It’s time to talk about the johns

The lengths to which sex industry apologists will go to in order to push the idea that buying sex is synonymous with sexual liberation and empowerment never ceases to amaze me. While “progressives” fixate on subversion and deem all “consensual” sex acceptable and even potentially empowering, the underlying systems that maintain sex class dynamics are dismissed as anecdotal.

The fear of being called “anti-sex” seems to outweigh efforts to address those the sex industry is actually catering to and the misogyny, racism, and selfishness of men who benefit from its existence.

But not all johns are like this, they say. Some are just nice, lonely guys who need affection, right? Narratives that pity socially-awkward, disabled, or traditionally unattractive men (who, we’re to believe, need to pay for sex lest they go without human contact for life) push the idea that prostitution is merely providing a neutral but necessary service and satisfying a human need.

But despite claims, this narrative is not just about “sex” — it’s about essentializing sexuality and male entitlement. “Destigmatizing” the purchase of sex won’t erase the truth about johns’ motivations and worldview. This is why, in addition to understanding the material conditions that drive women into prostitution and porn, exploring john culture is imperative if we seek to dismantle the normalization of male entitlement that keeps the sex industry going.

A Vice Canada video report called, “The New Era of Canadian Sex Work,” spoke with a number of women working in a Nevada brothel called Sheri’s Ranch in order to push the “poor, nice john” narrative.

An image from the Vice documentary, “The New Era of Canadian Sex Work.”

One self-proclaimed “working girl” shared some of her client’s motives, pointing to the loneliness of single fellas and the dissatisfaction of married men:

Single guys, maybe they travel for work a lot and they don’t have time to meet girls and take them out on dates and they don’t want the complications of a relationship… So they can come here and get the service that they want and then leave… I’ve gotten notes from wives saying “please help my husband be able to have this service so that he can feel comfortable because I can’t provide it myself.”

According to this Nevada brothel’s website, johns can request “a live lineup of all available brothel girls…” The johns can relax in the parlour while a “bevy of bewitching babes parade before [them].”

Another woman explained that some clients are disabled and said that providing them with sexual services equates to “helping them still have… normalcy in life”.

But whether or not a man is disabled, buying sex still positions women as nurturing holes that exist for male pleasure.

We are told a similar story in a 2013 documentary American Courtesans. One john says he “started courtesansseeing escorts because he was unhappy in [his] marriage” and because his “wife was not doing what [he] wanted to be done that an escort would do.” An escort goes on to explain that the married men she sees have wives but that they either “use sex as a tool” or their “libidos are gone.” One john plays the single-man-too-busy-to-meet-women card, claiming that since he doesn’t have any free time for dating or meeting single women, “the industry of providers” (i.e. the sex industry) helps him “meet” (i.e. have sex with) women “on a temporary basis”. (We are to believe, here, that “meeting women” is solely about about one-time, one-way sexual encounters…)

In a recent article, Conner Habib claims that “anti-sex” activists (i.e. feminists who oppose sexual exploitation industries) are oppressive and that “the ‘damaged pussy’ argument is eugenics for anti-sex bigots,” painting the opposition of porn and prostitution on account of the physical harm it causes equates to a “moral crusade” to promote normative sexuality. Wild inacuracies and willful misrepresentations aside, Habib promotes the same narrative many other pro-prostitution advocates do, framing “sex-work” as an altruistic way to address men’s suffering (i.e. not getting “enough” sex). In addition to claiming that people who are critical of prostitution operate on hate and that money can “symbolize and clarify” consent, Habib writes:

Sex workers often see the great pain the distortion of sex has caused so many people in our culture. We work to transmute that pain others feel into pleasure. Sometimes the pain is slight and everyday; it’s merely a longing a john feels or a pang of desire before a porn viewer discharges it. Other times it’s a client locked into a restrictive relationship, or someone who doesn’t know how to ask for sex without the framework of a paid environment, or a person with disabilities in constant care with little access to sex without the assistance of a sex worker.

No stranger to the sex industry’s name-calling, Andrea Dworkin addressed this rhetorical manipulation of language and erroneous framing of sexuality in her book, Intercourse:

“Sex-negative” is the current secular reductio ad absurdum used to dismiss or discredit ideas, particularly political critiques, that might lead to detumescence. Critiques of rape, pornography, and prostitution are ‘sex-negative’ without qualification or examination, perhaps because so many men use these ignoble routes of access and domination to get laid, and without them the number of fucks would so significantly decrease that men might nearly be chaste.

But prostitution is not about altruism or making sure that men orgasm daily; and claiming that empowerment can coexist with staggering sex class discrepancies wherein women are overwhelmingly the objectified and sold while men are the ones doing the objectifying and buying posits that women’s choices are made in a vacuum and that patriarchy can be beneficial for everyone. What the altruism/empowerment narrative does is to render invisible the men who enjoy degrading women and who benefit from a system that ensures women remain marginalized.

There are over 285,000 members on web forums like MERB/TERB/PERB (city-specific “Escort Review Boards”), that serve as a platform to promote services and share men’s experiences with prostitutes. While the discussions that take place on these boards are all inarguably misogynistic, notable examples include the following [trigger warning for graphic misogyny, violence, and racism]:

And I cum a big load in her mouth and the session lasted 15 mins. She told me not to cum in her mouth though, but as I paid for half an hour, I didn’t care. I knew what she was doing, she is a bitch anyway.

Lot of fake moaning and noises which was a major turn off. Overall the whole session felt awkward almost not knowing if she was being held there against her will.

I then grab her hair and start forcing her head into me, she starts gagging and choking. This is a huge turn on for me and I start fucking her mouth intensely. I then start slapping her face as she is gagging, she tried to pull her head away for my manhood but I force her down on it again.

I asked her not to start contractions while I was there. I was thinking, “Am I doing this? Am I really banging a pregnant girl? Answer: why not?”

Turned out to be an underage Native girl. She said she just turned 18… then told me she was 13.

I bent her over for some doggie (damn black bitches can shake that ass). I would pound her again, but she’s a fuck pig. You know, really nasty fuck.

I was pissed, so I took my dick and shoved it into her mouth until she gagged.

We know that the sex industry harms women and pressures and coerces girls into reenacting what is presented to them in porn (often causing sex-related injuries), but the men who are the origin of the harm have stayed out of the limelight because porn and prostitution advocates focus so strongly on choice! and on trying to silence feminists. Likening the demand for prostitution to a sexual right only serves to support spoiled, abusive, and egotistical men. Their strenuous pro-sex industry rhetoric and name-calling (“anti-sex,” “bigot,” etc.) underscores a neoliberal vision of sexuality, rooted in capital and extreme individualism that ignores women’s humanity.

Alexandra Pelletier is completing her MSc in Communication and politics, studying media discourse around Bill C-36. She lives in Québec.

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