December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Glancing furtively around the room, 60 enrollees in the First Offender Prostitution Program have a hunted look. Most are middle-aged, and many are married and prosperous. And all of them are men. FOPP, as it is known, isn’t populated by hookers but by the Johns who pay them for sex. The meetings, held at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, are analogous to traffic school: Pay a $500 fine, take a class, and the charges are dropped. Instead of studying traffic statutes, the men learn about the horrors of prostitution—from former prostitutes and experts. “It’s very powerful that the Johns have to be here—the secrecy is broken,” says Norma Hotaling, FOPP’s director, herself a former hooker. “We’re not trying to break up their families, and we’re not trying to shame them, but then, their behavior is shameful.”

Class begins with a disturbingly graphic slide presentation about sexually transmitted diseases, after which Hotaling, 47, takes the podium and quickly picks apart any delusions the men might have that the women enjoy their work or feel affection for their customers. “I used to carry a butcher knife in a large purse,” she says. “I wanted to put it in your gut and turn it.” Four more ex-hookers follow with chilling tales of degradation—”I was introduced to prostitution by way of my father’s best friend, who started molesting me when I was a child,” one says. “You’re sick, like I used to be,” scolds another. At the end of the eight-hour, one-day course, having also heard a therapist discuss the fear of normal intimacy suffered by many Johns, a dazed man says, “It’s definitely a wake-up call. It’ll have a 100 percent deterrent effect for me.”

Since 1995, 2,300 men have passed through FOPP, and according to a study conducted by police Lt. Joe Dutto, a cofounder of the program, more than 98 percent have been rehabilitated. This fall, FOPP, which also offers counseling and other services to prostitutes, won a $100,000 award from the Innovations in American Government program, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Norma has changed the way we look at prostitutes,” says awards chairman David Gergen. “She’s enabled us to see them as human beings.”

The Florida-born Hotaling learned the perils of sexual commerce early on. She was 3 when her father died and her waitress mother, Norma Louise, now 72, moved her and her older brother to New York City. “When I was 5, I would go down to parks in The Bronx and men would make me look at porno magazines with them,” she recalls. Hotaling had been living in Daytona Beach, Fla., when she had her first brush with the law, an arrest for sale and possession of heroin. She went on to study cardiopulmonary technology at a community college in Gainesville. Moving to San Francisco, she worked sporadically as a medical technician, all the while using drugs and drinking heavily. After breaking up with a boyfriend, Hotaling began roaming the streets.

“Guys would offer me money for sex,” she says. “I’d always turn them down. One night, I just went for it. I became a prostitute for eight years. I was also addicted and homeless.” During that time, Hotaling says, she was beaten and suffered numerous rapes. At increasing risk of contracting HIV, she had an epiphany in April 1989. “I determined I didn’t want to die,” she says. Wanted for petty theft, Hotaling saw jail as a comparative haven and turned herself in. After a six-week stretch, she spent six months in a residential drug treatment program and “found a really good therapist.” Hotaling returned to school and earned a health education degree from San Francisco State University. There she began the outreach work that led, in 1989, to her creation of SAGE, a nonprofit group staffed by ex-hookers working with doctors and law enforcement to counsel and rehabilitate prostitutes. Eager to take on the Johns, Hotaling—along with Lieutenant Dutto and assistant district attorney Terry Jackson—created FOPP.

Knowingly or not, the men who buy sex, she says, relegate women to second-class citizenry. And little by little, FOPP tries to make them accountable. “By the end of the day,” she says, “I see tremendous changes.”

Richard Jerome

Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco

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