In Canada, it’s nice to pretend that prostitution isn’t the dangerous social ill it used to be. For one thing, this country no longer has any prostitutes. It now boasts “sex workers” who march into the night under the aegis of advocacy groups, health clinics, and a sympathetic police force. For another, the sale of sex isn’t the assault on mainstream morality it once was. When advertising for even the most ordinary products consists of lascivious innuendo, and electronic trails of paid porn sites haunt half the home computer hard drives in the land, prostitution is just one more facet of our hyper-erotic culture. Can’t we agree that the oldest profession has acquired at least a tolerable semblance of safety and legitimacy?
Well, no. In The Johns, Victor Malarek sets out to demonstrate that prostitution is a pandemic that is destroying more lives worldwide than ever before. An award-winning investigative journalist, Malarek has produced a sort-of sequel – or companion – to 2004’s The Natashas, which examined the flourishing sex trade (and its adjunct, human trafficking) in post-Soviet Eastern Bloc countries. Whereas before he focused on the “supply side” of the transaction – the women and children who are pushed into service – here he looks at the “demand side”: the men who rent them. The resulting investigation of johns in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia provides as disgusting a catalogue of venality, cruelty, and turpitude as you could imagine.
Malarek lists several reasons why ever larger numbers of men are prepared to pay for sex. Many, he alleges, are befuddled and angered by the empowerment of women in Western society, and now seek redress by essentially purchasing female submission. Many express a very modern desire for “hassle-free” physical gratification that skirts the messiness of traditional romantic relationships. These drives, combined with the ease of 21st-century travel and the international community’s failure to zealously prosecute johns, have transformed much of the developing world into a fantasy land where men can indulge in truly abhorrent sexual escapades with no repercussions.
Chapter by chapter, Malarek feeds us a superabundance of appalling anecdotes from both here and abroad. He recounts the adventures of Donald Bakker who, with his wife’s complicity, tortured over 60 drug-addicted prostitutes from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He takes us to Svay Pak, a remote Cambodian village that specializes in the sale of child sex, and to Las Vegas, where ’tweens are being trafficked at truck stops. Some of his most disturbing stories involve the betrayal of those at risk by authorities pledged to help them. In one case, for example, a woman recalls being held captive by her pimp in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, where she was routinely savaged by UN peacekeepers and aid workers stationed in the area.
In researching this book, Malarek interviewed 16 men, and parsed the contents of “more than fifty Web sites” and “five thousand posts” in john-friendly Internet chat rooms. Unfortunately, the forum discussions, from which he quotes at length, exhibit the ugly tendencies of so much online repartee: they are often inane, semi-literate, and exaggeratedly aggressive. It’s hard to believe that the johns who frequent these rooms – men with nicknames like “Assman,” “Longhorn,” and “Tigerwoody” – didn’t sacrifice conversational honesty for the boisterous one-upmanship that male camaraderie often demands. Online eavesdropping may provide a general impression of johns’ motives and habits, but a greater emphasis on face-to-face questioning (with subjects’ anonymity assured) would have produced more reflective and accurate responses.
Malarek must also be taken to task for his claim that “prostitution – all prostitution – is not about choice.” The six-year-old Thai girl forced to administer “yum-yum” to sex tourists, or the Moldovan teenager who’s kidnapped and shipped to Serbia for repeated raping, inhabit a world far different than the high-society pros who serviced Charlie Sheen and Eliot Spitzer for thousands of dollars an hour. It has to be acknowledged that some prostitutes do exercise significant agency in their lives, and that the actions of this enfranchised minority provide cover to the more exploitative elements in the industry.
In the book’s closing chapters, Malarek offers his prescription for a global problem. Having already railed against prostitution’s legalization – he points to the disastrous consequences such a policy has had in Germany and the Netherlands – he proposes instead that only the buying of sex be criminalized. Target the johns (publicly out them, fine them, imprison them), offer succour to their quarry, and the overall viability of the business will wither. It’s a laudable plan, but one, I fear, that underestimates the intractable malignancy of human behaviour where sex is concerned.