and families, and so they rarely fight their cases in court, unable to bear the cost and desperate to put the event behind them. Of course, many of them stand trial regardless – paraded on the evening’s news – and, in the event anyone didn’t catch that, their shame lives in perpetuity online.

Shively doesn’t know how many schools are currently in operation nationwide, but if Texas law has its way, they’ll be popping up like taco trucks. As with many other startups, the “moral entrepreneurs” behind these schools might have to contend with the flow of supply and demand, but such initiatives are undoubtedly money-spinners. The fees paid by johns to attend these classes are seen as a key component of the restorative justice philosophy that underpins the movement.

Jesus Said Love is no exception. A charity financed by private donations and revenues from its monthly john school, according to its annual report, JSL averages revenues of about $500,000 a year. Its annual fundraising weekend getaway, Wild Torch, is attended by a who’s who of local business leaders, church leaders and political figures, including McNamara.


If Mills likes to be the balls of the operation, then his wife, Emily, is the heart. She first felt called to work with women in the sex industry about 15 years ago. She now spends much of her time organising gift bag runs to Texas strip clubs, providing women with high-quality toiletries as well as resources if they want to leave the business.

“I believe we’re divine beings, not for sale. But it doesn’t matter in secular terms, and I get that,” she told me. “Sex is a $3.2bn industry – look at the economics, look at whose backs it’s built on. This country fought a war over slavery as economics. Is that why we’re not doing anything? Is it just about money and white male power?”

Brett and Emily aren’t Pentecostal per se, but the spirit-led faith has profoundly influenced them, and the entire anti-sex work industry, far more than many realise. Raised Southern Baptist, Emily recalled the Britney Spears-era chastity pledges and other strict moral measures that felt outdated, even for a conservative Christian like herself.

Congregants at First Baptist Dallas church.
Congregants at First Baptist Dallas church. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

But in Waco, a megachurch called Antioch is a pillar of town life here, right up with McNamara and the Baylor Bears football team. And the church’s anti-human trafficking organization, Unbound, is an increasingly powerful force.

Antioch, which got going as a charismatic church in 1999, has helped to rebrand opposition to sex work as an “anti-trafficking” and “anti-modern slavery” stance, bringing to mind Christian abolitionist figures such as John Brown who helped end the enslavement of Black people in the American south. Today, Unbound is an international operation: as well as its ministries in three US states, it’s working on the ground in Asia and South Africa.

Back in its home state, Unbound has become one of the largest anti-trafficking groups operating in Texas. It works across multiple cities, assisting police in sting operations, monitoring online prostitution ads, and putting together school programmes. It enjoys the support of other megachurches in the state, and the head of its Houston chapter, Kerri Taylor, is the wife of a Texas senator.

Jessica Sykora, head of training at Unbound Waco, told me that they felt the county district attorney, Republican Barry Johnson, was “going to be a good asset”, who “has the right attitude, but needs more education to be accurate”.

After a few days in each other’s company, I came to realise that the Mills, who were usually deeply distrustful of mainstream media, had let me spend time with their john school because Emily’s idol is my Australian compatriot Christine Caine – a Hillsong alumna whose popular talk on “anti-slavery” inspired Emily’s calling.

The Caines’ anti-human trafficking organisation, which has 14 offices on four continents, brought in $8.9m in 2018, and $8.05m the next year. The family of former vice-president Mike Pence are supporters of the charity, called the A21 Campaign, which received a portion of the sales from a series of children’s books written by Pence’s wife and daughter.

But, while Caine might specialise in helping good millennial and Gen X women feel that they’re doing social good, the anti-modern slavery or “abolitionist” movement isn’t all that it seems.

For some women, life in the sex trade is hell. For others, it’s a choice, and a valid way to make a living. It’s invaluable and commendable that organisations like A21 or Jesus Said Love provide shelter for abused women, and opportunities for them to pursue new lives – but you don’t tend to hear those groups advocating for the kind of welfare that might spare people from feeling they had no choice but to enter the sex industry in the first place.

The A21 campaign director, Christian Elliott, speaks against sex trafficking in New York in 2015.
The A21 campaign director, Christian Elliott, speaks against sex trafficking in New York in 2015. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

In other words, evangelical-founded anti-trafficking groups may be offering exactly the kind of “female empowerment” that I witnessed in Texas, which is more about affirming the savior than understanding the real needs and lives of those to be “saved”.

It’s also hard to get away from the signs that, in the US itself, the movement interests itself only in a certain type of victim. For all of the genuine altruism in the work of JSL and Unbound in Waco, they’re only ever waiting in carparks outside of strip joints—not helping the dish-washers and nail salon workers who have been trafficked into other kinds of work.

They might mean well, but it is clear that “anti-trafficking” and “modern slavery” mean more to the people who call it such than to those they’ve selectively identified as its victims. These are just buzzwords for a certain kind of sexual ethics that has become the stock in trade of today’s Pentecostal movement.

The modern Pentecostal woman isn’t attending to her uncut hair or home-schooling a brood of children. Much like Christine Caine and Emily Mills, she’s an educated, savvy person; not one for feminism, but all in for the sisterhood; speaking in the language of social justice to promote fundamentalist Christian values; weaponising society’s ills and the latest cultural trends as the movement has always done, but with a new goal for the 21st century – not converting believers, but changing the world.


