Why We Should Listen to Men Who Buy Sex

Men who buy sex (often called johns) have remained largely silent in the public discourse about sex trafficking and prostitution. In many ways, that makes sense, as most johns don't want to draw attention to their activities. But it turns out that many of them do want to share their stories, at least with other johns.

This month, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation released a report that analyzes the USA Sex Guide, a website with forums where men discuss buying sex. I worked with researcher Lara Janson for more than two years as she analyzed posts from Illinois about what johns call their "great hobby," buying sex. The final report reveals a world where johns encourage each other's sex purchasing, discuss violence in the sex trade, and react to law enforcement efforts to curb prostitution.

We focused the report on posts from Illinois, but the USA Sex Guide has forums that cover the entire nation and even international venues. Johns discuss buying sex on the street and in businesses like fake massage establishments and strip clubs. Their recommendations to each other are often detailed and difficult to read, as they rate women's bodies, discuss pimps and trafficking, and identify locations to buy sex. These posts reinforce that prostitution and human trafficking exist throughout Illinois, and men are buying sex in many, if not most, of our own communities. This isn't just a big city problem, as suburban and rural areas also have johns posting about their sex trade patronage.

Men on the online forums of the USA Sex Guide describe the violence that they both witness and cause among prostituted women and girls. Some johns talk about forcibly touching and sexually assaulting women who do not want to perform certain sex acts. Others discuss withholding money as a form of punishment, and they use aggressive sex as a means to control women. It's disturbing how often they describe this exploitation to each in a way minimizes their role in causing harm.

This report is both an exposé of the USA Sex Guide and a call to action. It highlights, through johns' own words, how specific law enforcement responses to prostitution do deter men from purchasing sex. Johns notice when police arrest and charge other purchasers, and this creates energetic discussion among johns. After being arrested or witnessing others being arrested, some say it's not worth it to continue buying sex. Conversely, they notice when johns are not arrested or held accountable, and this seems only to encourage them.

We hope that this report will benefit activists, service providers, policy advocates, and law enforcement officials as they strive to eliminate commercial sexual exploitation in Illinois and beyond. The report is available in full on the CAASE website.