May 2009

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Paying for It

Canadian journalist Victor Malarek’s book The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It is a distinctive contribution to the ongoing conversation about sex work. While we tend to focus on the women who work in the sex trade (as Malarek himself did in his earlier book, The Natashas), here he trains his lens on the men who patronize prostitutes, arguing vehemently -- and occasionally convincingly -- that the demand side of the transaction is really the problem.

This argument is premised on an “unwavering realization” Malarek has proudly come to: “prostitution -- all prostitution -- is not about choice.” Researching his previous book seems to have clued him in to the hypocrisy of the whole situation: the fact that sex workers are stigmatized and demeaned, while the men who seek out their services literally get off easy. It’s a reasonable, and entirely welcome, point. But to make it, Malarek rests on easy assumptions, particularly about the women involved in the sex trade, who he uniformly portrays as victims. He makes his case with a sensationalist zeal that is often moralizing, sometimes condescending, and nearly always guided -- and defeated -- by sweeping generalizations. I wonder, though, if a decidedly mainstream takedown of men’s sexual privilege could really have gone any other way. (Perhaps tellingly, male sex workers are all but absent from these pages.)

Deadly serious and apparently awestruck, Malarek writes like he’s the first person to uncover the lurid truth behind what he repeatedly calls “the flesh trade,” which here includes all categories of sex work around the world, with startlingly little differentiation between men who patronize well-heeled call girls, pursue sex tourism in third world countries, watch hardcore porn, rape and assault prostitutes, and pay a few bucks to have sex with traumatized children. In Malarek’s own interactions with johns, he positions himself as both therapist and sage, prodding men to admit that they feel guilty about what they do, and going vaguely undercover in Costa Rica and Thailand to show how gleefully men settle into their roles as exploiters. Quoting johns he’s interviewed both online and in person, Malarek highlights plenty of seriously disturbing attitudes: men who say they hate women, who love to humiliate women and state outright that they want to encourage violence against them, men who whine that they’re unappreciated, men who need to feel powerful by degrading someone in a vulnerable position, and who blame their proclivities on stone age ideas about biological urges. The ways these men validate themselves and each other on online forums is alternately sickening and pitiful (sometimes both), but Malarek piles repetitive examples on top of one another until we get the impression that all men are either misogynistic miscreants who go to prostitutes so they can abuse them, or unattractive, disillusioned losers who fall for hookers because they’ve been unlucky in love.

As if a book about the sex trade needed to be sexed up, Malarek is prone to melodrama, at times hilariously so. “On the demand side of the equation are the men,” he writes, with what I assume is a straight face. “And in demand there are three key letters: m-a-n. Without men, there would be no demand.” (So it’s a linguistic problem… who knew?) Mentioning Hugh Grant as one of many celebrities who has been caught and/or admitted going to a prostitute, Malarek points out that Grant’s “middle name happens to be John.” There are plenty of ways to illustrate the pervasive influence of men’s sexuality: these minutiae are decidedly not among them.

Though he gets some very basic back-up from anti-porn feminists Gail Dines and Robert Jensen, Malarek appears largely ignorant of the nuances of the entrenched feminist debates around sex work and pornography. He calls pro-sex feminists and sex worker advocates “the happy hooker lobby” and dismisses them as “unrelenting and vociferous shills for the sex industry.” In his rejection of efforts to decriminalize prostitution, he conveniently assumes that supporters of decriminalization are never involved in other efforts to improve the lives of sex workers. In fact, many individuals and organizations that favor decriminalization do so as just one part of a multi-faceted strategy based on recognizing that there are lots of complicated factors at play when it comes to sex work (New York’s Sex Workers’ Project, for example, “protects the rights and safety of sex workers who by choice, circumstance, or coercion remain in the industry”). Malarek, meanwhile, all but spits at the fact that Australia’s prostitutes’ rights organization, the Scarlet Alliance, provides safety guidelines for women in the sex trade. Prostitution should not exist, he believes, and therefore any stop-gap measures are deplorable.

It’s true that feminists have struggled -- messily, and not always with much success or coherence -- with how to deal with the realities of sex work. Just as I have little patience for the idea that all prostitutes are victims, I’m beginning to tire of the opposite assumption: that all sex workers enter into the industry by choice and feel great about what they do. Still, organizations that offer support and resources to prostitutes try to take many competing factors into account, knowing that moralizing doesn’t help save or improve lives. There’s no reason sex workers have to be understood as one of two extremes: “the most vulnerable members of society” (in Malarek’s superlative words), or feminist superheroes whose sexuality gives them strength.

Just as it doesn’t make sense to presume that all women are happy being prostitutes, it’s absurd to talk -- as Malarek does, in the same breath and with the same breathlessness -- about men who travel to Cambodia to have sex with 12-year-old girls, and men who sit at home and watch porn. Both actions may stem from a related feeling of entitlement, but Malarek is interested in forcing more direct connections. “Porn is often what turns the men on, revs up their sex drive, and sends them out into the night,” he writes. “Pornography is in essence prostitution, because it involves the purchase of another person’s body for sexual gratification. Therefore, men who buy are watch porn are themselves johns.” Elsewhere, he explains that men who frequent prostitutes are interested in a wide range of services. Some johns are into role-playing. Some want to be peed on! Some like threesomes! “For the truly bizarre, some seek out paid sex with pregnant women, while others are turned on by women who are lactating.” (Italics mine.) As for prostitutes who dominate men, “Any thought that the woman has power is only an illusion.” A basic acquaintance with the existence of fetishes among consenting adults would’ve helped tone down the bewilderment.

Malarek seems to think that calling prostitution a black and white issue makes him heroic. Really, it makes him look uninformed. Like so many who have become gravely concerned with sex work, he’d like there to be totally clear boundaries between right and wrong, powerful and powerless, perpetrators and victims. He’s stunningly oblivious to the fact that when it comes to sex, things tend to defy easy categorizations like “safe” and “empowering.” This is not to deny the horrible reality of violence against women, or the deeply messed up views and cultural corroboration that contribute to the thriving sex trade and some of its more disturbing elements. Undoubtedly, we need to be paying more attention to both sides of the equation, and taking men to task. But there’s no reason to pretend that there are easy answers. Malarek’s disinterest in complexity makes it hard to take him seriously, and makes his book far more irritating than informative.