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Saturday, June 06 2020 @ 05:37 AM CDT

The Secret Life of Johns

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by Rachel Rabbit White

In the last few years the media has become inundated with stories about sex workers: feminist sex-workers; high-end, blogging call girls; coerced trafficking-victims. But in each, the buyer remains faceless. Even the word “John” conjures a shady, hidden, back alley-image. This is what I set out to uncover.


Tapping into Craigslist and online “hobbyist” communities, I interviewed dozens of men that buy sex, giving them a chance to tell their personal stories. My hope was not to gloss over real instances of violence and abuse, but to understand each buyer's individual story. I wanted to remove those shadows so we could all see a little more clearly the legal issues of sex work. My first question was: “Who are these men and why do they do it?” Yet each person I met was incredibly varied.

“John,” it seems, is every man.

Melissa Ditmore, PhD and editor of the Encyclopedia of Sex Work and Prostitution says this has always been the case: “There were guidebooks from many parts of the country detailing the locations of brothels and reviews of the people who worked in them. Many of these were intended for relatively wealthy 'sporting men' in the 19th century. But clients come from a cross-section of society — no group is absent.”

The first time Matthew had sex was on his 18th birthday. “A gay friend of mine found out that I had never been laid — he was kind of appalled” he explains. So, on Matthew's birthday, his present was a session with a sex worker. He was ecstatic. “I kind of pleasantly went off the deep-end. She was just perfect. I felt like I was going to float off my chair.” Up until this moment, Matthew had believed sex just wasn’t going to happen for him. He was born with cerebral palsy and when he hit puberty, he remembers his grandmother warning, “love is something you just won’t experience.”

Matthew has lived his entire sexual life, having only been with sex workers. He is quite monogamous about it, seeing the same woman for years at a time. Talking with Matthew, I get it: he needs someone he can trust, who can help lift him out of his chair and get around, seeing new girls means having to explain his disability again and again. “I know a lot of people like being impersonal, but I manage from a different angle. For me, if there is no connection, there is no point,” he says.

Chris Atchinson, the researcher behind John's Voice, a study that focuses solely on buyer's experiences, and truly the first of it's kind, found similar sentiments in his research: “A lot of my samples did express that they got simple companionship and intimacy that they wouldn't have otherwise.” Slightly over a quarter of the men in John's Voice reported that sex workers had been the only source of sexual intimacy during the last year, and 66 percent reported having sex with the same sex worker in that year.

Stephen, a photographer explains the craving for closeness differently. “After the first time, I wrote a poem about it. It was actually very moving to find that I could have a genuinely intimate experience with somebody I didn’t know. You go to their place and you get to see who they are, where they live, the alter to their boyfriend. For a moment you’re thrown into the life of a stranger in an intimate way.”

Matthew has loved all his sex workers and recounts really falling the first time. “Every other word out of my mouth was, ‘I wonder what she is doing now?’”

Stephen sees this as a dangerous line. “A client falling in love with a sex worker is very common. The sex worker can just move on, stop doing sex work and you are left to deal with that loss. You've got to remember that when you stop paying them, they stop seeing you, but it can be hard to keep this perspective.”

According to Ditmore, men have historically gone to sex workers for a variety of reasons: “Sex workers offer sexual experiences, companionship and entertainment. This takes many forms, often in response to local legislation. For example, there are a huge variety of sexual services sold in Japan that include bathing, massage, and nearly everything you can imagine short of penile penetration.”

Of course for some, it's purely about fulfilling a sexual desire — or a fetish. Garret, a journalist, fits this mold. “I was looking on Craigslist and found a female model who offered a bunch of different things: personal training services, African history lessons, pre-colonial history lessons... ass worship. And so, I emailed her, like, ‘Hey, listen. I like all the other stuff you offer but I’m kinda curious about this ass worship.’” Stephen too, is fulfilling a sexual desire he can't get at home, as he pretty much solely sees a transgender woman.

Some men were quick to nix any idea that there was any emotional intimacy. Nick, an ex-vet says: “I see sex workers just for sex. It really is that simple. The act is quicker, and more awkward, of course I would prefer with a partner.”

Even though it's “just sex” for Nick, it was also about gaining experience. “It certainly made me more confident with women, it added to my knowledge of not only sex but women in general. Of the 400 to
500 women I've seen, there are no two I would characterize as the same.”

