The beloved john

If you’ve ever been engaged by those who promote “sex work” as a neutral form of labour (also see: “it’s just a job like any other,” “women’s bodies exist as resources”), harmless if not for “stigma,” you’ve likely ended up on the opposite end of a bunch of misogynist and ageist insults. You are told you are a “pearl-clutcher,a secondwaver, a prude, a SWERF, “whorephobic,” some kind of dictator, Hitler, a murderer, and, of course, a sex-hating, man-hating, ugly c-u-n-t. It’s lovely. Just lovely.

Beyond your run-of-the-mill woman-hating, you’ll also be told that, in fact, johns are precious darlings, particularly when compared with a horrid, hairy, no-fun feminist like yourself. Johns are “not monsters just because they’re paying… [but] beloved husbands and fathers and sons.” It is the women who oppose men’s right to pay for sex who are the true abusers, we’re told.

Internalized misogyny is a real thing that many women struggle to reject daily. Feminists too. We learn to look at other women as competition and to men for salvation. We learn to support male-centered institutions and to try to find power within them rather than fight back. We fight to stop hating other women and to hold men accountable instead. It’s no real surprise that women who rely on men for their livelihood and lives might perceive johns as the “good guys,” and feminists who name men’s behaviour as objectifying, degrading, or violent as the real enemy. It is often easier to avoid hard truths when our lives depend on it.

The reasons behind such depictions and accusations are clear and understandable, even. There is even some truth in there — Johns are, oftentimes, “beloved husbands and fathers and sons.” They are not always — or even usually — obvious “monsters,” nor are they men who are starved of love, family, or affection. This is, of course, what feminists have been pointing out forever. Likewise, abusive men are usually just regular men — the guy next door, the teacher, the community leader, the father, the brother, and the husband. Men who buy sex and abuse women don’t often advertise.

What feminists also acknowledge is that there is continuity between the man who justifies lying to and cheating on his girlfriend because she won’t provide him with the sexual access to her body he feels he is owed, the men who will surely tell their wives to “take a pill” (now that it is available) when they don’t desire sex, and the wealthy man who seeks a “sugar baby” but doesn’t want to see himself as a john, and the system of prostitution. There is continuity between prostitution and marriage, in that men and women alike believe sex is part of the contract, leading women to perform “maintenance sex” for their male partners and leading men to justify their Ashley Madison accounts because their female partners aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. There is further continuity between prostitution and marriage in that women were, in the not-so-distant past (and still in some places around the world), viewed as men’s property, to be traded from father to husband, often in exchange for money and/or property.

So, as you see, this problem of male entitlement with regard to women, sex, and what is expected of women in heterosexual relationships is widespread and certainly not limited to the sex industry.

So if we were to see all men who engage in these behaviours and believe or are complicit in this system as “monsters,” that would make the vast majority of men in the world “monsters.” And maybe they are, but that is, of course, an overly simplistic framing that ignores socialization and systems of power like patriarchy as the things that shape and create these “monsters.” Most of these men are, lets remember, “beloved husbands and fathers and sons.” And the women who name this behaviour as a problem, who talk about the abuse of women in prostitution (as well as in marriage and simply as women moving about in a patriarchal world) and who say that this sense of entitlement and the way that most men see women — as pretty things to look at or as sources of sexual pleasure — are not the ones who see women as less-than. The feminists who say “men consume, women are consumed” say this not because they believe it is natural, but because they believe it is not. By questioning what kind of “consent” can come from desperation and why the “enthusiastic consent” model flies out the window for so-called “sex positive feminists” where the system of prostitution is concerned, we are not taking away women’s agency or saying prostituted women are incapable of being raped or of consenting to sex. We are simply asking more complex questions about power structures and sexual relations between men and women, as well as looking towards a more equitable world than many are willing to imagine or fight for.

