There is something very odd about the prostitution debate. While the absolute majority of sex buyers are male, an overwhelming majority of intellectuals defending prostitution are women. It’s a strange phenomenon that most definitely needs its own analysis.
The john should, in theory, have every reason to worry right now. He is, for the first time, at the center of discussion. Legislators are increasingly targeting the sex buyer, or “demand” as NGOs call it. The Nordic model has been praised by the EU parliament as the most efficient legislation to curb trafficking, and the survivors’ movement is growing all around the world. Women are speaking out, as in the recently published book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, about what johns really do to them. It is the first time in history that so many women are collectively revealing what goes on in the world of prostitution — a world where a man, up until now, could do almost anything with a woman and no one would find out. Those times are over — the sex buyer is becoming visible. Tension is mounting. Have we reached the point in history where a man actually has to be liked by a woman in order to get inside her pants?
Despite all this, the john remains, for the most part, silent. He does not need to speak. As always, when a man is threatened, a woman comes along to help him out. At the forefront of international “sex work” discourse, we generally do not find a sex buyer, but a female academic. In any magazine, at any conference, at any event where the john is to be even remotely criticized — a pro-prostitution female academic is there to defend him.
Who is she? Well, she calls herself “subversive,” “revolutionary,” even “feminist.” That is exactly why the john needs her as his ambassador. A defence of prostitution coming from this woman makes prostitution look queer, LGBT-friendly, modern, fair trade, socialist — the very epitome of female liberation. But most importantly, when she speaks, we forget that the sex buyer exists.
The tacit agreement between the john and the pro-prostitution female academic is that she will do anything to defend his acts, while ensuring that he stays in the shadows. She will speak incessantly about prostitution, but never mention him. Her task is to make sure prostitution seems like an all-female affair. The queer academic will use the prostituted woman as a shield, blocking the john from the limelight. She will use the prostituted woman any way she can — analyzing her, re- and deconstructing her, holding her up as a role model, and using her as a microphone (i.e. a career booster), thereby positioning her as “good” vs. the “evil” feminist.
This move perfectly mimics prostitution itself: the prostitute is visible, standing on the street or in a bar, while the buyer only visits and leaves — there is no shame attached to him, and no myths surrounding him. The function of the queer academic is to ensure things stay that way.
What we are dealing with here is a defense of prostitution constructed of a double shield. Anyone wanting to debate prostitution will have a hard time getting to the john, since the female pro-prostitution academic and the “sex worker” are standing in between. Any attempt to speak to what the john does, says, or thinks will bounce back into discussions of female identities and become a cat-fight in an alley of mirrors.
This academic has her own definition of intellectual debate. When she speaks, she calls it “listening.” According to her, she doesn’t actually speak in favor of prostitution, she merely “listens to sex workers.” The louder she speaks, the more proof that she “listens.” When someone opposed to prostitution speaks, however, she calls it “silencing.”
The emergence of the survivors’ movement has, however, shown that this “listening” is anything but unconditional. When survivors of prostitution speak out against prostitution, the queer academic either does not listen, or actively debates against them. Here it is revealed that the person she really defends is not “sex workers” at all, but the john.
She is the type who will start a Twitter storm if a man is caught “mansplaining” or “manspreading,” if someone calls her “sweetie,” or states that women get pregnant instead of “people.” One must wonder how her outrage at details can co-exist with her complete callousness towards an industry which is, according to studies, the most deadly one women could be in.
We must not forget that for her, just like for the john, a woman in prostitution is and remains an “other” type of woman. Sure, she’ll adopt a tone of admiration where the john has a tone of contempt, but the meaning is the same.
Here is the truth: the function of this academic is not that of a revolutionary or a feminist — she is not trying to defend women — rather, she is the sex buyer’s nanny. One of the oldest patriarchal functions that exists. She soothes him when he is worried and takes on his enemies. She makes sure nobody will take away his toys, whatever he does to them.
Remember, the live-in nanny of yesteryear always treated the son of the house as simultaneously master and child — obeying him, cleaning up after him, and letting him cry on her lap. The nanny, more than any other character in patriarchy, is the understanding woman. She cannot stand to see her young master hungry — he will always eat before she eats — but she does not treat him as a man with responsibilities. No matter his age, he will always remain a boy who can’t help what he does. This function has allowed men of the upper classes to be bosses and reckless children all at once. One cannot understand patriarchy without understanding how the nanny has shaped the upper echelons of masculinity.
The john embodies exactly this type. He is the man who will command and expect his every whim to be catered to, but will not take responsibility for what he does. If he ruins other people’s lives, spreads STDs to women in prostitution and to his wife, contributes to the organized slave trade — so what? Not his problem.
Today’s john might not have a literal nanny anymore, but what he has found in the female pro-prostitution academic is akin to it: A “queer” nanny who soothes his worries, takes care of his needs, and defends him against the outside world.
The john can go on bragging about his business trips and all the “whores” he’s going to fuck, though he would never accept his daughter becoming one (nor would he, for that matter, marry one). He can watch porn but forbid his girlfriend to “act slutty,” and never will his nanny hold him accountable. She will never enter the online forums where sex buyers discuss and “review” the women and girls they pay to inform these johns that, “Actually the term is ‘sex worker,’ not hooker.” She will never scold him for stigmatizing or having double standards. Men are men, after all…
Well, if that’s the case, let them grow up and speak for themselves. If buying sex is such a great thing, let the men come forth and say what they do and why — in their own words, the same words they use when they go to brothels. And when survivors call johns out, step aside. Don’t let these men cling to your skirt for protection. Queer nannies of the world, are you even paid to act as sex buyers’ ambassadors? Or are you volunteering for them — protecting them from accountability, responsibility, and maturity — as women have always done?
Queer nanny, it’s time to resign — you too deserve a better fate.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist, writer, and activist. She is the author of Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self and The Eurocrisis Seen From Athens, among others. Watch her TEDx talk, “Everybody talks about capitalism — but what is it?” here.