As I interviewed men about their experiences, I learned about their impressions of sex work growing up. “I was always intrigued by prostitution. This tingle would run through my body when I see someone on the street. I grew up in Wicker Park in Chicago, and there were a lot of streetwalkers. I wondered what their stories were. It was titillating, as a kid” says Adam, an artist who first saw a sex worker at 19.

Seeing sex workers, by virtue of it's illegal status, is a risk-taking behavior. Some studies now show that inclination to risk-taking behavior might be wired into the brain — linked to pleasure centers. But it seems to depend on a person-by-person basis whether or not the calculation of the risk makes logical sense. For people like Matthew or men who are so painfully shy they can hardly talk to women, it can add up empirically. But for many, the element of danger seems to be a factor.

“There’s something about meeting somebody and deciding to trust them even though there’s potential dangers — for the client as well as sex workers. There’s something to just knowing that sex is available to you, with a person who’s attractive on various levels, whenever you want. You just have to be willing to pay for it,” says Stephen.

Adam says his attraction to seeing sex workers, especially on the street, somewhat comes from the risk, “I wanted to know what it was like to have an orgasm with someone on the street. I knew it was 'dirty', I knew it was illegal and that was kind of thrilling.”

“There is a tendency within academic discourse to see things in binaries, good-bad, male-female” says Atchinson. After interviewing these random sex buyers, I see there is so much more to it than black and white, more than some dark image replaced by a brighter one. I started to get the picture of the complex human beings behind the “John” role, and it only opened more questions: morality, trafficking, violence, marriage and legality. Would there be prostitution in a sex positive world? Each “John” with his different background, experiences and beliefs had his own idea.


If a “John” is a guy who buys sex, is a woman who buys sex a “Jane”? The last installment of “The Secret Life of Johns” asked: Who are these men that buy sex and why do they do it? But now I propose the question: Does “Jane” exist?

Joan Nestle describes female-buyers and Harlem brothels for women in Sex Work — which includes an account of one madam keeping a shotgun by the door to deter unwelcome men.

According to Dr. Melissa Ditmore of the Sex Workers Project: “Women clients seem to be prevalent in places where women have more earning power than the sellers. Consider the female clients of local men in the Caribbean and parts of Africa today.”

“Yes — women buy sex.” This was Jeannette Belliveau, author of Romance on The Road, which includes research on (and first hand experience with) “romance tourism” — a form of sex tourism driven by women. Kris, a gay sex-worker and activist explains: “Women are possibly the biggest users of sex tourism. Many women I know personally travel to Turkey and to parts of Africa to buy sex from young men. In these cases a pseudo form of affair takes place but both parties know that money/goods are exchanging hands in return for sex.”

According to Belliveau, romance tourism has been going on since the Victorian era — coinciding with the first wave of feminism. “During the first wave of feminism, women became able to travel on their own and soon we had the first women sex travelers going to Syria, Italy and Africa.” While on vacation without male companions, they began flings with the local men — the men got to live like a rich Westerner and the women got a young attractive tour guide. Lesbian tourism also exists in Greece and Thailand, but is not as popular.

According to an article in Reuters, Kenyan locals estimate one in five single women visiting from rich countries are in search of sex. When British sociologists Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor and Julia O’Connell questioned women tourists in Negril, they found a third of them had sexual contact with local young men during vacation. Sixty percent agreed the men probably did it for money. In Jamaica, the men-for-hire are commonly known as “rent-a-dreads;” they comb nightclubs for women, which help them keep up with the latest sneakers or sunglasses. “Going rates for sex with men have been reported as high as $30 an hour in Jamaica. Men can earn as much as ten times the typical income,” says Belliveau.

Belliveau says she’s been asked to buy dinner for guys in the Caribbean, but not flat-out to pay for sex. “It is a very informal thing, maybe the woman pays some of his college tuition when he mentions it, or that he has a tourist business and needs a car to get set up. It’s heavily unstructured and more likely to be ‘so I am visiting my cousin in Kingston and really need $200’ the morning after.”

When Heidi Fleiss announced a few years ago that she would be opening up a brothel for women in Nevada, it made the news rounds, even though an actual lady bordello never appeared.

In a 2007 ABC article about Fleiss' announcement, commenter Brandi Lou said: “I am a 36 year old woman in Idaho. I could get sex anytime I wanted. But I would like variety! I would like to go somewhere where no one knows me, etc. Yes! Hurry up Heidi! We ladies are waiting!”

