- A Harvest of Thorns
- The Tears of Dark Water
- The Garden of Burning Sand
- A Walk Across The Sun
People often express disbelief when I tell them that sex trafficking is everywhere, in our cities and communities and every corner of the globe. “How is that possible?” they ask. My explanation is simple: follow the money. While many factors have contributed to the spread of sexual slavery in our world (poverty, globalization, misogynistic cultural practices, the Internet, etc.), the traffickers are motivated by profit, and their profits ($30 to 40 billion annually) come from one source–the johns.
When I began researching A Walk Across the Sun, I had many misconceptions about buyers of sex. I figured they were mostly pedophiles and loners, men either so desperate or morally diseased that they would pay to rape a child in a brothel. How wrong I was. The average john is the average man–the average American, Brit, Aussie, Canadian, German, Indian, and Cambodian. Many are married or in relationships. Most have steady jobs and children. Few are textbook pedophiles. If you could observe them in a lineup, you would see men who look like me, like my father, my pastor, my neighbor.
In fact, as much as we might not want to believe it, there are johns in my neighborhood. There are johns in your neighborhood, too.
Between ten and sixteen percent of American men buy sex. That statistic is at once appalling and heartening. It means that at least five out of six American men don’t buy sex. It also means that whenever I take a trip to the supermarket or visit the beach or go to the movies, there are almost certainly johns in the crowd. The vast majority of them aren’t monsters or misanthropes. They are ordinary guys. We see them everywhere. We just don’t know it.
In his groundbreaking book The Johns, Victor Malarek shows us why they do it. Johns buy sex because they are workaholics and think they don’t have time for a relationship; because they think their wives or girlfriends are boring in bed; because they’re shy or unattractive and find dating too painful; because they’re sex addicts who started buying in adolescence and can’t imagine stopping; because they want variety without commitment; because they’re tired of the dating scene; because they’re into fetishes they can’t share with their romantic partners; because they’re part of a macho culture (e.g. the military, a police department, a sports team, a high-stakes investment bank) and think buying sex is just what guys do to let off steam.
Despite this diversity, however, johns are also quite consistent. They are self-absorbed fantasy junkies. They feel entitled to have sex whenever they want, however they want, with whatever girl they fancy, and they love the power and control that “mongering” gives them. Here are the johns in their own words:
“Buying sex is simply like going to lunch without your wife. You’re hungry, you eat. Sometimes you eat together.”
“With a little amount of money, I was able to get my needs met. Much less stressful than the conventional American way of dating, drama, and gobs of money.”
“Men aren’t paying for sex. They’re paying to leave with no strings after the sex.”
As a lot, johns are also delusional. They rarely pay attention to the women in possession of the orifices they are renting. Many have heard about the connection between prostitution and sex trafficking, but most are certain they’ve never bought a slave. As one john put it, “If I don’t see a chain on a person’s leg, then I know they have a choice.” Many johns assuage their consciences by pretending that they’re actually helping the girls they buy. “Maybe these women have horrible, depressing lives,” said one. “If they do and to the extent they do, I’m a few hours of easy money. I’m a free lunch.”
Can the johns be reformed? This is the thousand-dollar question. The answer is yes, but not without effort. Sex-buying is addictive, and the compulsion, unless broken, has a tendency to feed upon itself. It’s also guarded by a battalion of rationalizations and lies. When visiting a sex club or buying a girl on Backpage.com, johns willingly enter a world of illusion. Nevertheless, most johns have a conscience. They make moral distinctions in business, in relationships, in caring for their children. For a john to be reformed, the illusion must be shattered, the fantasy exposed as a sham.
Occasionally, this happens when a john meets a woman who is obviously a slave. More often, it happens upon arrest, when the john’s name is put in the newspaper, when he has to face the scorn of his wife or girlfriend, the bewilderment of his employer, and the sorrow of his kids. This is why I’m such a proponent of the Swedish anti-trafficking model, with its demand-centered approach. It’s why I believe every police department should bulk up its vice squad and put johns in jail, why I believe the Justice Department and state prosecutors should book johns under existing anti-trafficking and anti-solicitation laws, why I believe mandatory john’s schools should be implemented in every community, forcing johns to hear the nasty truth about prostitution and sex trafficking from the mouths of survivors.
This is not just a matter of personal morality. It’s a matter of evidence. In a 2011 study comparing sex-buyers to men who don’t buy sex, a group of U.S. researchers found that 100% of johns would stop buying if put in jail for one month, 84% if their names were publicized, 78% if their driver’s license was suspended, 74% if their car was impounded. John’s schools, too, are surprisingly effective at curbing recidivism, despite the skeptic’s charge that they are no better than driver’s ed. Because sex-buyers are ordinary men, not hardened criminals, real deterrence is possible. But to get there we need political and cultural leadership, we need better laws, we need education about sex trafficking and prostitution in our schools, and we need compassionate and effective law enforcement.
Who are the johns in my neighborhood, in your neighborhood? For the sake of enslaved children everywhere, the time has come for us to find out.