“I have come to this unwavering realization: Prostitution — all prostitution — is not about choice.” So writes award-winning journalist, polemicist and documentarian Victor Malarek in the introduction to his book The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It. In it Malarek explores the demand side of the sex-for-sale equation, which he reduces to “three key letters: M-A-N.”
Reading The Johns one gets the impression that straight men are no more than the hulking troglodytes who bullied you in high school, the no-necked date-rapists whose discourse is most often shouted from the windows of passing cars. In the chiaroscuro worldview of The Johns, straight men who pay for sex are either pathetic, sad-sack loners or twisted, licentious sex maniacs. The sex workers are utterly blameless, never willing participants, never capable of choice.
Malarek inflicts upon the reader endless war stories and insipid braggadocio from a handful of unidentified straight men, sourced from the internet, who recount their experiences with prostitutes. Rod laments his boredom with “normal girls” but adds, “I’ll sport fuck them if only for the count.” Elliot explains he visits sex workers because he “didn’t marry a whore… but let’s face it, sometimes you just want a whore who you can screw with wild abandon.” For some local colour, Malcolm, a computer technician from Toronto, proclaims, “A prostitute knows exactly what I want — her open mouth on my hard cock.”
But The Johns makes too many lucid and prescient points about the international emergency of sexual exploitation to be dismissed as a simple-minded screed. Malarek speaks to the plight of drug-addicted women forced into the sex trade against their will, the despicable exploitation involved in international sex tourism and the daily subjugation and humiliation of sex workers who are hounded by law enforcement while the johns who feed the trade are largely ignored.
After reading The Johns I approach my meeting with Malarek with some trepidation, though I find his company nothing short of thrilling. He is delightfully brash and wonderfully forthright, a zealous street fighter with a scrappy side and a stentorian commitment to speaking out on human rights.
The expletives fly fast and loose as he bubbles over with the kind of passion generally reserved for the pulpit. When I push him about the religious moralistic undertone I perceive in the book, I am happy to hear him say, “I don’t believe in organized religion,” and happier still when he adds, “It destroys worlds.”
Too often too much of the discourse in this country is ruled by political correctness and a kind of politeness that neuters our political debate and castrates our dinner-table banter. It is important not to confuse political correctness with correct politics and some of Malarek’s politics are quite astute. This in spite, or because of, his complete disbelief in objectivity and his view that citations and footnotes “are for fucking PhDs in their fucking ivory towers.”
Overall I find that in person Malarek holds much more nuanced views than he presents in The Johns. For example, when I ask if he has a fundamental moral objection to one human being buying sex from another he thinks for a moment before saying simply “no.”
Some of the sex acts that are presumed degrading and downright evil in the book are many people’s idea of a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday night. Malarek fails to make a moral distinction between partaking of the acts themselves and coercing an unwilling victim into participating. Elsewhere when I press him about his disgust with pornography, which is painted in the book as a gateway to hell. He explains that he means specifically the kind of super hard-core porn produced by the likes of the preternaturally despicable Max Hardcore.
I ask Malarek how gay male sex work fits into his equation. He demurs saying, “That is another book.” Then goes on to say, “Gay men are still men.… They can stand tall and serve as an example to straight men.”
My major objection to The Johns is not simply to Malarek’s polemical rhetorical technique, but rather that the book depicts such a myopic view of sexuality that it might have a fundamentally retarding effect on the one thing that actually has a hope of alleviating the ills associated with the sale of sex: the fostering of a society with a positive and fully mature attitude toward human sexuality. It is intellectually dishonest to reduce things to a fatuous statement like “nothing is ever black and white” because some facets of the human experience are indeed just that. The Johns is chock-full of examples that prove this point, but sexuality and issues related to sex work call for a little more of the Malarek I sat down with in person and a little less of the one in the dust jacket photo.
The Johns may have been the most difficult reading experience of my life, and I’ve read Michael by Joseph Goebbels. I would nevertheless urge anyone with even a passing interest in the socio- politics of the sex trade to pick it up, engage it in conversation, participate in the argument and allow their preconceived notions of sexual freedom to be challenged.
Get enraged at the simplicity of Malarek’s view, throw the book across the room after reading that pornography “is the halftime show between sex junkies abroad, something to tide the travellers over until they can head out again…. It is the poor cousin to prostitution,” or “In prostitution there is no dignity, no empowerment, no equality in any form.”
Malarek tells me he exists to “ring alarm bells” and though his bells may be shrill and tissues-in-the-ear-canals strident, their ringing is impossible to ignore. When it comes to sparking discussion on truly important themes Malarek and I wouldn’t have it any other way.