All the abusive men I've known seemed super nice at first

It’s true. I’ve known more than one abusive man in my day. Some I knew intimately and some were only acquaintances. You know, just friends of friends. Some men still think it’s ok to maintain friendships with abusive men dontchaknow. At a certain point someone might accidentally let it slip that so-and-so, you know, that guy we party with, you know, maybe tormented or threatened or tried to strangle his girlfriend, and funny thing! I wouldn’t want to hang out with those dudes anymore. How awkward for everyone. “Meghan, Meghan – we don’t acknowledge those things.” “Hey! Buddy never abused me so who knows, right? His girlfriend is probably lying about that abuse.” If you don’t see it with your own eyes you should just assume it isn’t happening and go on with your life, yes? OH those ladies and their nutty stories.

But I digress. My friend Easily Riled wrote a post about the Bedford decision and some of the rhetoric coming from those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns. She pointed out that:

“The appeal judges decided that the Communicating law did not violate the Charter rights of prostituted people sex workers, and represented a reasonable limit on rights to expression.  Because as we know, it is difficult to tell–no matter how much time you have to “screen” some guy– when he’s going to go off on you. Women in prostitution have told us many stories about going with men they knew, regular ‘clients’, men the met and talked with for an hour or so in the bar, men referred to them by trusted friends– who, when alone with them, became violent. And, you know, women often MARRY men who turn out to be abusive– five minutes on a street corner isn’t going to make a difference–he always decides how to behave, she will never have  that control. In theory, then, the communicating law can be used against the men who buy sex.”

One of the more common arguments for the decriminalization of johns is that if buying sex in the street is completely legalized, prostituted women will have more time to asses a client before getting into a car or going to a room with him.

This argument has been refuted by many, including Janine Benedet, who acted as co-counsel for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution during the Bedford trial, who noted in a recent talk that the 27 year old man who murdered Nicole Parisien was seemingly, just a “regular” guy. Andrew Evans was a rugby player and former peer counselor. Benedet noted that he found Parisien through an ad on Craigslist and met her at an apartment of her choosing – an apartment that was being used as a brothel in Kitsilano.

Are these the “safe” indoor brothels people are advocating for? I imagine that Parisien thought this man was “safe”. Turns out he wasn’t. Turns out that being indoors, being able to suss out clientele first didn’t stop Evans from becoming violent when he couldn’t maintain an erection. Benedet added:

“This is a good example of the male sexual entitlement that is quite evident in prostitution. When she didn’t give him what he wanted he turned to violence and she was dead very, very quickly. There was no time for anybody to intervene. A good reminder that just putting things in a brothel or in a woman’s own apartment doesn’t stop this kind of violence.”

So Evans may be spending his life in jail but Parisien no longer has a life.

Devastatingly, these stories are not uncommon – there is something about men who buy sex who seem to think that the women they buy are disposable. Male entitlement is tied to prostitution. Men who buy sex think they are entitled. They believe that their pleasure is more important than women’s lives, women’s health, women’s well-being. Do you think that the man I saw the other day while waiting for the bus at Main and Cordova, who stopped his black SUV at the corner and dropped off a woman limping in platform shoes, steadying herself with a cane, cares about her life? Do you think he wants her life to get better? I doubt it. I doubt any man who buys sex wants the lives of prostituted women to get better. If their lives were better there would be no one left to give him blow jobs on his lunch break.

These are the men we are talking about decriminalizing. Not some imaginary “nice john.” What “nice man” wants women to remain so poor that they have no choice but to service him? What “nice man” kills a woman because he can’t maintain an erection? And what “nice man” thinks he deserves this – that he is owed, nay, is entitled to a blow job? Because he is a man. It is his right. Women are his right. Access to women, 24/7, is his right. That’s what we are talking about when we talk about decriminalizing pimps and johns.

I’ve known a number of abusive men in my lifetime. And you’d never know by looking at them. You probably wouldn’t even know it by talking to them for five or ten minutes (although you do begin to recognize certain traits in certain kinds of abusers – but the smart ones know how to hide it). Sometimes women don’t find out that their partners are abusive until they become pregnant. I can pretty much guarantee that if I had A) gone through with my pregnancy, and B) stayed with the man who impregnated me, the abuse would have escalated. Sometimes women only find out their partners are abusive once their partners get drunk. And hey, sometimes we even get clues early on but sometimes we don’t know they’re clues. Or maybe we’ll ignore the clue. Or maybe the abuser will manipulate us into thinking we are crazy or mess with our heads so that we no longer trust our own instincts. Or maybe we’ll leave. But the idea that women can somehow predict which men are abusive (whether it is verbal, emotional, or physical – and often all these forms of abuse work in congruence) and then avoid said abuse is bunko.

