We don’t need to redeem the reputations of johns — we need to tell the truth about them

King County Sheriff John Urquhart at a news conference where criminal charges are announced Thurs., Jan. 7, 2016, in Seattle against the operators of an online review board where men can view prostitution ads and post reviews about their sexual experiences with prostituted women. This display shows trafficking a victim from Korea. (Image: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
King County Sheriff John Urquhart at a news conference in Seattle where criminal charges were announced against the operators of thereviewboard.net — a site where men can view prostitution ads and post reviews of the prostituted women they buy. This display shows trafficking a victim from Korea. (Image: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Apparently, the real victims of sex trafficking are sex buyers. According to a recent article by Elizabeth Brown at Reason, we should pity these men — unfairly vilified and pushed towards suicide for the harmless act of exploiting and abusing marginalized women.

Brown uses the case of Sigurds Zitars, a 62-year-old retired accountant who went by the name “Tahoe Ted” online as an example.

Zitars is a sex buyer who ran an online forum called The Review Board (TRB), where could buyers review (in graphic detail) the women they bought — think Yelp for prostituted women’s bodies. But hidden beneath the already nefarious forum lay something even darker — another forum that promoted a trafficking ring that sold women from Korea in the United States. The women were advertised and made available to a group of sex buyers who called themselves “The League.” The TRB and The League forum were seized in January by law enforcement officials, and over a dozen League members, including Zitars, were charged with felony promoting prostitution in the second degree (which has a very light sentence but is a felony charge nonetheless). This is a landmark charge as no buyer of commercial sex has ever, to my knowledge, been held accountable in this way for the violence they perpetuate. Zitars himself pled guilty to three counts of promoting prostitution, which holds a sentence of up to 30 days work release, 30 days community service or 45 days electronic home detention, attendance in a 10 week post-conviction sex buyer intervention course, and a maximum $3000 fine.

Facing his sentence, Zitars committed suicide on August 22nd. Brown quotes his lawyer, Zachary Wagnild, who says:

“I can’t pretend to know everything that contributed to Sigurd’s decision. However, I know that he had lost a lot of family members over the last few years and that being falsely portrayed as an unfeeling, exploiter of women was very painful for him.”

Brown eulogizes Zitars through quotes, implying that attempting to hold this man accountable killed him. Brown quotes an anonymous co-defendant, who claims Zitars “was ‘guilty’ of nothing more than exercising his First Amendment rights by running a public online discussion forum — without any financial gain.”

Brown closes with another quote from Wagnild, who says, “[Zitars] was a man that had quit his job in order to care for terminally ill family members… which is how he’ll be remembered by the people who actually knew him.”

Our culture has a habit of apologizing for and erasing men’s bad behavior: “He may have beat the crap out of his wife for years, but he’s always there for his kids,” “Sure he buys sex sometimes, but he also provides for his family,” “He sexually harasses women at work, but donates so much money to charity!” Society may want to give men like Zitars a pass, but I’m not going to.

I knew this man, and he was not a good guy, no matter what Brown would like us to believe. Even a self-proclaimed “sex worker” tweeted, “I don’t think anyone is denying Ted [Zitars] is an abusive ass,” on January 7th, mere hours after the TRB was seized by law enforcement. Excusing Zitars’ sex buying and promoting behaviors because he showed a thread of humanity in his square world life is akin to telling all the women he victimized that no one gives a damn about their suffering.

zitars

I’m saddened to hear about anyone who takes their own life. I’ve seen first-hand the damage suicide can do to family and community. But we still have to tell the truth about who this particular man was: a product of patriarchy, a trafficker, a man who thought he could continue to buy sex without consequences for as long as he wanted. His death changes nothing for me or other survivors like me, who are erased by this kind of eulogizing.

I had started trading sex for a place to stay and protection as a runaway youth, and formally entered prostitution out of necessity when I was about 18 years old. I was poor and had a co-dependent boyfriend and his young daughter to feed. I held my life in little regard and, like most women who have been in prostitution, I had experienced childhood sexual abuse. Because sex had never been about anything but survival for me, entering prostitution formally felt easy for me — more of a sideways step than a jump. Little did I know I was stepping off a cliff, and Zitars was more than happy to facilitate my own slow suicidal plunge. I remember him gazing lecherously at my then-teenage body as though it were a piece of meat delivered on a platter for his consumption. It would take me years to recover from being bought by countless men — I still hate to be naked and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how to truly connect with another human being on an intimate level. I never thought I would survive to see 25 much less 33 and now that I’m here I don’t know what to do or how to truly live.

Women have been dying in prostitution at the hands of pimps, buyers, and traffickers for centuries and society has not cared enough to put a stop to it. Women in prostitution have taken their own lives in droves as a result of being prostituted. Women who are still in the life as well as those who have left prostitution carry the burden of stigma and shame that is not theirs to carry. Yet it’s the johns and traffickers we are supposed to pity?

Men (of which the majority of sex buyers are) have long managed to avoid being held accountable for their actions and the harm they have caused. But now that we are taking baby steps toward examining the actions of those who buy sex, pro-industry advocates like Brown are acting as though the world has lost some great hero. He was a sex buyer and an exploiter — what is the purpose of glorifying or trying to redeem his character?

Mourning a person one knew is understandable, but I refuse to put on rose-colored glasses simply because a bad person has died. Rather, I will remember Zitars as I did the first night I met him. It was one of my first times at a Review Board event, and he sat slouched in a booth, looking out over a dance floor filled with the “entertainment” for the evening: a group of young prostituted women in short skirts, their (likely) drug-addled bodies sweating, swaying, writhing, and grinding in front of him. I will remember that, for fear of getting a negative review (and consequently banned from TRB), women would drop their fees as well as their boundaries for Zitars or any other member of his inner circle. Even in my state of denial about my own downward spiral I saw Zitars as a sick child deciding which toy he would break in.

I will remember Zitars as the man who facilitated the buying and selling of my body by countless men by keeping the Review Board in operation and I will remember him as a man who promoted the normalization of the sexual objectification of women.

My one concern for Zitars is that he didn’t live long enough to be held accountable for what he did. Rather than grieve for this man, I will grieve for the women he exploited — women who will never be granted justice for the harm Zitars caused them.

The many memories I have of this man — and all the other men who bought me — are images that will stay with me for the rest of my life. These images still haunt me, despite the fact that Zitars himself can’t harm me anymore.

So no, I will not remember Zitars as the innocent victim Brown portrays him as. I will remember him for what he was: a very sick and bitter man who was taught to dehumanize women by a society that cares more about a man’s need for a “cuddle” than my need to survive.

Alisa Bernard is a consultant to NGO’s to promote survivor led and informed services and policies. She is a survivor of prostitution and uses her experience to advocate for women’s rights.

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