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The ordinariness of sex buyers is suggested by their traditional designation as “johns,” the most generic of male names. “They’re the cops, the schoolteacher—the dignified, respected individuals. They’re everybody,” says a young woman who was trafficked into prostitution at the age of 10 and asked to be identified as T.O.M.
Equally typical were the men in Farley’s study, who lived in the Boston area and ranged from 20 to 75, with an average age of 41. Most were married or partnered, like the majority of men who patronize prostitutes.
Overall, the attitudes and habits of sex buyers reveal them as men who dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation.
Farley found that sex buyers were more likely to view sex as divorced from personal relationships than nonbuyers, and they enjoyed the absence of emotional involvement with prostitutes, whom they saw as commodities. “Prostitution treats women as objects and not . humans,” said one john interviewed for the study.
In their interviews, the sex buyers often voiced aggression toward women, and were nearly eight times as likely as nonbuyers to say they would rape a woman if they could get away with it. Asked why he bought sex, one man said he liked “to beat women up.” Sex buyers in the study committed more crimes of every kind than nonbuyers, and all the crimes associated with violence against women were committed by the johns.
Prostitution has always been risky for women; the average age of death is 34, and the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that prostitutes suffer a “workplace homicide rate” 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.
Farley’s findings suggest that the use of prostitution and pornography may cause men to become more aggressive. Sex buyers in the study used significantly more pornography than nonbuyers, and three quarters of them said they received their sex education from pornography, compared with slightly more than half of the nonbuyers. “Over time, as a result of their prostitution and pornography use, sex buyers reported that their sexual preferences changed and they sought more sadomasochistic and anal sex,” the study reported.
“Prostitution can get you to think that things you may have done with a prostitute you should expect in a mutual loving relationship,” said one john who was interviewed. Such beliefs inspire anger toward other women if they don’t comply, impairing men’s ability to sustain relationships with nonprostitutes.
Sex buyers often prefer the license they have with prostitutes. “You’re the boss, the total boss,” said another john. “Even us normal guys want to say something and have it done no questions asked. No ‘I don’t feel like it.’ No ‘I’m tired.’ Unquestionable obedience. I mean that’s powerful. Power is like a drug.”
Many johns view their payment as giving them unfettered permission to degrade and assault women. “You get to treat a ho like a ho,” one john said. “You can find a ho for any type of need—slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do.”
Although sex buyers saw prostitution as consensual, other men acknowledged that more complex economic and emotional factors influence the “choice” to prostitute oneself. “You can see that life circumstances have kind of forced her into that,” said one nonbuyer in the study. “It’s like someone jumping from a burning building—you could say they made their choice to jump, but you could also say they had no choice.”
T.O.M.’s story is a case in point. Her father went to prison when she was 2 years old, and she was 4 the first time her body was exchanged for drugs by her mother, an addict. Growing up in foster-care families, she was abused in every one. When she was 10, a 31-year-old pimp promised he would take care of her. “He was my savior at first—I was stealing food to survive. He said, ‘I’ll be your mom, your dad, your boyfriend—but you have to do this thing for me.’ And then he sold me.”
For the next five years, until he went to jail, her pimp trafficked her all over the Western United States. “I looked very much like a child for the first three years, and that made it more profitable for him,” T.O.M. reports, still diminutive and fine-boned at 21. In Farley’s study, one thing that johns and men who don’t buy sex agreed on was the ease of access to such children: nearly 100 percent of men interviewed in the study said that minors were virtually always available for purchase in Boston.
Trafficked children often have histories similar to that of T.O.M. Research indicates that most prostitutes were sexually abused as girls, and they typically enter “the life” between the ages of 12 and 14. The majority have drug dependencies or mental illnesses, and one third have been threatened with death by pimps, who often use violence to keep them in line.
But the sex buyers in Farley’s study overlooked such coercion and showed little empathy for prostitutes’ experiences or their cumulative toll. Researchers and service providers consistently find high levels of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation, and other psychological problems among prostitutes. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a back alley or on silk sheets, legal or illegal—all kinds of prostitution cause extreme emotional stress for the women involved,” Farley says.