The abusive man is often quite a popular dude. He is often a pillar in his community. He is often charming and intelligent. I know tons of these guys. They are still invited to parties, to meetings, to community gatherings. The women they tormented are not, of course. Those women are not to be trusted. Those women must hide out or feel ashamed or are ostracized. Or they simply remain silent, never saying a thing. Women who name their abusers don’t always get support and, in fact, they often get the opposite of support. Often they are blamed or they are not believed.

So I’m not convinced that talking to a man through a car window, or over email, or even over the phone will tell a woman whether or not this man might become violent or whether he might call her names or whether he will degrade her. We do know that, whoever these men are, even if they aren’t physically violent, they believe that women exist on this earth in order to provide men with sexual pleasure. It is also clear that men who buy sex from prostituted women are often violent, are often abusive, and are often murderers. Sometimes they are “non-violent” misogynists. But not always. We also know that regardless of whether or not a woman has had the opportunity to chat with a man for five or ten minutes, she will at some point be alone in a car or in a hotel room or in an alley with him, and he may or may not have displayed his violent tendencies within the first five minutes of meeting.

What I’m addressing here is of course the idea that decriminalizing johns will make prostitution safer. Or rather, that it will make johns safer. Because that’s what were really talking about, right? Violent, sexist men? We aren’t really saying that women can somehow predict or avoid violence. We’re saying we need to stop violent men. We’re saying we need to stop normalizing sexist behaviour. We need to stop reinforcing the idea that men have the right to access female bodies 24/7.

In a past relationship I told a man that what he was doing constituted verbal and emotional abuse and that he had no right to treat me in that way – I told him I didn’t deserve to be treated in that way. And you know what he said to me? “It was your choice to stay”. And do you know what that means? Do you know what he meant when he said that? He was telling me it was my fault. He was telling me that there was nothing he could do to change and that since I had “chosen” to stay, I must either be ok or somehow deserve that abusive treatment. That since I chose to live in the same house as him and knew that his behaviour was abusive, it was ok for him to continue to treat me in that way because, in the end, it was my responsibility to stop that abuse from happening. Not his. Of course I did leave eventually but I’ll never forget the feeling of being blamed for my own abuse. Of making it about “my choice”.

This isn’t the only time this has happened. Another time I told some people about a man who was their friend who had been abusive to me throughout our relationship. I had already left him at this point. Do you know what they said to me? “Well, you chose to stay, didn’t you?”

OH choice. Magical, magical choice. If you “choose” to put yourself in a position to be abused, according to our f**ked up culture, it’s your fault. So if women do a bad job of  sussing out johns before getting into cars with them, and those johns turn out to be violent, who is to blame?

The answer is obvious, but based on some of the rhetoric coming from those who advocate only for a harm reduction model and from those who want johns to be decriminalized, you wouldn’t know it. There is NO reason to protect these men. There are many reasons to protect prostituted women. These women, most certainly, need to be decriminalized so that they can safely go to the cops if they need to. These women, most certainly, need other options. They need to not have to service misogynists or get into cars with them or go to brothels or hotel rooms with them in order to survive. But decriminalizing johns isn’t going to make those men any safer. It certainly isn’t going to convince them not to abuse women and it certainly isn’t going to convince them that they don’t have the god given right to a blow job at any given moment, so long as they can pay.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Hari

    Meghan–the title of this piece kind of says it all, though of course you do a fine job of drawing out the point throughout the post. Here is the really scary thing about the abuser: you just never know when the wonderful Dr Jeckyll will morph into the murderous Mr Hyde, and that metamorphosis can occur with lightning quickness. It can occur for the smallest and most incomprehensible of reasons. If you let an abuser into your life in a relationship-way, then you probably learn over time to know the cues most likely to produce the metamorphosis, so you can (try to) take cover somehow (little or no good that does in fact). But in the few minutes–or even several emails–involved in ‘getting to know a john’, a sex worker can gain no real idea of what the man is really about, or what she’s in for.

    Fact is, it’s the men most likely to abuse/murder who are least likely to drop any advance cues, in any situation where they have some control over communication. Their ability to exert control-by-surprise is dependent upon their gaining trust; they know how important a womyn’s trust is, and learn the words and facial cues, etc, to project trustworthiness. It’s really not that hard for them to fool the average womyn they hope to get into a longterm relationship with. But– that 5min curbside chat? So easy to project charm and simple honest intent. In that exchange of emails, supposedly defining boundaries and so forth? Quite the playground for him to manipulate for trust in a more extended way.

