Girls Like Us: Johns – The Men Who Buy Sex

If men know that the sex industry is harmful to girls and women, why do they participate in it?

*[Note: The following is an excerpt from Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, a memoir about Rachel Lloyd’s experiences as a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and her work over the last 15 years running Girls Educational And Mentoring Services (GEMS).]

“John” is in some way a fitting moniker for men who buy sex. Like John Doe, and Dear John, the name is used as the generic catch-all for the anonymous “everyman” who makes up the millions of men in America who buy sex from children. Those of us who have been exploited by the sex industry know that Johns represent every walk of life, every age, every ethnicity, every socio-economic class. Judges, mailmen, truck drivers, firemen, janitors, artists, clergy, cops, drug dealers, teachers. Handsome and rich, poor and unattractive, married, single and widowed. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, neighbors.

Normal?

Yet calling men who buy sex from children “Johns” minimizes the harm they do.  At the very least, they are statutory rapists and child abusers. That said, the reality is that most men who buy sex from trafficked and exploited girls aren’t really pedophiles, as backwards as that may sound. Most of these men aren’t specifically attracted to children, and viewing men who purchase children and youth for sex as pedophiles leads to a sense that it is isolated behavior among men who are “sick” and “perverted.” We can overlook the fact that most the men doing the buying are what we would consider “normal.” Many of these men wouldn’t dream of sexually abusing their daughters, but when it comes to a “prostitute” even a “teen prostitute” they figure it doesn’t really matter. She’s already out there. She kinda wants it anyway. She is working her way through college (even if she does appear to be in junior high). She needs to feed her kids. I’m actually helping her. There are a million rationalizations that men employ to deny the exploitation that they’re a part of. 

The buying of sex is so normalized, that while we may frown upon it if you get caught, there is an underlying belief that men have needs, and that sometimes those needs may be legitimately, if not legally, fulfilled by purchasing someone. While not all Johns are looking to purchase a minor, there is a demonstrated link between the availability of the adult sex industry and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. A University of Pennsylvania study stated that: “Without equivocation… the presence of pre-existing adult prostitution markets contributes measurably to the creation of secondary sexual markets in which children are sexually exploited.”

While many men would argue that they want someone who is of age, ultimately they do want someone who looks clean and fresh, more likely to at least look disease-free. That desire generally translates into buying young girls. In research done by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), of 113 men who purchased sex, 76 percent of interviewees stated that the age of the woman was an important factor and 80 percent stated that they felt most men preferred young “prostitutes.”

There are hundreds of thousands of websites featuring legal “teen” or “barely legal” pornography and over 20 million searches a year for “teen sex” and “teen porn.” Clearly the demand is there. While few men would argue that they are looking for a 12-year-old, they might admit to looking for a 17- or 18-year-old, even if she looks 14. They rationalize that she didn’t tell the truth about her age, so how are they supposed to know?

Lack of Consequences

Lawrence Taylor probably didn’t know that the girl he was purchasing for $300 was 16-years-old. It’s impossible to know if he would’ve cared how old she was if he hadn’t been caught. Reports claim he was “devastated” when he found out her age. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps he also had no idea that she was under the control of a pimp, had a black eye and bruised face when she came to his hotel room and had a history of abuse and neglect.

And yet, men do know that the women and girls they’re buying are exploited and harmed. In the CAASE research, 57 percent of men who bought sex believed that the majority of women in the sex industry had experienced childhood sexual abuse, and 32 percent believed that most women entered the sex industry before the age of 18. Twenty percent thought that they had probably purchased someone who had been trafficked, either internationally or domestically, against her will. Forty percent had bought sex from a woman who they knew had a pimp or “manager.” Forty two percent believed that prostitution caused psychological and physical harm. So, if men know that the sex industry is harmful to girls and women, why do they still participate in it? Many of the men in the study, and men I’ve talked to, cite peer pressure; being introduced to the sex industry by family, friends, even co-workers; the belief that women in the sex industry are “different,” and therefore, more acceptable to abuse. Most men cited the lack of consequences as a factor in their decision to purchase sex.

In most cases though, men don’t ask the questions that they really don’t want to know the answers to. Easier to go along with the fantasy when she tells you her name is Extasy or Seduction, that she’s 18, 19, 20. When men are cruising the streets, scrolling through the ads on the backpage, ordering a girl from an escort agency, buying a lap-dance, they don’t want to really know how old she is or what her life is like. Most men would rather believe that she likes it, that she likes them, and that there’s no real harm being done. Ultimately, however, most men in that situation just don’t care. 

Bad Dates

Like almost every woman in New York, I’ve had my share of bad dates. The guy who took me to a nice restaurant only to discover at the end of the meal that he’d left his wallet at home, or the guy who decided during lunch at his house that I’d be interested in his photo album of all his ex-girlfriends, including the pictures of them naked.