But back to the “good john.” That’s who we were talking about, right? He’s so nice, so beloved — no monster, just a husband, father, or son who is ever-so-polite to the woman he pays to pretend to desire him.

A study published on August 31 shows that men who pay for sex have less empathy for women in prostitution than men who don’t. In studying 101 men who buy sex in the Boston area and 101 men don’t (all who were similar in age, ethnicity, and economic background), study authors found that men who buy sex are more likely to report having committed rape and other aggressive sexual acts.

These findings are important for a number of reasons, not least of which being that many of those who advocate for the legalization of prostitution do so on the grounds that, supposedly, if men have access to sex whenever they desire it, they are less likely to rape (non-prostituted women, that is). We’re also told, by these advocates, that “sex work” is all about consent — anything “non-consensual” constitutes trafficking, which we’re told is a whole other ballgame. (It’s not, of course. Without trafficking, there would be no sex industry, or at least it would be so small that it would hardly be noteworthy.) But, based on this study, it seems apparent that men’s access to prostituted women doesn’t actually teach them to respect women nor does it fight rape culture.

UCLA professor Neil Malamuth, who co-authored the study, says, “Our findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men who are at risk for committing sexual aggression.” Rather than having more respect for prostituted women than, say, feminists or men who don’t buy sex, Malamuth found that “Those who buy sex, on average, have less empathy for women in prostitution and view them as intrinsically different from other women.”

In fact, researchers found that “Buying sex has been associated with men’s perpetration of gender based violence, including perpetration of physical and sexual violence against intimate partners and perpetration of rape against both partners and non-partners.” Beyond that, “College-aged men who used women in prostitution reported having committed more sexually coercive behaviors than men who had not used women in prostitution.”

You see, the notion (perpetuated and encouraged by anti-feminists) that women who fight the sex industry somehow don’t respect their sisters in the industry, doesn’t hold up. Not only does it not make sense if you look at the actual arguments and ideology behind feminist opposition to prostitution, but if you are honest about what men who buy sex think about the women they pay, the desire to externalize that internalized misogyny loses its foundation.

Considering that men who buy sex actually exhibit more sexually aggressive behaviours and attitudes towards women than the general population of men (who already are instilled with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies), we should be able to put the idea that prostitution “helps” dissuade men from sexually aggressive behaviour and prevents rape to bed.

Malamuth found in his ongoing work studying sexual aggression that men who are at higher risk for committing sexual aggression demonstrated a number of risk factors, “including antisocial behavior, a preference for impersonal sex, treating sex more as a sport than as part of an intimate relationship, and ‘hostile masculinity,’ which includes traits such as a narcissistic personality, hostility toward women and a desire to have power over women.” These are also qualities found in men who buy sex.

It is pure fantasy that “stigma” or feminist arguments “hurt” women in prostitution, while those sweet johns just want someone to hold. Society teaches men how to see women and prostitution provides an outlet for the worst of them — the ones who really want someone to dehumanize and abuse but to never be held accountable for that abuse. These men are not allies. They will never be allies. These are not men who are trying to effect change or trying to change, themselves. These are men, no matter how “beloved,” who are invested in ensuring that things don’t change. That their ability to degrade and abuse and maintain power over women remains entrenched or becomes even further entrenched through the legalization of prostitution. This is true even for the “nice” ones. Because there is not a single person alive who can argue, convincingly, that prostitution would exist, as it exists currently and has it as long existed, if not for patriarchy. Men need patriarchy to exist in order for them to have access to prostituted women.

As women, we’re all in this together. We are all impacted by patriarchy, rape culture, and the sex industry. Men who rape rape women both in and out of prostitution. They objectify, degrade, and abuse women who are prostituted and women who are not. But providing men with legal opportunities and spaces to do this, providing them with a socially-sanctioned industry within which they can play out these attitudes and behaviours, telling them their behaviour and attitudes are acceptable so long as they pay fairly, won’t help.

The beloved john exists, but he is no friend to women.

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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