    All of what you said about abusive men, and relationships with them, rang loud bells for me–you have hit the nail on the head with all points. The macrocosm of longterm relationships w/abusers is the same as that played out in the microcosm of individual encounters with the prostituted: it’s posed as being all about HER ‘choice’ (of relationship or work), her ‘skills’ or lack of them (skills in sussing out danger in advance, skills in preventing her harm at his hands), her fault that he abuses her (for staying, or even for engaging in the first place).

    Oh, and that “feeling of being blamed” for being abused, blamed for someone else’s abusive behavior? It’s the crazy feeling intentionally sought through the crazy-making talk and actions of abusers, and of the society that creates and supports them. If a womyn can be persuaded to take the blame then the problem becomes *hers*, not his. Then, neither he, his friends, or patriarchy on the whole are asked to take responsibility for the damage done against her/children, or to change their expectations of abusive men in any way.

    Not all men are abusive–but all men are privileged, and protect that privilege in part by protecting abusers. Not all men even use prostitutes–but again, in speaking of magical choice and supporting the decrim of johns, they are also defending their personal and collective privilege. You’re right, “the answer is obvious”–but we are up against the most potent and insidious of enemies: the institution of male privilege, protected at almost any cost to womyn and children even by men who don’t abuse womyn, even by men who don’t use prostitutes.

    Thank you again for your ongoing work.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Hari.
      You are exactly right about this: “Fact is, it’s the men most likely to abuse/murder who are least likely to drop any advance cues, in any situation where they have some control over communication. Their ability to exert control-by-surprise is dependent upon their gaining trust; they know how important a womyn’s trust is, and learn the words and facial cues, etc, to project trustworthiness. It’s really not that hard for them to fool the average womyn they hope to get into a longterm relationship with. But– that 5min curbside chat? So easy to project charm and simple honest intent. In that exchange of emails, supposedly defining boundaries and so forth? Quite the playground for him to manipulate for trust in a more extended way.”

      I agree that not all men are abusive but, as you say, part of male privilege comes from both being protected as an abuser and from protecting abusers. My experience leaving an abusive relationship while living in a small community was shocking – many people, women and men alike, said things to me like: “but you stayed with him”, “well, you guys were fighting though, right?” (this was the response to me saying that I’d been smacked across the face), and, because the relationship was so drama-filled (as abusive relationships are), there was a lot of breaking up and getting back together – so I was blamed for “going back.” The lack of understanding around the dynamics of abusive relationships is mind-blowing and many, many people believe that if a woman “chooses” to stay or “chooses” to get back together with her abuser, it is her fault if she is then, or continues to be abused.

      Regarding the idea that somehow, women can tell who is abusive or who is not and then make a decision about who to get into a car with (in the case of prostituted women) or meet at a hotel room, is ridiculous. And whether or not they have a bodyguard (which, of course, survival sex workers don’t EVER have) doesn’t make a difference if a man suddenly becomes violent. As we know, it’s often too late for someone to intervene by the time something terrible happens.

      • Hari

        Meghan–been there, done that, and drearily enough have found that the scenarios you name are the same as the ones I could name from my experience w/an abuser, and the same as I’ve heard so many other womyn name. This, in reference to both the kinds of things abusive men say to us, as well as the kinds of things that bystanders say about it as well. I’ve joked (darkly) that abusers surely take classes together, on how to abuse, control and blame…and it seems bystanders do, too. Yeah–the ‘classroom’ is patriarchy itself, where we all learn chapter and verse. UGH.

  • tinfoil hattie

    Oh my god, this is brilliant. Thank you SO MUCH. It’s so f-ing validating.

  • DS

    This is so true…Abusers don’t exactly wear signs that say Iam an abuseive asshole! I was actually abused by a friend of the family, who happened to be a woman actually, who would be extremely kind and generous one moment and the next be an extremely manipulative asshole the next. She then would apologize but her apoligieze would basically be sorry your crazy and misunderstood..of course since she was the adult and I was the kid whose side did everyone take? Unfortunatly she still stalks me to this day:(

  • I hear this “she chose to stay” bullshit SO much, as if men are just born abusive rapists and we just have to stay clear of their wrath, if not – well, we “chose” it.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yep! Totally sick.

  • This was a seriously amazing and helpful post, thank you very much!

  • The other thing, is that johns and pimps are rarely arrested NOW, when it’s illegal. It’s mostly the prostituted women who are arrested. So the johns don’t need any protection. And as you said, giving pimps and johns “the same” legal protection as the prostituted women (if she could legally engage in such activities) will only hurt her more. The whole idea is that there’s an inherent power imbalance and decriminalizing prostitution for the victim fixes it.

