Can a john take pride in patronizing hookers? This was the question set off in my mind after reading former porn star/prostitute/sex activist/performance artist/writer Annie Sprinkle’s review of Paying for It, Chester Brown’s memoir of being a john, in the New York Times Book Review for Sunday 7/3/11.
A “john,” as I’m sure most everybody knows, is the slang word for a prostitute’s customer. Also known as a “trick,” but we’ll stick to johns for the purpose of this discussion.
A few weeks ago I looked at this book for about a half hour in the bookstore as a possible review subject for a column I do for an adult magazine. One thing that struck me was that Paying for It caught the loneliness of the “john experience” quite well and so I hesitated to read it. It brought back too many unpleasant memories. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of encounters with hookers. (By the way, I loathe the icy, emasculating word “sex worker,” and “prostitute” isn’t much better, although I can’t get around using it sometimes. Still, no form of positive thinking will ever salvage it from its harshness and judgmental tone.)
The number one emotion I have felt in connection with paying for sex is loneliness afterward–even when the experience itself was pleasant, as it frequently can be. Yes: emptiness, aloneness. Of something lacking in me. So I haven’t read Brown’s whole book yet. My impression of the style of the drawings in this comic strip-style memoir is that they are very detached, almost passionless. This artistic approach clashes with what I remember most fondly about my own experiences with hookers, which was of a fleshy excitement even when the encounter wasn’t so hot, of a tactile aliveness resulting from my pleasure and awe or just my fascination at this bountiful femininity being available to lil ole me for something as simple, and non-binding, as mere money.
I’ve written about this subject at length myself in fiction, short memoirs in adult magazines, and in X-rated screenplays. In film, The Masseuse 2 is from the hookers’ point of view, and The Masseuse 3 includes the customers’ angle more prominently. They were two of the best regarded X-rated movies of the 90s. A French critic recently wrote an interesting analysis of the film here; and here is the English version of that article, somewhat mangled in Google’s automatic translation but readable enough to make it clear that I treated the subject, and the characters, with seriousness. The fantasy of a masochistic man cleaning a domineering woman’s house, which figures prominently in my new ebook Learning to be CRUEL, pops up in Masseuse 2 as well.
Ms. Sprinkle, whom I know slightly from my work in the adult magazine business (although I haven’t seen her for many years), and who is a nice lady, makes the statement in her review that “There are millions of johns, but for one to come out voluntarily–with honesty, integrity, and pride–is rare indeed.” I had to shake my head at that. There are many writers certainly who have written well about this subject, with honesty and integrity if often in the somewhat veiled form of fiction. But Ms. Sprinkle, by her own admission on the Times’ ArtsBeat blog, rarely reads fiction. Still, I wonder if she is acquainted with James Jones’ great novel From Here to Eternity, which chronicled the interactions of clients and prostitutes with great skill, and to my mind is the best thing I ever read on the subject. Part of the story centers around a brothel that American soldiers patronize just before America enters World War 2.
Jones certainly wrote with honesty and integrity. As far as “pride” goes, well, he wrote like a mature man of the old school, and about a subject such as this, his characters expressed the ambivalence any half-way sensitive guy would feel about falling for a woman who sells her favors for a living.
Having pride in being a john strikes me as oxymoronic. To my mind, the two don’t go together, because I’ll always have the sneaking suspicion that I couldn’t get for free what I just got for money. No, correct that–not the sneaking suspicion, but the knowledge, that I couldn’t get it without cash. That hurts my pride, doesn’t boost it.
Hey, maybe I will end up reviewing Paying for It at some point. I’m certainly qualified to do so and might have some interesting things to say further…and maybe I’ll even learn something once I get past my emotions about the subject.