Victim-blaming has become a catchphrase among feminists of all schools of thought, addressing the repercussions of burdening people (usually women) with the responsibility of remaining unharmed by others. An example of this can be found in the dialogue of Zerlina Maxwell, who earlier this year spoke out against the right-wingers suddenly ‘taking a stand’ against sexual assault by using it as a platform against gun control. Women, their idea was, need to look out for themselves by carrying an assault weapon through which they will be protected.
Never mind that assaults often happen among family members, that it could be your boyfriend or professor, that it’s rarely a man coming out of the bushes at night. On the Sean Hannity Show in which she was a guest, Maxwell was hushed as she made these claims. If a woman has a gun, she will be protected; if she is assaulted, it is because she failed to protect herself. Maxwell knew that this is where their arguments were headed and she tried to incorporate the oft-neglected subject of perpetrators into the discussion with potential solutions as to how they could be prevented from assaulting in the first place. She was silenced.
Like many others, I was troubled by the denial of our potential to unlearn rape culture. What has been further distressing to me, however, is the reluctance of even self-proclaimed feminists to widen the scope of victim-blaming. It is most notably a concept encompassing our notions of heteronormative sexual assault, but these are not its limits, as it can also be incorporated into discussions of non-sexual violent crimes (i.e.: domestic violence and the all-too-common question of ‘why didn’t she just leave him?’). Where we don’t hear it is in the conversation of violence against sex workers. Perhaps this is because it is rare that there even is a conversation of violence against sex workers.
When this subject does arise in conversation, it is always the same old debate: sex workers face inhumane conditions and thus it must be abolished, against the more progressive notion that sex workers should have the same rights as everyone else, including a safe work environment, thus it should be rendered legal.
While the latter notion is on to something, and a position I continue to advocate, what is missing from even their viewpoint is the question of why there exists violence in the first place. In the overwhelming majority of academic studies to informal conversations on the status of the sex industry, there seems to be a subject conspicuously absent: that of the patron, or colloquially, the ‘john.’
‘Sex workers are your wives, your mothers, your sisters, and your daughters,’ we hear advocates of sex workers rights decree (sometimes opening the category up to include male sex workers as well, another underrepresented subject). As painful and infuriating as this is for some to hear, it seems to be taken much better than the reciprocate statement, which is never used: “Johns are your husbands, your fathers, your brothers, and your sons.”
While we have the trope of ‘whore’ for women which we are quick to brush away any ‘deviants’ into when necessary, there’s hardly a parallel for men; men who engage in the sexual trade are still, well, men. As with male perpetrators of sexual assault, the patrons are rarely the monsters so many of us envision them to be, or want them to be.
It’s late morning in Manhattan and a white-haired man pours himself and E. a glass of champagne. They toast to a new beginning for E. “Prepare to change your life,” he tells her, which she finds a bit cheesy but realizes is true. S. found E. advertising on Backpage a couple weeks ago and immediately saw her for what she was—a young woman who didn’t know a thing about the industry, from where to market herself to how much she could charge. This was S.’s specialty. He takes photos of E., sets up a webpage for her and an advertisement on the more upscale Eros, writes her a positive review over their champagne, and eats up all the “thank you’”s and cooing which she offers in return. Her rate soars from $300 to $900 in the hour. This is the eighth such relationship with a woman he has had. He enjoys the purely physical aspect of these encounters, but what S. really desires is being seen as a helpful, much-needed sort of father figure. He calls them all ‘his girls,’ to which they roll their eyes to themselves.
Meanwhile in Long Island City, four girls in lingerie sit in a smoky living room while waiting for a next client. Two men come in from their lunch break, working on the construction project five blocks away. The first one who enters with a grin on his face is a regular; he hands the manager two hundred dollars in twenties for both him and his nervous friend. They couple off and the latter turns red as he is undressed by J.; this is usually the point where girls gasp or have a look of horror in their eyes, even when they don’t say anything or run out of the room in fright. “I was hit by a car two years ago,” he explains as his prosthetic leg is exposed, but the smile doesn’t leave her face. Instead, J. fully disrobes, kisses him on the mouth, and clutches him as if she felt lucky to be there. This is the start to an ongoing relationship.
These anecdotes are in no way intended to brush over the harsh reality that sex workers are subject to a higher rate of homicide than people of any other occupation, nor does this comparison of two socioeconomic classes come close to encompassing the industry as a whole. Rather, I use them to highlight the fact that people seeking services in the sex industry are rarely the flat characters we make them out to be nor do they always cause pain.
Many, like those detailed above, hope it to be a means to intimacy, or some sort of emotional gratification. While there are individuals who want nothing more than a quickie, as there are individuals whose emotional desires begin to veer toward an assertion of power or dominance. These aims are often and easily achieved without any boundaries being violated. A crossing of these boundaries is not to be treated as a norm, but an anomaly that needs to be corrected.
As sex workers’ rights activists continue to tell us, a legalization of their occupation—not just a decriminalization for the workers themselves—is crucial to the progress we wish to see. This is not to say that legislative acts alone will end the systemic oppression, nor are we helpless in the meantime.
Where to begin?
1. Let go of the sexism and heteronormativity. The patron of the sex worker is too commonly seen as male, even by those who discern that sex workers come in every gender imaginable. John; we never hear of “Janes,” even as the female patron is becoming more and more common. Women want to buy sex too, and we’ll buy it from men, women, and anything in between. Further, we can do this without being perceived as perpetrators of assault; perhaps this is because female patrons aren’t acknowledged at all, or to borrow from Germaine Greer, because we’ve “conceptualized [the penis] as devastating.” It’s no coincidence that our nation’s earlier efforts of abolishing sex work as a means to preserving the ‘purity’ of ‘white slaves’ painted a picture of the patrons as brutish.
2. Realize you probably know someone who has purchased sexual services, and you would probably be surprised by who it is. Perhaps because I have openly expressed my stance on this issue, I have been a confidante for a number of my friends who have paid for a sex worker’s services (disturbingly, even one who thought the practice should remain illegal). Many of them are gentle, many shy, and many with dashingly good looks. Others have asked me beforehand: it’s something they’re intrigued by but are scared of. They’ve been told that this intrigue is only felt by monsters, that it never leads to anything good, to which I reply with
3. Stop the shaming. By perpetuating the awful stereotypes of the patron we’re enabling the people who embody them.
True, one could argue that our media is largely responsible for this, giving the john little presence even in narratives meant to depict the sex industry. But this is because our fixation instead lies with the sex worker. As it is portrayed as the most glamorous and most harrowing job all in one, there is little room to add people who don’t induce a certain level of shock, let alone a balding, middle-class and middle-aged man with a gut who’s as bored with his life as an audience would be.
Discussion of the sex industry is often seen as something sultry, something taboo; in Nicholas Kristof’s work, even as he vehemently opposes the industry he can’t help but talk of how wide-eyed and beautiful the commercially sexually exploited children are. In order for there to be any progress beyond a voyeuristic pleasure, however, we are going to have to include in this discussion the people who keep the industry afloat, the people who have learned that it is okay to be violent, and the people who can serve as a positive example of what the patron can be.
We have a long way to go in making the sex industry an ideal one for everyone involved. Police brutality is rampant, while many young men and women are offering themselves as ‘sugar babies,’ thinking this to be a safer alternative to sex work even as it involves essentially the same responsibilities (and they’re getting a lower wage.) What I offer here is not an answer to the devastatingly high rates of violence (non-sexual, sexual, and emotional) that sex workers face but a suggestion as to where we can begin.