    • Hari

      good point, Andrea. Which makes sense of only a type understood in patriarchy: b/c the people most likely to be harmed by survival sex work is the worker herself (in so many ways), and the people least likely to be harmed by it are the johns. But in most places, sex work is by far the more prosecuted crime than the purchase or trafficking of it. And of course, then there are the defenders of john/pimp-decriminalization, who say prostitution is just one of those ‘victimless crimes’. Yeah–because the general victimization of womyn that makes sex-work any kind of ‘choice’ to begin with, is simply not acknowledged. And the specific perpetration of crimes by pimps and johns against the prostituted are not important–what is important is men’s access to BJs or whatever other funsies they want to be able to pay for. So many ‘free choices’ that society just needs to get out of the way of!

  • Thanks so much for this post. I hate the myth of the “nice” punter/john. It is usually either said by those who wants to keep the status quo of having a prostituted class – or by prostituted so embedded in the sex trade that must deny the violence to keep surviving.
    In my opinion, there is no such thing as a nice punter – for even if he makes the choice not to use sadistic sex, makes the choice not to beat her up, or makes the choice not to kill her – he has made the ultimate violent choice of buying another human for his sexual greed. He has made the choice to make her sub-human, and not care her pain, her ear, her emotions, or her human rights.
    I will always say it was those “nice” punters that have given many of the worse aspects of my trauma. It was those punters who did tons of talking, who pretended it was some kind of relationship or pay for the girlfriend experience, it was the punter who saw me on a regular basis. Those are the men that get replayed in my nightmares and body memories.
    Many of these talkers were using mental violence to break down the lack of trust of the prostitute – the lack of trust that keeps something precious and vital back from male hate. They dig into her until she said too much – and always it feels like a betrayal.
    Also, as you say in this brilliant post – there is no way most prostituted women or girls can sus out which punters will be sadistic to them. Of course, most punters just look and act very ordinary – some of the most violent are just very ordinary blokes who will be non-violent and invisible outside of torturing a prostitute.
    All I can say is the so-called nice punter was and is the punter most prostituted fantasied about murdering, for not just sexually and physically destroying them, but for digging into their essence.

  • Meghan, thank you for writing such an open, reflective piece on this issue. There’s something very peculiar afoot with the talk of how legalizing prostitution is going to make it safer for prostituted women. Disregarding the many prostituted women who have come forward to explain why these business models will do absolutely zero in the way of helping women in prostitution, basic common sense tells us this is so.

    Prostituted women aren’t mind readers, there’s no “screening” that will ever stop a man from becoming violent if he wants to.

  • Thing is… for someone’s “choice” to ba a “choice”, then it must also be a choice for everyone else. We can’t have a universe where some people “choose” to put up with what happens to them, while other people simply have no control over their actions.

    It doesn’t work like that: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Even if it were a woman’s “choice” to stay, then surely as the sky is blue, it is the abuser’s choice to abuse.

    And either we hold everyone responsible for their actions, or we don’t. But we can’t have this current scenario, where the woman “chooses” to not leave, but the man is, apparently, powerless to stop himself. Not holding men accountable for their actions does nobody any good. If for no other reason than that they don’t grow up emotionally.

  • marv wheale

    It is breathtaking to witness how feminists have been emerging from an unorganized condition for years now to link up worldwide. The feminist wind is rising at times imperceptibly. This intensifying counterpoint of dissent against male power is becoming a formidable movement demanding a political resolution across the planet. Simultaneously there is a desperate attempt by male rule to retain and reconquest women’s bodies. This hostile project I believe is doomed because of the combined impact of the growing power of feminism itself and the progressive development of international human (women’s) rights law (due to feminists too). These two forces will shatter male claims to manifest destiny and dispose of its dream of undermining women’s march to equality. The conquerors will be conquered. I am not delusional, at least on this subject.

  • NMR

    I was blown away when I began reading your articles earlier today..I litteraly stumbled upon them. Finaly someone is saying what needs to be said and I agree with prior comments regarding this “well…you chose to stay” horse shit!!!! REALLY??? REALLY???? Actualy we didn’t chose to stay..we left. Some of us earlier than others…some of us not quite yet. This subtle blame the victim attitude is disgusting!! We live in a culture of “women are supposed to take it and when they don’t they are bitches who deserve what they get” Only women who have been mindfucked by the seductive manipulation of an abuser can even begin to relate to this, or the reality of how long it takes to unravel the demise to self esteem after you can accept that you are in fact NOT crazy and never were….but will still question it years later.
    At the height of my very lucrative career and best economic position of my life I couldn’t tell that the handsomest sexiest most ingratiating love of my life was an abusive a-hole yet somehow the poorest and most margenalized vulnerable of us are???? WTF!!!! (Excuse the spelling but not the cursing I’m so pissed off!!!!)