Out of the gutter

The first school to reform kerb crawlers opened last week in Leeds.

My mother rang me on Friday evening. "What are you doing this weekend, pet?" "Running a school for men who've been caught kerb crawling," I replied. There was silence, and then: "You know what, Julie? I've never said anything before about your mad schemes, but this one takes the biscuit!"

I knew what she meant, but it does make sense to take a new approach in tackling the problems of prostitution. Traditionally, everyone with an interest in prostitution - health workers, researchers, police officers - have focused on the women. We know that 70 per cent of all street prostitutes in London have suffered some form of violence at the hands of a punter, more than 60 per cent were underage when they first started out, and a high proportion of the women are addicted to illegal drugs and/or alcohol. We know it's a grim world inhabited by pimps, drug pushers and other unsavoury characters. But what about the men? What do we know about them? Very little.

Something is missing between the arguments to either "decriminalise and tolerate" prostitution or to "run it out of town". A focus on the men who create the demand for it has traditionally made people nervous. The aim in setting up the first Kerb Crawlers Re-education Programme was to get these men off the streets and to find out as much as possible about them. Based on a model in San Francisco known as the "John School", the KCRP is a "diversion from court" scheme. In conjunction with the West Yorkshire police, the Research Centre on Violence, Abuse and Gender Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University has set up this pilot project to run for one year. When kerb crawlers are stopped by the police they are given a choice: attend a one-day school run by ex-prostitutes, the police, sexual health workers and community spokespeople, or go to court and run the risk of their name being in the paper. Residents complain on a regular basis to the police about their "quality of life" being ruined by kerb crawlers in their areas, and so far the police have not known how to tackle this. The KCRP is a new initiative that might just work.

Since operational officers began to implement the procedure, more men than ever before have been apprehended. Every man has, without hesitation, chosen the school. Little did they know what was in store for them. As the trainers were preparing their presentations, the first punter knocked on the door, early. "I'm here for the prostitution school," he told me. "No you're not," I said sternly, "you're here for the kerb crawlers' school. Please await outside until we're ready for you." When I looked outside five minutes later there they all were, like that scene from The Birds where all the crows are silently perched in a row, looking ahead. They trooped in and sat down, shiftily gazing at the floor.

There I was in my severest suit, an uncompromising look on my face. "I hope you realise how privileged and lucky you are to be here today," I said. During the session on legislation, delivered by a teddy bear of a chief inspector who had managed that day to look uncompromisingly stern, I dared to take a closer look at this unknown quantity of man. Max (all names have been changed) was in his fifties - built like a US Marine with grey crew cut and huge shoulders. He refused to look any one in the eye and oozed insolence and contempt. I identified him very early on as the group troublemaker and asked the chief inspector why he didn't just arrest him now on a charge of having a bad hair cut. I watched him during the session on connections between men's attitude towards women and violent crime. He squirmed in his seat when the subject of domestic violence came up.

Simon was no more than 20 - skinny, fair and frightened looking, as if he was going to be personally picked out and made to stand in the corner. Sukjhit was a good-looking 30-year-old in a trendy tracksuit. He was listening carefully and was the first to come up with a comment during the five minutes allowed for "clarification questions" at the end of each session. "I didn't know so many of these girls started out as children," he said. "I feel ashamed."

The most powerful session of the day, and the one rated most highly by the men, was lead by Fiona Broadfoot. Pimped into prostitution at the age of 15, she lived 11 years of hell working the streets. After her cousin, also a prostitute, was murdered by a punter she managed to escape and now runs EXIT, an organisation set up to help women leave the game. Before her session she was terrified, sobbing in the toilets. As soon as she stood in front of the men, though, she was like a woman possessed. "Do you know what we think of you?" she almost shouted. "Well, I'll tell you - dirty, desperate and sick." She was wonderful, almost like an evangelical preacher. Afterwards she hooted with laughter. "Even if I didn't dent their conscience, I bet next time any of them tries to do business, he won't get it up."

Jim was fortyish and balding. He shouldn't be there, he said. "I only went out for petrol." "What made you think that woman you asked to get in your car was carrying any in her handbag?" I asked.

"US Marine" was looking more and more angry. "For God's sake," he exploded after the session by Irene Ivison, of Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, whose daughter was murdered after being pimped into prostitution. "I haven't killed any one." It was pointed out to him that that would not necessarily make him Mr anti-sexist.

In the discussion group, the men were told that it is not acceptable to buy and sell women's bodies as part of their leisure activities. "Are you saying I've got to go back to ballroom dancing?" asked Ernie. One of the punters came out with what sounded dangerously close to an early radical feminist analysis of marriage. "What I'm doing is no different from what my mate Dave does," he insisted. "He pays the wife for cooking his tea, for sex, for looking after the kids."

Some men looked devastated by the information they were being given. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they really did not know that most women are drug addicted, regularly raped, and have violent pimps on their backs. One man told me he would "never buy a woman again". He thanked me for helping him "see the light".

The day affected the trainers in different ways. I went out to dinner with a friend and had obviously not got out of my "strict matron" role. When I spoke to the waiter he answered sarcastically, "Yes, Miss, and should I write that out a hundred times?" Patricia, who had run the small group sessions, told me she had sobbed all the way to the car park, thinking, "What the hell am I doing?" Fiona was "on top of the world". "It was so empowering," she said, "to stand there in front of them, fully clothed for once, and tell them how vile a life it was, how much I always despised them. It was like restorative justice."

Julie Bindel is the assistant director of the Research Centre on Violence, Abuse and Gender Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, and also founder of the KCRP. A documentary on the school will be shown on BBC2 on 15 December

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