When The Naked Truth invited the “Johns” to be a part of their community, the decision was quite controversial.
“Not everyone agreed that clients should be allowed to be included,” says Susan Davis, who runs the community. The relationship between sex worker and client is one that is, historically, tenuous as best. There is an element of mistrust innate to the worker/client relationship in a profession that is criminalized — one could easily rob or harm the other, and just how do you know that “John” or sex worker isn’t a police officer? Davis is an industry veteran who has been a sex worker for 25 years. During her time in the industry she says the attitude among sex workers has long been — “this is a guy whose money you are there to take.”
The decision to include buyers in the community was political. Davis was part of a sex worker cooperative that had started interviewing clients about their experiences and producing health and safety information for clients as well as workers. “Clients witness things that we would never see, but depending on the level of criminalization, what’s their motivation to report these things? We wanted to give them a way to feel more comfortable, connected, to feel like they were a part of our community; to show that we value them and their business and that we appreciate them.” Soon, clients were asking to volunteer at sex work advocacy events.
“It’s easy for us sex workers to think that the client doesn’t see what is going on politically or doesn’t care about us. But we are starting to see many of them genuinely care about our health and safety” she says.
The mix that happens in the forum doesn’t always flow. Older male buyers roughly in their 50’s interacting with younger female sex workers — strippers, porn stars and escorts — makes for something of a culture clash. But the community is tight knit and dedicated. When a buyer steps out of line, for instance, going into intimate detail of the sex he is buying (it happens), other forum members (often other buyers) quickly step in and explain that this behavior isn’t in line with the forum’s goals. Davis says she rarely needs to ban anyone because of this strict self-policing.
On the flip-side, it seems the sex workers have to catch themselves from not bashing the clients. On the “Jaded” forum, where sex workers are allowed to vent, sex workers have learned to be sensitive, to not generalize about clients when venting. Keeping this sensitivity in mind can be hard after a long night’s work of things like, as one poster described: “I had a guy throw a dollar coin at my crotch so hard it cracked the rhinestone on my hood piercing. His reaction? He and his friends cheered and high-fived each other.”
On topics like this, the guys join in the conversation, they listen, they watch and they learn. “It’s important for clients to see the jaded forum. I think often times the guys don’t realize that particular behavior is unacceptable and the more we can share with them, the more it will greatly improve the way we all interact,” says Davis.
Davis says her own relationship to clients has changed over her years in the industry, “it was a choice to enter the sex industry and so in the beginning I was interested in the clients, but as time went on I picked up the normal attitude that clients were lesser than, they were just people whose money you take. But as I’ve gotten older, friends of mine have become consumers and I understand why. 25 years into sex work, I see some of men’s most vulnerable moments and it’s made me respect them.”
Stephen, one of the buyers I interviewed has become friends with many sex workers throughout the years. He reports Susan’s attitude in friends of his who have also been in the industry for a long time: “I have a sex worker friend, who had a chart on her wall, of all the men she saw. She tracked what they wanted to do sexually, whether they were married, where they came from, this entire demographic of clients. She is in her 40s, so not 19 and glamorous. And she just became curious [about] ‘who are these guys?’ Why are they coming to see me?”
Davis gets this emotionally, and it’s been reinforced by studies like Christopher Atchinson’s John’s Voice work. “When you look at the John’s Voice research, it demonstrates that they [buyers] experience fear of stigma, there’s gotta be ways we can learn to respect each other and not just view our clients as a meal ticket. They are also people with feelings.”
What the John’s Voice research also shows is that one thing clients and sex workers have in common is politics. The two groups are massively for the decriminalization of sex work, which of course makes sense, especially with the fear that more countries might implement the Swedish model — which criminalizes clients. Jailing customers doesn’t fare well for the livelihood of sex workers either.
All of the sex buyers I interviewed were in favor of decriminalization. Some were well versed on the topic and quick to point out that decriminalization was preferred to legalization — which gives the state control over sex work. Christopher, a man I interviewed had a whole spiel, “I remember hearing last year an estimate that said in most apartment buildings of about three or four stories there is roughly one sex worker. Everybody has probably met a sex worker or a client. But you can’t discuss this in public; if you want to stop conversation at a party you bring it up. Yet everyone is human in this equation — the client and the sex worker.”
Articles like the one that ran in this week’s issue of Newsweek don’t give sex buyers much hope in being accepted for coming out of the closet. The article features the work of prostitution abolitionist, Melissa Farley. She argues, yet again, that men who see sex workers are violent and sexist. There have already been holes poked into the validity of this newest study — which likens those who buy porn to those who buy sex. John’s Voice researcher, Chris Atchinson says of Farley’s studies, “Ms. Farley has always taken a moral position that governs her research — which is conducted to solely for the interest of promoting that agenda, to end prostitution.” According to Davis it is the over-saturation of this kind of research that keeps sex workers distrusting clients. And it’s clearly the public’s acceptance of studies like these that also keeps men feeling shamed about their buying and remain closeted.
And closeting buyers can serve to harm sex workers. As Davis pointed out, clients have a unique place in helping report cases of trafficking and coercion. Further, interacting with sex workers on forums like The Naked Truth helps clients recognize when something is wrong — to help spot the difference in choice, circumstance and coercion.
Davis hopes the men who come to the forum may end up also joining in political causes, but in the beginning anyway, it seems they come to the forum the same reason they visit sex workers — they are lonely. But even if they are there to flirt with sex workers, the topics are political and they must walk away with something more.
It’s a coming together that could not have happened without the Internet and slowly but surely the meld of the two communities seems to be working. The truth, naked or not, is that sex worker and client need each other. So how can one truly be pro-sex work without being pro-buyer as well?