The Typical John.

I’ve been meaning for awhile to write about this study (PDF), conducted by Eaves (a London-based charity for vulnerable women) and reported on in the Guardian, about the motives behind men who frequent prostitutes.  The group interviewed a hundred and three men between the ages of 18-70.  They enticed the men to come in for the interview by putting an ad in the paper offering £20 and anonymity to any man who had experience with a prostitute.  (The report helpfully notes that they refused to interview those men who “were seeking sex from the person who answered the phone”, although personally I think those men were themselves ripe for study.)

I’ve found the study difficult to write about, though, mostly because I kept searching through it trying to find the portrait of the typical John – the personality blueprint, if you will, that could be analyzed and eventually decoded and lain bare for all to see.  Certainly there are some common threads here.  The vast majority of all transactions were handled inside, in brothels, apartments, or massage parlors, firmly putting to rest the stereotype of the street-walking prostitute.  The men were, by and large, casually misogynistic.  “I don’t want her to cry or this and that because that spoils the idea for me,” said one; “I feel sorry for these girls but this is what I want,” said another.  Yet the men remained decidedly ambivalent about their actions; 71% reported that they had some degree of guilt or shame about their actions, though apparently not enough so to stop themselves.

But for all that, the blueprint I was looking for simply does not exist – not here and not, I suspect, anywhere.  The men interviewed in the Eaves study were frustratingly diverse and contradictory.  Some sought out prostitution because they had no other sexual recourse, but an equal number were married or in a serious relationship.  Seeking prostitution was not found to vary significantly due to age, race, religion, political affiliation, or income level.  Some men wanted the woman to act like she cared about him; others, the exact opposite.  54% percent of the men interviewed admitted to having felt an emotional connection with a prostitute, and the other half denied that such a thing was even possible – let alone desirable.

Many of the men – 44% – agreed that prostitution has a negative psychological effect on the woman in question, and pluralities acknowledged that they were aware of the high levels of homelessness, coercion, human trafficking, and childhood sexual abuse among prostitutes.  These numbers mean, of course, that significant percentages of the men interviewed were willfully or blissfully ignorant of the true motives and experiences of the women they paid for sex, and the rest simply didn’t care.  Many – though again, not all – believed that prostitution was an inevitable by-product of the male psyche, and a majority believed that it helped to prevent higher levels of rape (a belief, I should point out, that is statistically false).

I went into this report trying to find an easy answer to a complex situation; it’s no surprise I came back dispirited.  The Eaves report reflects the unclear motivations and the messy justifications of the men involved, and it’s unsettling to find that we live in a world where such a simple question – why do men pay for sex, even when they know it hurts people? – has no clear answer.