Monday, January 28, 2008

I'm Not a John

I’m not a john. Never wanted to be one.

Not for any great moralistic reasons, not because it is bad or sinful or exploitative or anything like that, although I later developed some opinions on that. But because I never felt any attraction at all towards the idea.

For me, sex is basically a friendly act. You don’t have to be in love or anything, but for sex to be interesting for me, it has to be accepting and participatory; basically, if a woman isn’t actually interested in having sex with me, I’m not interested in having sex with her. So if I am paying someone to pretend to like me or be turned on, well, it feels about as sexy as cold mashed potatoes.

And all this would be fine, but because of my social work type job, over the years I have found myself on various prostitution groups; some working to help sex-workers, some to abate street-level prostitution, some to help underage sex-workers, and so on. And when you are doing that kind of work, well there is always the nagging suspicion that you are actually a john, rather like the pedophile/cub-scout leader. There seems to almost be an assumption that all men are potential johns, only being held back by money, or a spouse, or social conditioning, or religious/ethical beliefs. It is rather like the fundies that are so scared of gay sex: they almost seem to think that every man has a fag lurking within, struggling to get out and enjoy addictive gay sex.

Well it just ain’t so. And I really don’t like people thinking this way about me. But when you are actually working with sex-workers and ex-sex-workers, they seem to almost have an article of faith that all men have either hired a hooker, or want to. And that because of their work, they think that they are some kind of sex expert, and have a good understanding of male psychology. (Porn stars seem to get into the same way of thinking--one thing about sex work I think, is that it can warp your thinking.) Which isn’t true, they just have a good understanding of the psychology of johns, who are, I believe, a minority. (I also don’t believe the figures given for the porn industry--I suspect that the numbers are a lot smaller, and that there are a small percentage of porn consumers that consume the majority of the porn sold. But that’s just my guess.)

It is true, as Mark Twain said, that 90% of men masturbate, and the other 10% lie about it, and it is also true that there isn’t a man alive that hasn’t enjoyed looking at some kind of porn or other a few times if he has had the opportunity, but it is not true that every man is a potential john. Indeed, not every man is even a stripper spectator. I went to a few shows, and it was interesting at first in an almost anthropological sort of way, but once you’ve seen a couple of shows, you’ve seen them all, it gets dull as ditchwater listening to bad music, drinking over-priced drinks, and being surrounded by losers. I just don’t get the guys that are into that either.

I know from experience that street-level prostitution is a very nasty business. It is very dangerous work, where assault and rape is a matter of When, not If. It pays terribly, and workers are ruthlessly and violently exploited by pimps and gangs and dealers. And most of them are doing it out of desperation, usually driven by addiction.

There is a very old cultural myth, the hopeful belief in the carefree happy hooker, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the satisfied professional. And I am sure there are some, working as escorts and such, I have no direct knowledge, but in my experience, there are damn few working on the street. Most of the women working on the street that I have encountered are desperately unhappy; not unhappy because they are hooking, but more that they are hooking because they are unhappy, or perhaps that the same things that are making them unhappy are also driving them to sell their bodies.

My experiences have turned me from being bored by the whole notion of hiring a hooker, to being repulsed by the idea. When you have seen, when you know, why a hooker is doing what she is doing, what her life is like, only a monster or sociopath could want to engage in it. I’ve seen too many needle tracks, too many apprehended children, too many disappearances, too many bruises and cuts and fits of terror and panic.

In the cities I have worked in, and when I talk to my colleagues in other cities, the levels of street prostitution seem to be falling. There are probably a lot of factors behind this, but one of them seems to be smarter policing: most of the time the cops aren’t targeting street-walkers, they are targeting the johns. And johns tend to be a fairly frightened bunch, and easy to scare off with publicized busts and car confiscations and mandatory attendance at john-schools. But we really don’t understand the psychology at work; I really don’t think it is as simple as being horny and finding an outlet.

A group I was working with started recording the license plates of guys cruising the stroll, and we compiled a fairly large database before the government cracked down and stopped releasing information on the plates to us. But while we were running it, we discovered a few interesting things. First of all, the johns were coming from every part of the city, except the neighborhood of the stroll itself. Proportionally, they were coming from every neighborhood of the city: there was no distinction between high-income, middle-class, and poor neighborhoods. Which surprised us, we had figured the rich guys would patronize escorts, and poor guys wouldn’t have the cash. But it turns out that a desire to slum with a street-hooker crosses class and income lines. Which is I suppose bad news.

(And what probably helped in shutting us down was that a few of plates turned out to belong to fairly prominent/well-connected people in the community, hmm.)

The second thing that the data showed was that there weren’t all that many johns. What there was were high-repeat johns; the majority of the traffic were the same guys coming back again and again. Which I would take as good news; maybe I am right and most men are not in fact actual, and hopefully not potential, johns.

What we were starting to discover, when they shut us down, was that over half of the johns appeared to be married (and a significant number of the cars had baby or child seats in the back, ick). Hiring a hooker, it seemed, was not so much about seeking a source of sexual outlet, but a hobby or vocation or pastime of its own. Some men seem to like being johns, like hiring street workers for its own sake. Which seems rather strange to me. But perhaps some of the radfems are right about at least some men: they seem to like exploitative, power-imbalanced sex.

But please, they ain’t most of us.