In Part 1 of Men Who Buy Sex, Jay Stringer discussed the idea that it is not only women sold for sex who are trafficked in the economy of evil. The men who solicit prostitution also experience the hijacking of dignity and beauty. Read Part 1here. This post originally appeared on redtentliving.com, a community of women from across the world reading, writing, reflecting, and responding to one another daily as we re-frame what it means to be feminine.
Jonathan* is a professor at a local university who started therapy after he was tested for a sexually transmitted infection. The results were negative, but his doctor encouraged him to pursue help if he had any sense of his behavior getting out of control. The doctor recognized that men who buy sex, far more than seeking out pleasure, tend to become reckless with their lives. You become reckless with your body, your family, your career—essentially anything that has the potential of bringing goodness and meaning to your life. All of this becomes terrain for sabotage. The data around Jonathan was compelling; his wife divorced him three years prior after discovering pornography and emails to escort services, he narrowly missed being afflicted with a sexual infection, and his declining mental health made him question his ability to continue teaching courses. The paradox of buying sex is that, in the end, it brings misery and shame far more than it brings gratification and relief.
In our second session, Jonathan talked openly about the trajectory of his sexual behaviors that escalated into his decision to buy sex for the first time. He noted that his “porn use” was a significant factor (I am not implying that if you watch porn you will buy sex), but he was caught off guard when I asked him about the particular words and phrases he chooses to type into his search engine to view pornography. Embarrassed, he said, “It is so strange to talk about. I’ve never had anyone ask. Is that even important?” I responded by saying that all of us have an arousal template, a constellation of thoughts, images, fantasies, objects, and situations that arouse us sexually. For some of the clients I work with, an arousal template could be the anonymity that a business trip provides, or it could a wallet full of cash, which becomes a symbol to them of power and possibility.
What we know about men who buy sex is that almost 75% pay for oral sex and over 50% have a current sexual partner. These statistics seem to imply that there is something other than loneliness or an absence of sex that is contributing to the demand side of sexual exploitation. So what else might be going on? In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate from the tree they were commanded not to eat from, God outlines the curse that will come to Adam:
“…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
According to this passage, the curse for a man is that his life will be marked largely by what we would refer to as futility. Everything he attempts to do will be defined by difficulty, pain, and meaninglessness. You can almost hear the taunt of this curse—build what you wish, but know it is all going to be surpassed, it is all going to burn. When futility and sexual behavior are combined with systems like capitalism, misogyny, and racism, the seduction to prostitution and pornography reaches its climax.
I let Jonathan know that we will certainly address his pornography and prostitution issues, but I asked him if he had any sense of what fuels his desire for degradation in the hours, days, or weeks leading up to his self-described “binging” on prostitution. What he disclosed was that his academic department entrusted him to head up the application for a major government grant that would ensure research funding for the next 10 years. They lost the grant to another institution, which prompted the other professors in his department to harshly criticize him for the holes in his proposal. An opportunity he thought might bring him tenure had become perhaps the most defining failure of his career.
At the end of this agonizing week, he went online to search for a “younger” prostitute. He made the necessary arrangements and arrived in a hotel parking lot on the north side of town an hour later. As he waited in his hotel room, he knew exactly what he was about to purchase—the right to order a woman, really a teenager, to serve him exactly as he wished. His arousal was a constellation of futility, anger, and the fantasy of a pronounced, but fleeting, experience of dominance over his life.
Buying or viewing sex is rarely, if ever, about sex; it is about power and control. When life is difficult, when it does not work the way we want it to, when our accomplishments gradually fade or are exceeded by those more gifted, we will almost always experience a dimension of the curse that is described in Genesis 3. Pornography and purchasing sex in hotel rooms, massage parlors, and vehicles offers the seduction of an experience that is unlike anything that can be experienced on this earth—to dictate what one desires without any immediate fear of failure or relational futility. A committed relationship does not provide a context for such control. This is evil’s seduction to men; give me your defeated and angry heart, and I will give you a kingdom where it will all go away.
The madness of the evangelical community is that we have misdiagnosed these behaviors as solely “lust” issues, which deceives us into thinking that if we could just manage our horny and erotic selves, we would finally be able to kick our bad habits. The reason this is so important is this: How many of us have prayed to God to take away our lust, but have never once repented for the ways we demand power and control in the context of the heartache and stress of our lives? How many of us have heard sermons or read books that address strategies for fighting lust (just Google this), but have never heard a pastor exegete Genesis 3 through the lens of sexuality? Our churches would do well in recognizing that we have a flawed, shortsighted, and shame-based process to addressing sexuality in our congregations. Will any of our pastors or church leaders admit that this approach isn’t working? And if they claim that it is working, how much self-hatred do we have to undergo in order to find victory?
What the Scriptures tell us is that God is FOR our bodies and is therefore neither surprised nor ashamed of what our bodies have participated in. On the contrary, our bodies and stories are the very vessel through which the work of redemption will be played out. The gospel is clear that our sexual behavior must change, but the way that it changes is through the kindness of God. What this means is that if you are a man who buys sex and you are hearing a voice of condemnation, even if on paper it appears to be true, it is not the voice of God. What the apostle Paul is claiming in Romans 2 is absurd: What do you need in the midst of futility? Kindness. What do you need for your eroticized rage? Kindness. What do you need for having purchased sex? Kindness. What do you need for having ordered the beauty of the image of God to be degraded on her knees before you? Kindness. Do you not know that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance?
Alcoholism was addressed in our culture when men and women began to diagnose the issue properly. They did not minimize their condition through deceptive language and they did not attempt to resolve the pervasiveness of the issue in isolation. The same thing will be true for addressing degrading, controlling, and lustful forms of sexual behavior in our culture. Jesus defines sin as lust and anger, and therefore our description of our sexual sin must include both. We are not merely lustful men attempting to find pleasure, we are also part of a gender that chooses to harm and degrade when we experience anger and futility. If this becomes our confession, we will need the kindness of God.