Whether the johns are paying much attention in class isn’t important. It is evident that the people listening most intently to “stop demand” entrepreneurs are those in positions of power.

Legislation in Texas saw a raft of john schools open up in the late 2010s. Governor Greg Abbott began an anti-prostitution campaign, saying that “anyone who commits these crimes should be behind bars”. The raft of harsh new measures includes cracking down on the promotion of prostitution, and on online sex advertising.

Stings are increasingly focused on johns rather than janes, usually via ads posted by police on foreign websites that were set up in the wake of the federal shutdown of Backpage, the major sex ad site. Incidentally, credit card companies almost effectively did the same to PornHub after a sustained campaign by Exodus Cry, an organization linked to evangelical leader Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer in Kansas City, which runs “restoration” shelters similar to those of Jesus Said Love and A21.

Men buying sex are being reframed as pimps and pedophiles – well, not all men, exactly.

Greg Abbott.
Greg Abbott. Photograph: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis/Getty Images

These efforts are only hurting those they claim to help. Women in the sex trade often work in pairs or groups for safety reasons, driving each other to jobs and helping to manage calls – this means that they get ensnared in these laws, frequently being arrested for trafficking each other.

After visiting a number of john schools, it also seemed clear to me that police operations are targeting a certain type of john. In 2012, Rachel Lovell of DePaul University studied mugshots taken by the Chicago police department over two years. She found that almost all of its stings had taken place in poor, African American and Latino neighborhoods, targeting clients of street-based sex workers. More than 85% of the men arrested were Black or Latino.

Meanwhile, in a high-profile case from late 2020, prosecutors in Florida dropped the solicitation charges against the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, who was alleged to have bought “rub and tug” services at a day spa.


Ayesha, a 30-year old sex worker who has been working the Triangle for 15 years, says that she made a decision to enter that line of work, and did so with her eyes open.

A Texas native, Ayesha ran away from home at 14 because she didn’t get on with her grandmother – both of her parents had been incarcerated for low-level drug offenses. Recently arrested for the first time in her career by authorities pushing this new line, she worries that the law’s sudden obsession could see her wind up in prison too.

“I got caught in a sting in Dallas. They didn’t want to let me go,” she said. “It was the FBI’s human trafficking squad, they were trying to make me say that I was a victim. I’m like, look at me, check my demeanor – I don’t look like I’m being forced.”

Law enforcement agencies are taking on the rhetoric given to them by faith-based groups such as Unbound and Jesus Said Love. And, in turn, those organizations are sounding an awful lot like policymakers. “The mortality rate for trafficking victims is seven years from entry – usually through suicide, violence and drugs,” Emily Mills told me, using a frequently cited but false statistic. “People don’t realise that they are victims. We tell them that they are a walking miracle. The victims have to learn to say that they are victims.”

Ayesha couldn’t disagree more. For a high school dropout like her, getting into sex work felt like an astute decision: “What else am I going to do, bag groceries in Walmart for $7.25 an hour?”

Ayesha counts a former sheriff among her clientele, most of whom are older white guys, but says that you only need to glance at the skin color of her colleagues’ and clients’ mugshots to see who is actually being arrested. For her, full legalisation of sex work is the only way forward, not least because sex itself is only a small part of her work.

“A lot of my guys can’t perform,” she told me. Many of them just want company.

This new police obsession with “sex crimes” means that, for her, the risk of getting a criminal record is now too high. As a Black teenage mom, high-school dropout, she’s finishing a business degree at college with the aim of completing an MBA. Funded entirely by her work on the streets, it’s her little wink at the world – appearances can deceive both ways, you know.


Republicans such as Abbott and McNamara feel there is a moral blight on the Texas landscape, cities where pimps, prostitutes and “illegals” run the streets and threaten traditional values.

In a climate of disinformation and conspiracy, it hasn’t taken long for this idea – that pimps and pedophiles are roaming our neighborhoods, ready to take our children – to be picked up by people willing to take matters into their own hands.

Troublingly, during the height of the pandemic in 2020, ideas peddled by the “anti-slavery” movement saw the birth of an online vigilante movement.

#SaveOurChildren is closely linked to the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon. Conspiracy is often the twin of prophecy, and QAnon has been described by some who track it as a repurposed Christian apocalypse cult, which enjoys a lot of crossover with Pentecostals and Charismatics.

Law professor Bridgette Carr of the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic told me that these movements are ignoring the way trafficking actually happens: vulnerable people being exploited for profit, usually through an existing relationship. “I’ve represented hundreds and hundreds of victims and consulted on many more cases, and never, not one time in my case work, has a child been snatched by a stranger. Not one time.

“There is a willingness for a lot of non-profits to say whatever they need to say to get donations,” Carr added. “Many only do awareness and training, and they have no on-the-ground experience.” She cautions that many of the “glossy” online groups affiliated with evangelical megachurches “may never have actually served a real trafficking victim”.

Brett Mills, of course, would say differently. He’s busy searching for a repentant john to round out his curriculum at the Waco john school. That is, someone repentant enough to join his team.

There is no one better equipped to counsel the sex addicted than a former addict, he reasons, and the number of jobs that publicly branded sex addicts are welcome to apply for are few. The only option, then, is for humiliated johns to turn pro – to become part of the system that destroyed them.

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