Are porn watchers the same as johns?

A new study conflates paying for prostitutes with indulging in mainstream and legal sexual entertainment

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published July 19, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)
A TV addict staring into static.
A TV addict staring into static.

Newsweek is trumpeting its exclusive coverage of a new study on men who pay for sex with the grabby headline "The John Next Door." Too bad the research -- which set out to compare "sex buyers" with men who don't buy sex -- absurdly lumps together johns with porn watchers and strip-club visitors. Also? It was conducted by self-declared prostitution "abolitionist" Melissa Farley -- whose methodology when studying johns in the past has been rightly criticized -- but the magazine's coverage doesn't bother to mention that until more than halfway through the article. The piece egregiously fails to mention that the stridently anti-porn activist was arrested on multiple occasions in the mid-'80s for entering stores that sell Penthouse and destroying copies of the magazine in protest.

Despite Newsweek's obfuscation, there are plenty of red flags early on. Author Leslie Bennetts writes, "buying sex is so pervasive that Farley's team had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don't do it." Actually, there's nothing shocking about that because in addition to men who have never visited a prostitute, the researchers were originally looking for those who don't indulge in "pornography, phone sex, lap dances, and other services." In other words, they wanted to group together all forms of sexual entertainment, including the purchase of sex from a prostitute. Of course they had trouble finding men for their control group.

Bennetts reports that "the researchers were forced to loosen their definition in order to assemble a 100-person control group." Funny, an objective researcher might have narrowed the definition of "buying sex" to, you know, buying sex. Instead, says Farley, "We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute."

There's no question that there can be overlap between various facets of the sex industry, but a reasonable distinction should be made between a man who watches pornography every once in a while and a man who frequents prostitutes. Farley's lack of nuance is not going over well in the Twitterverse. Sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel tweeted: "Dear @Newsweek -- I wonder what would happen if everyone who's watched porn, given/gotten a lap dance or erotic massage stopped reading you." In response to a question I posed, porn star Kimberly Kane tweeted that "all the millions of porn watchers should be very offended" -- and not just because of Farley's loose definition of "buying sex." Bennetts summarizes the findings like so: [T]he 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." It's important to note here that, unlike with her definition of sex buyers, Farley has a very narrow view of what type of sex is healthy and OK: Just check out her list of "Ten Lies About Sadomasochism," which claims that the practice is not truly consensual and compares it to "annihilation."

Journalist Susannah Breslin specifically questions the merit of Farley's findings about johns. In 2008, she created the blog Letters From Johns, which is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of accounts from men who pay to have sex with prostitutes. In response to the Newsweek article, Breslin told me by email: "Her research and conclusions are so skewed and histrionic that they would be laughable if they weren't so grossly wrong, and, even more offensively, being treated as fact by Newsweek." She added, "Farley has given greatest weight to those johns who fit her preexisting views." Breslin published 50 letters before she stopped updating the blog, and received many more, and says, "Unlike Farley, I found that most men seek out sex workers for one simple fact: they are lonely. They are looking for companionship, they crave intimacy, they are looking for some kind of a connection, and because they cannot find it any other way, they buy it."

Tracy Quan, a former sex worker (and Salon columnist) who was quoted briefly in the Newsweek piece, makes a similar argument. She's dubious of one particular quote from a john -- "You can have a good time with the servitude" -- that the study holds up as representative. Quan told me by phone, "The only time I've ever heard a customer use the word 'servitude' was when speaking to a masochistic guy speaking to a slave fantasy about himself." The Newsweek piece describes Quan, author of the novel "Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl," becoming emotional while talking about an experience with a john that she was afraid might seriously hurt her, but she tells me, "That person was unusual and an aberration." She adds, "Some are not very nice, but many are gentler, nicer and much more timid than men who are not buying sex."

I suspect there is something very simple behind Newsweek's uncritical endorsement of this study: Sexual fear-mongering sells. That's true whether it's about philandering husbands, sexting youth or "the john next door." Many of us get a charge (dare I say an erotic one) from taking a glimpse of America's sexual underbelly; it confirms our worst fears -- about others and ourselves. But it's true what they say about fear: It distorts reality.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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