Commenter, Karen Blake agrees: “My husband of 18 years has no testosterone in his body and thus no sex drive. I am atrophied from years of no sex. I would pay for this sex in a heartbeat. It's a physical need to be touched and held by anther human being, and to be sexually active. I get depressed all the time because I have to go to for this sort of attention. Hurry up Heidi! Start soon please!”

Another commenter, BlondeeGirl1972, adds “I am also interested, right now!! My husband is partially disabled. We are a close couple and love each other very much. We both know I need more sexual gratification in a safe non-threatening environment where I can relax and enjoy the experience. He is as much for it as I am. Open the doors soon! Put some publicity out there so we can seize these opportunities.”

It seems, there is an interest, yet Belliveau believes we are a far from seeing female sex-buying in the U.S. There is still such socialization around female sexuality, women are not taught to own their desires.

“The woman enters what psychologists call a liminal zone, where everyday reality doesn't apply. Although we modern people pride ourselves on having a fixed personality, in reality we mirror others’ expectations very closely — at home we behave so our families aren’t ashamed and we aren’t labeled a “slut.” Then on the road, a different mirror is held up — one that might say a casual fling will be mutually fun and harmless — and we find ourselves responding,” she says.

But like my interviewed male buyers pressed, women who buy sex do exist — everywhere. Even though he’s gay, Kris has had women book appointments with him. “They usually call to make an appointment for their bisexual husband. During appointments women watch, sometimes undressed and masturbating. At other times they have joined in the sex. Often, it is their first time with a sex worker, but sometimes they've booked female escorts in the past for a threesome. I have noticed a recent increase in this type of appointment.”

Stephen, the writer, photographer and sex-buyer from Part One, once set up a female friend with a sex worker. “Several years ago, I had a woman friend visiting and I took her to a transgender club. As soon as we got there, a very attractive Latina trans woman caught my friend’s eye, they started flirting and dancing very suggestively. I spoke with the woman and asked if she would “date” my friend and I together. After making sure that I understood that we would have to pay, she that she would be happy to.”

Stephen propositioned his friend, but she felt torn. “My friend laughed nervously, and for a big part of the night was in great turmoil because she was very attracted to this woman but also scared about acting on her desire. She told me that she had never paid for sex; nor had she ever been sexual with a trans woman, although she was/is quite actively bisexual.” After much indecision, she decided to go for it. Stephen and his friend went back to the woman's apartment.

“Mi casa es su casa, the woman told us both. I watched but didn't participate. They both seemed to have a wonderful time. When we left the apartment, my friend was floating on air.”

What would it take for female buyers to come out of the closet? In one article on Fleiss' proposed brothel, Dr. Laura Berman muses that maybe the female-brothel idea would catch on if it were more vacation-like. Perhaps, if Fleiss's stud farm were marketed as a spa, a time for getaway and relaxation, women would be all over it. Maybe that post-sex-buying floating-on-air feeling paired with a glass of cucumber water in the waiting room is all it takes.


When celebrities take on humans rights issues, eyes will roll. Take, Demi and Ashton's DNA project and it's “comedy” videos featuring celebs like Justin Timberlake with the message “Real Men Don't Buy Girls” which has been criticized for being insensitive. And I agree, it's hard to take anything Justin Timberlake does as important.
Can a man who once wore a suit made entirely of denim be sincere? But, I think these celebs have their hearts in the right place, trafficking is a real and monstrous issue and I applaud anyone trying to take it on.

But, first, let's clear some things up. What, exactly is trafficking? The image concocted by the media is often of foreign women and girls forced into another country as sex slaves, but this is not always the case, or even the majority of cases. Women can be trafficked in their own homes. Serpent Libertine of the The Sex Workers Outreach Project lends a hand: “When we talk about trafficking, we need to remember the difference between choice, circumstance and coercion. Trafficking is any form of coercion into the industry.”

In each of my “johns” interviews, the topic of trafficking inevitably arose. These are men who have seen sex workers hundreds of times, guys who understand that not all sex work is trafficking. In turn, they often know it when they see it.

Jacob had been on a seven year hiatus from seeing sex workers. “When I started again, there were loads of women from Latin America all of the sudden. And soon after, women from Eastern Europe. At some point I met a Polish woman who seemed like marble, completely lifeless, beset by fear, anxiety and disgust... I cannot remember that anything sexual happened between us.”

