Part 2 of this series, coming Thursday, February 5, will address how power and control dominate the lives of men who buy sex. 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.
I sat with a man named Jeffrey who had been arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution. He is one of Seattle’s tens of thousands of johns. In our first session together, Jeffrey remarked, “Friday afternoons are always the most difficult for me to control myself. I am not sure why, but it usually turns out to be the day I end up with a prostitute or an escort.” Buyers of sex tend to be addressed at this point through a moral framework, which is largely ineffective from a treatment standpoint because it fails to explore how the johns’ current behaviors serve as a map to help us understand the geography of their past. A similar example: one often overlooked point about the Somali pirates who are now notorious for terrorizing ships off their coast is that they used to be fishermen until their waters were stolen by foreign fishing vessels (the U.N. estimates almost $300 million worth of seafood is stolen each year from their coastline). We look to the past not to find excuses for reprehensible behavior, but because narrative holds the key to unlocking destructive patterns and implementing all future change.
I asked Jeffrey what Friday afternoons have meant for him historically. “Like in childhood?” Jeffrey asked. I nodded my head in agreement. “Well, my mom would usually leave my older brother and me home alone on the weekends because she needed to work her second job—we were dirt poor. My brother would be stoned out of his mind and I don’t know, I usually just rode my bike around the neighborhood. I remember cruising through my neighborhood trying to find girls that I knew from middle school. I would ride around for hours, even after it got dark, just to see if I could get ‘that look’ from a classmate.” Twenty years later, Jeffrey’s Friday afternoon ritual, unbeknownst to him, was essentially the same. The mountain bike became an SUV, and a mother with a second job was now a spouse whose job at a concert venue required her to work weekends.
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.
I worked for a community mental health clinic in downtown Seattle for the first two years after graduate school. The clients at this location were considered the most severely traumatized and chemically dependent residents in the city. On my first day of work, my supervisor gave me a list of over eighty clients with a handful of names that were marked with an orange highlighter. We were talking about my caseload when he said, “It is a lot of clients, but the names in orange are the people you need to pay particularly close attention to. They are among the highest utilizers in King County.” I nodded my head as if I understood the implications of his words. Little did I know I would spend more time with these orange names than I would with my wife in the first year of our marriage.
A high utilizer is someone who has a special knack for ending up in emergency rooms or involving the police or fire department in their day-to-day affairs. Where some choose to rant or vent through a Facebook status update, high utilizers go for a more graphic, performance-art approach. Their theatrics have led me to tears of laughter and their violence has held me up against a wall at knifepoint. A memorable part of my job became the time I spent in our staff meetings comparing client stories. On one occasion, I shared about a client who plucked the tear ducts out of his eyes so that he could get a prescription of his favorite pain medication, which reminded a colleague about a client of his who ran in front of a metro bus in the hopes of being awarded a large enough financial settlement to move to Hawaii. Instead, all that client got was life without a spleen. Ostensibly, my job existed to help clients reach mental health goals, but I learned it had more to do with allocating tax dollars for mental health clinics so that we might prevent bodies from being splayed across a windshield on our morning commute.
Five years ago this Advent, I was assigned a new client at a community mental health facility for severely traumatized and chemically dependent individuals. The client’s name was Marcos and in our first session he told me, “If you want to understand my life, you need to become familiar with Guernica.” Marcos reached his tobacco-stained fingers into his wallet and unfolded a battered copy of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting.
The piece was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain during World War II. To become acquainted with the painting is to become familiar with suffering and the tragedies of war. Bodies of animals and civilians have been brutalized by shrapnel, arms desperately reach up to the heavens before their impending death, a mother cries in anguish as she holds the corpse of her baby.
When we think of Advent, we tend to imagine quiet manger scenes, festive wreaths, chocolate-filled calendars, and carols that warm our souls like Pumpkin Spice Lattes—or just a PSL if you are up on the times. The complexity however is that the more I read the gospel accounts associated with Advent, the more it seems I am studying something akin to Picasso’s Guernica than anything that goes on in our churches during the Christmas season. It is as if Advent has been hijacked.