Yet for the girls and young women we serve, a “bad date” means something else entirely. A bad date is a euphemism for being raped, being kidnapped, being held at gunpoint or having a knife put to your throat. A bad date is when you get raped and are told by your pimp that you better get back out there. There are a few cops who take this type of violence against women and girls in the sex industry seriously but for most cops, getting raped by a John just means that the girl didn’t get paid.

Nikki tells me one night that she doesn’t remember how many times she’s been raped, but she thinks it’s over 20. Her experience isn’t uncommon. When attention is paid to commercial sexual exploitation, law enforcement and public rhetoric focus their outrage on the pimps, rarely mentioning the Johns, the buyers who fuel the industry. An assistant district attorney in New York tells me sincerely one day that “the Johns are not the problem.” To ignore the demand side of the issue makes no sense, and trivializes the harm done by the buyers. Yet the girls and young women we serve don’t make that distinction at all. If asked, who’s worse, pimps or Johns, most would not be able to chose. They’ve experienced rapes, gang rapes, guns in their faces, beatings, sadistic acts, kidnappings – all at the hands of Johns.

Disposable

In 1992, Aileen Wuornos, erroneously dubbed “the first female serial killer” and later portrayed by Charlize Theron in the movie Monster, stood trial for the murder of Richard Mallory, a 51-year-old John. She claimed it was in self-defense. While clearly Wuornos had severe psychological issues, likely due to her history of childhood sexual abuse and then later commercial sexual exploitation starting at age 11, is it so difficult to imagine that perhaps Mallory, who had indeed served time for attempted rape, was actually trying to rape her?

Perhaps it was her own trauma that triggered her assumptions and her violent reactions, and that would then lead her to kill six more men over the course of the next year. Yet, despite Wuornos’s apparent mental health problems, her assumptions weren’t totally off-base. In studying the habits of serial killers who prey upon prostituted women and girls, it is clear how disposable these women and girls are seen to be. A Canadian commission found that women in the sex industry are 40 times more likely to be murdered than other women. Another study put the estimate as high as 130 times more likely to be murdered.

In 2003, Gary Ridgeway, the notorious Green River Killer who for over two decades had preyed upon women in the sex industry, finally pled guilty to 48 counts of first degree murder, although police suspected him of many more. Out of respect for the victims, we decided to honor them by putting their names and pictures up on a wall at GEMS. Next to their names were their ages and as I walked by the haunting display, I kept noticing the ages: Opal Mills, 16-years-old; Debra Estes, 15-years-old; Delores Williams, 17-years-old; Colleen Brockman, 15-years-old. In fact, 27 of Ridgway’s known victims were under the age of 18.

This makes Gary Ridgway one of the most prolific child serial killers in the United States. Yet all of the media accounts of the victims called them “women,” not children. So why were they all portrayed as adult women?

Ridgway himself seemed to have an answer in his allocution at his final hearing: "I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up, without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

He was partially right. While his anger towards women and girls in the sex industry fueled his killing spree, picking “prostitutes” as victims was a strategic move. These women and girls were seen as less important, less like “real” victims, their murders less likely to be given the resources that other, more legitimate victims would receive. What he may also have realized was that just by virtue of being in the commercial sex industry, adulthood and maturity were imputed to these children. They were now seen as adult women, despite their ages, simply because they were also seen as “prostitutes.”

Post-Scriptum

I sit on the end of the bed. I’m not really sure what to say. I’d been warned that Sequoia’s face would look bad, but hearing about her assault and then seeing the evidence all over her battered and fractured face is something else entirely. Her upper lip is split completely in two, her jaw is broken, her nose as well. Most of her teeth are gone. I hear my sharp intake of breath. What kind of person would do this to a child? She is sipping fluids through a straw.

I think of her, less than two years previously, at her Youth Leadership graduation, dressed up like a little girl at her first communion, replete with a white frilly dress and Shirley Temple curls. My social worker Julie and I had joked about how she looked like a tiny China Doll. Now that doll has been mutilated, her delicate porcelain features smashed. Quoia, always a petite child, is dwarfed in a big adult-sized hospital bed, surrounded by curtains with Little Mermaid cartoons on them.

Somewhere, out there, there’s a man who nearly beat a child to death and left her by the side of the road. I wonder about this man, what he does for a living, if he’s married or has a girlfriend, if he has children of his own. I wonder if anyone in his “real” life suspects what kind of man he is. I wonder when, not if, he’ll do it again to another girl whom he views as disposable property. And I wonder if she, like Sequoia, will survive and if anyone will notice if she doesn’t.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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