We continue this week with the second part of our series on reducing the demand for prostitution and other forms of purchasing sex.
What Johns Think
Doin’ It Well interviewed Rachel Durchslag, the Executive Director of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), an organization focused on reducing the demand for prostitution. CAASE recently interviewed more than 100 men who had purchased sex about their experiences and feelings about their experience, their general sentiments towards women, their acceptance of prostitution and rape and what they think it would take to deter men from purchasing sex.
These “johns” presented a range of reasons for buying sex from feeling lonely to desiring to sexually dominate another person. A few of the men were survivors of sexual violence and felt as though buying sex helped them feel more in control sexually. Also, they had a range of feelings about themselves before and after buying sex. Afterwards, most of the men talked about feeling disgusting or ashamed.
Empathy: the SECOND step
Last week we suggested that the first step to reduce the demand is to focus on the johns. This week, we want to explore empathy. Somehow, it’s hard for people, including johns, to see the injustice in the treatment of women who are trafficked for sex. Sometimes people are unaware of the violence these women experience. Other times they simply believe that the women somehow ask for it because of the profession they chose. In order to promote mutually satisfying, great sex for everyone, we all need to consider the people with whom we are sexual and their humanity.
When the johns interviewed by CAASE were asked how the prostitutes they bought sex from felt, many wanted to believe that these women were attracted to them and they really desired the sexual experience. Others couldn’t produce “feeling” words for the woman in prostitution, such as “happy” or “sad,” since they disassociate the woman and her personality and instead reduced her to an object. Many johns were very unsettled by this question. They wanted her to be a fantasy that they could act out, not a real person who they were paying for sex.
This lack of empathy for the prostitute was at the core of the men’s justifications for their behavior. If they develop empathy for these women (or men, or trans people), seeing them for who they are, the ways in which johns buy sex may change. This empathy may make johns less likely to believe they have a right to harm or humiliate prostitutes because the woman they have purchased is no longer an anonymous fantasy, but a real person. Prostitutes are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
In a workshop Ross has facilitated, men from an audience are asked to imitate poses from pornographic images. The group slowly realizes that getting into and maintaining these positions is more difficult than they had expected. They become very aware of the vulnerability and degradation of the job when men in the audience say things to coach them into the poses, like “pout more,” “look drunk,” and “spread your legs wider.” veryone begins to realize that the alluring smile in the photograph doesn’t seem to fit with the contortionism the men are performing to imitate the pose.
The group will initially claim “she wants this” or “she likes it.” But when they see men posing, they have a different take on what these images are selling. They also gain an understanding that porn is made in deliberate ways to sell the fantasy of a woman’s availability.
Shifting the demand
There’s a power differential that is being exploited whenever sex is bought from a prostitute. Eliminating the demand for paid sex work will ultimately create communities in which everyone is having the type of sex that they deserve; sex based on physical, emotional, spiritual and relational needs and desires and not on economics.
In the short term, we need to work for safer conditions, better healthcare and harm-reduction strategies for those working in the sex trade industry. But in a much larger way we need to address the conditions that allow the demand to continue.
Money talks and we have choices about how we choose to spend ours. We can begin to challenge ourselves to think about the sex we purchase and consume, whether at a strip club, porn shop or on the street. We can at that point be more informed consumers deciding for ourselves what we want to “buy.”
We can also begin to think more deeply about purchasing others for our sexual enjoyment and satisfaction. We can shift the focus from “but she’s selling it” to “why would I buy it?” and examine what this means for ourselves and our community. This will allow us all to keep Doin’ It Well.
Kim Rice and Ross Wantland are professionals in the fields of sexuality and violence prevention. E-mail them at email@example.com