There is a lot of shame (and shaming) that comes with buying services from a sex worker. This was evident in many of my interviews. Chris Atchinson, the researcher behind Johns’ Voice, a study that focuses solely on buyer's experiences, also found the hundreds of sex buyers he spoke to were familiar with this phenomenon.

When Jacob was on vacation in the Netherlands, he scheduled a date with a sex worker he'd never met before. She was a Colombian woman. “At some point she broke, tears in her eyes. I had been nice to her, it's not that I was trying to harm her in any way,” he says. The woman hardly spoke anything but Spanish, so when he tried to ask what was wrong, she didn't understand.

“She clearly didn't want to be on the job. She was probably a genuine trafficking victim.” Not knowing what to do, he gave her a good luck charm from his pocket. “I felt completely helpless afterward. At the time, sex work was still illegal in the Netherlands, so had I reported the case to the police, I would have been in trouble myself.”

According to Serpent, Jacob's story is not unique. She hears from many buyers who come across cases of trafficking, but fear they can't do anything, because they too will be arrested. “This is a complicated situation as clients need to assess whether they may be endangering the trafficked person in other ways if police or a national hotline are called. I know the simple answer is "call the police" but that's not always the best idea. Police could arrest the client and the worker and never get them to services at all,” she explains.

Stephen has thought a lot about the morality of seeing sex workers who are in the business out of circumstance. Stephen solely sees transgender women — a part of the population marginalized and often discriminated against, in the workplace and otherwise.

“The first sex worker I picked up was at a trans bar, and I actually felt very connected with her. I even wrote a poem about that experience — it was moving to find that I could have a genuinely intimate experience with somebody I didn’t know. About a year later, I went back to the same bar and I picked her up again. I went back to her place, except now, she was living in this place with junkies in the hall, and she was gonna shoot up before we had sex. I said ‘Keep the money, but I can’t.’ She started crying ‘Oh, god! My mama didn’t raise me for this. I tried to crack once or twice. I thought it was just a joke!’ I cried because this woman, the first transsexual person I ever had sex with — who introduced me to that in such a wonderful way — look what had happened to her.”

I ask Stephen how he handles this, ethically. “If I’m going to a sex worker — even if it’s somebody who is doing sex work for difficult reasons — I’m gonna treat them well. Most people probably don’t like the work that they do. Like, guys working in factories 40 hours a week. It’s bad for your health, bad for your mind. Why do they do it? They need the money to pay the bills. Sex work is another job. It’s a hard job. I know a lot of people who are major advocates on how sex work can be a great job. But I also know it can eat you alive. I don’t think it’s a moral issue. I think that it’s a logistical issue.”

For me, the line between circumstance and trafficking remains confusing. Serpent explains, “Many of these street economy workers are actually not trafficked, they are doing so with their own consent, but under less than desirable situations. Many are drug users, but that doesn't mean they are trafficked either. Circumstance becomes trafficking when a person willingly answers an ad or goes to work for an agency, but then are tricked into situations that they don't consent to or are not paid for their work.”

Sexuality educator, Charlie Glickman recently wrote a blogpost with this analogy: “sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape.” And it's interesting; because with sex and rape, we understand there is gray-rape, there are gray areas of consent. Perhaps this too is how we should look at sex work and trafficking.

Ron, a man I interviewed over email, said about trafficking: “I sometimes think that when I am forced to confront the discomfort of a sex worker face to face there is more there than when I buy a DVD player, knowing the conditions the worker in China was operating under.”

Glickman goes onto point out: “I would LOVE to live in a world in which nobody was forced, coerced, or tricked into sexual slavery. For that matter, I would LOVE to live in a world in which there were no sweatshops or agricultural and domestic trafficking, although to make that happen, we (as a society) would need to be willing to pay people a fair wage for their labor. Instead, we’d rather give huge amounts of money to the CEOs and stockholders and get cheap sneakers.”

But back to Demi and Ashton and their assertion about real men and sex buying. Real men (and women) make conscious choices when it comes to buying sex. Real men and women research the person they are employing as a sex worker. Real men and women contact SWOP or other organizations designed to protect sex workers when they come across possible trafficking. And real men and women face their own shame around buying sex — for their own mental health, and to ensure a healthy interaction for the real human being from whom they are buying sexual services.


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