Class Time For Johns

Article by Elle Hardy

I’m in Brazos County, Texas, in a roadside motel room colored by the soft light of Bowhunter on the TV and a collection of police-issue iPhones.

“I know what the eggplant emoji is,” says one of the detectives in the twin-bed room, referring to an oft-used sexting symbol, “but do we know if the prosecutors will take it as an agreement for sex?”

As we wait, they give me a chance to write my own guesses on the operation whiteboard: the number of johns they’ll bust today, and of those busted, how many will cry, possess drugs, carry unlicensed guns, and have outstanding warrants. But before I finish, I’m interrupted by cheering plain-clothed officers. Bowhunter’s Mike Carney has nailed a musk ox in the heart.

 “He’s coming,” crackles a police radio moments later, and the room comes alive.

I follow the officer in charge, Sergeant Paul Mahoney, into the bathroom, where he and his largest officer strap on their gun holsters and select a pair of handcuffs from a neat row. Two other detectives wait silently behind the hotel-room door, which is soon opened by a female cop, a tiny, bird-like woman in jeans and ill-suiting makeup, looking vaguely like the blurry online photo they posted offering her sexual services.

“Come in,” she says with a huge smile. The john puts his second foot inside the room and is jumped on and cuffed by four police officers.

Within seconds, I hear one of the officers mutter, “Fuck, he’s pissed himself.”

The other johns arrested that day would yell and struggle, or holler that they weren’t going to fight, but Fernando stands quietly as the cops search his pockets, his fear spreading across the front of his work trousers.

Gene, the male cop Fernando had been unwittingly sexting with, asks him why he’d been so stupid. In response, Fernando says softly, “I got to live with what happened,” his wet pants sticking to his legs. He goes on to calmly, politely answer questions about his wife, two jobs, and two toddlers back home.

Pissing himself will be the first in a series of humiliations for Fernando, and thousands of guys like him caught in john stings around the country. His mug shot, name, and engagement in “sex crimes” are splashed on the local news that evening, and will live on the internet forever. Fernando is another casualty in the war on sex, the fallout from a moral panic that is destroying lives in order to save them.

A week after Fernando’s arrest, I’m in a church basement in downtown Waco, Texas, with 11 more johns busted while attempting to procure sex. They avoid each other’s gaze, just as they avoid, even more carefully, the eyes of the man standing before them.

“This won’t be a hug-athon,” says Brett Mills, coordinator of an anti-prostitution program—a “john school”—to a field of lowered baseball caps. “We’re kind, but we’re not faint of heart.”

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