If prostitution isn't about lonely, undersexed men, what is it about? (Or, Justin Bieber doesn't need to pay for sex)

Justin Bieber was photographed leaving a Brazilian brothel last weekend. He was covered in bedsheets, which leads us to believe that buying sex still isn’t seen as a completely acceptable pass time (though our friends on team “sex work is work” are doing their very best to change that).

It’s not as though the Biebs has a shortage of options in the lady department. In fact, the very next evening, he left the club at 3am with a van load of 30 girls. Whatever. I know you don’t care what Justin Bieber does on weekends. My point is this: Why are we still pretending as though prostitution exists for lonely, socially awkward, undersexed men?

The media is in love with the “sex surrogate” story these days. Last year the idea of sex as a kind of therapeutic service for the disabled was mainstreamed when The Sessions, a film about a man who was paralyzed from the neck down and hired a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity, came out.

We want to pity johns more than we want to shame them. The sad men and their sad penises. But I don’t think Justin Bieber’s penis is very sad… And I don’t think loneliness or disability is a reasonable defense for male power.

The notion that prostitutes exist as an “outlet” for men isn’t new. Over a century ago we believed prostitutes were necessary in order to prevent men from raping (non-prostituted women) and to preserve marriages. Prostitution was seen as a “social service.” Prostitutes were essentially there to take shit from men, so they wouldn’t take it out on the “good women.” You don’t want to be in the position of being an “outlet” for male aggression (something that was seen as natural and is still seen, by many, as innate). Naturalizing male sexuality as uncontrollable or violent isn’t going to help anyone and making a certain, marginalized, class of women responsible for protecting the other, more privileged women is abhorrent. The Romans viewed prostitutes as sexually insatiable deviants, a notion that conveniently erases any abuses those women suffered at the hands of the men who pay to do with them what they will. We cling to all these notions today, repackaging them over and over again in a continual effort to convince the world that this industry is both necessary and deserving of permanence.

The discourse surrounding prostitution has changed in that we’ve tried to sanitize the industry. “A job like any other” makes prostituted women into service providers, no different than a hair dresser or a physiotherapist. What stays the same is the notion that prostitution is necessary because of the poor, sex-deprived men who “need” women as “outlets.” Some women are lucky enough to have other choices besides dick-receptacle. The poor, the abused, the racialized — not so much.

Today, we like to imagine prostitution as a service for the lonesome. We are to pity these men — What, are they supposed to just masturbate? The horror! But examples like that of Mr. Bieber (and the countless other wealthy men and celebrities who pay for sex) show us that prostitution isn’t just about sex. There is no shortage of sex in Justin Bieber’s life — he has access to plenty of vagina, not to worry. Prostitution, it’s clear, is about power. Male power, specifically.

We can recycle as many of these centuries-old defenses as we like. Take your pick:

– Men are naturally violent and rapey and need to ejaculate into or onto women’s bodies in order to remain sane.

– Men are naturally promiscuous and need different vag to keep things spicy. Their wives, after all, have real feelings and personalities which can be annoying and tiresome.

– Prostitutes just loooove sex! You can bet all those johns are really generous in the sack. Really, really skilled in the art of pleasing a woman. They can’t tell the difference between real pleasure and acting, but hey, that’s why they pay. So they can imagine themselves to be the most virile of lovers. It’s no wonder they (supposedly) can’t get laid for free.

We have, after all, been defending men’s right to women’s bodies since the invention of patriarchy. Why stop now?

The Biebs isn’t lonely, desperate, disabled, or socially awkward. So how does one explain his visit to the brothel? I’m going to pass on what I learned about johns from survivor and author, Rachel Moran here: Men buy sex because they think they can treat prostitutes differently than they can treat their wives, girlfriends, and dates. They buy sex in order to project what Moran called “evil arousal” onto a human being, guilt and consequence-free. They buy sex to experience dominance and to make rape and abuse “consensual” (as we’ve convinced ourselves that payment = consent). Indeed, most johns derive sadistic pleasure from that power imbalance, Moran says.

Prostitution isn’t about sexuality. It’s about male power, plain and simple. And if you’re a feminist, a humanitarian, or a person who believes, in any way at all, in equality and human rights, it’s time to stop regurgitating defenses of the industry. They are old — so old — and they are incredibly destructive, deadly even.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.