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Study paints compassionate picture of johns

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Chris Atchison, info@johnsvoice.ca
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035, cthorbes@sfu.ca

January 14, 2010

In Johns' Voice, an unprecedented study of how sex buyers relate to prostitutes, Simon Fraser University sociologist Chris Atchison concludes that most of them are men who wouldn't harm a hair on their clandestine partners’ heads.

Contrary to highly publicized, notorious serial killers such as Robert Pickton, most johns pursue complex relationships with prostitutes that are as much about emotional fulfillment as they are about sex.

"My research shows that only a small percentage of respondents pose a real problem in terms of violence and disease transmission to prostitutes," says Atchison. The SFU sociology instructor is still analyzing the results of Johns' Voice, conducted between June 2008 and April 2009.

"My initial findings show that johns shouldn't be painted as uniformly good or evil in efforts to control prostitution,” emphasizes Atchison, an SFU criminology grad. "We only need to target a subset of this population."

The largest volunteer sampling of sex buyers worldwide, Johns' Voice attracted 1,023 responses to a self-administered on-line survey asking 210 questions.

Atchison, who is completing his doctorate in sociology at the University of Toronto, isolated and studied 861 Canadian responses and spent 65 hours doing in-depth interviews with an additional 24 Canadian sex buyers. SFU sociology grad Katarina Kolar helped him gather the data.

So far Atchison’s analysis reveals that 93 per cent of the respondents are men who avoid conflict with prostitutes. They choose “flight over fight” even though 43 per cent of them have paid for services they did not receive. Twenty per cent have been robbed and five per cent have been physically attacked by a sex worker.

Seventy-nine per cent of respondents say they value prostitutes' safety and would like to see prostitution decriminalized or legalized and regulated so that it offers pension, health and employment benefits.

Nineteen per cent say they sought emotional intimacy, not just sex, in their pursuit of prostitutes and that their trysts evolved into long-term relationships, which evoked compassion for their sex-selling partners.

Johns' Voice is a companion piece to Outreach and Research in Community Health Initiatives and Development (ORCHID), a four-year study that has also just wrapped up. It looks at the beliefs, experiences, opinions and activities of both sex workers and their commercial partners to inform current debates about the buying and selling of sex in Canada.



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Natasha Sanders-Kay

Isn't the methodology problematic here? Of course the "nicer" johns are going to be the ones to volunteer responses to an online survey. The ones who beat and rape the women aren't going to be wanting to share that with the world.

And maybe if we asked the prostituted women who had sex with those "nicer" johns who responded to the survey, they might have something different to say. Maybe some of them wouldn't have described those johns as respectful or safe.

As someone who's worked at a rape crisis line and transition house for women escaping male violence, I have seen that the amount of violence against prostituted women by their johns is higher and more horrible than most people seem to think. Even before I worked there, I had spoken to people doing outreach work on the downtown eastside who knew women who had EACH been raped by over 50 different johns. And who knew women who had each been stabbed multiple times by multiple johns, or physically attacked in some other way. Maybe not every woman selling sex ends up in a pig farm, but it doesn't appear to be a walk in the park.

And what kinds of nice guys are OK with buying a woman's body? Most women in prostitution are poor. And aboriginal women, with their histories of oppression, are disproportionately represented in prostitution in Vancouver. "Sex work" is not usually taken up by white, middle-class women who just want to do it. They may be the vocal minority, but they are far from the majority. Most women in prostitution have been driven there by racist/sexist/classist oppression to women, on economic/political/social levels. The selling of female bodies furthers women's lower status in society, and perpetuates the objectification of women, which cannot be separated from sexist violence. So why should I be sympathetic to supposedly nice guys who seem to feel perfectly OK with perpetuating this system?


Hear, hear! I agree with Natasha. Not to mention the johns who create a demand for under age sex targeting minors who often have no say and no choice about the interaction. Johns are just men who exploit women and children to satisfy their own desires and there's nothing "nice" about that. They might pay for it, but they help perpetuate a system that oppresses and dehumanises women and destroys much more than the few dollars they pay are worth.

Meghan Murphy

This research is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it appears to have completely (and conveniently) removed itself from a cultural, social and historical context. There is a power dynamic that exists between men and women, for one, within this patriarchal society, as well as there being a power dynamic that exists between those with means (the buyer) and those without means, or those in need of 'means' - ie. the prostitute, that has been completely disregarded.

The 'violence' that is spoken of within a feminist analysis of prostitution includes not only the literal violence that women are subjected to, but also the violence that exists in the objectification of women. The concept that men are somehow entitled to access to female bodies is violent both as a concept as well as in its literal meaning - and the consequences of this are dire.

A study that seeks to 'prove' that Johns are not ALL violent, is not only offensive as it seeks to normalize the concept that a man can and should be able to buy a woman's body and that there is a price placed on female sexuality, but is offensive as it implies that Johns are somehow the ones who have been oppressed and are now in need of a 'voice'.

Let's be clear here. White males are the group who have been most 'heard' throughout history. Everywhere. Making a 'safe space' for their voices is the last thing we need. We certainly do not need more 'voices' telling society that female sex workers are not at risk of violence, and studies that do this, like the one here conducted by Chris Atchison are extremely dangerous.

That Simon Fraser University would support or promote a study of this nature is extremely disheartening and offensive.


For as long as there is a system which justifies prostitution, no man buying sex is 'nice', whether violent or not. There is no 'subset' of the population that needs to be targeted. It is actually all of it that is the problem.

To agree that men are hungry wolves and need brothels so that they don't go about raping women shows an inherent tragedy in our society. The above mentioned comments are sensible and relevant. The research has nothing constructive to give to the world. It should instead focus on real issues.


Whether you like it or not, sex work is here to stay. Therefore, we need to protect the women engaged in it. The intention of Chris Atchison's research was not to argue for or against prostitution, but rather, to inform the debate about prostitution law reform in Canada. If you were to ask the sex workers themselves, they would tell you that it is the criminal laws surrounding prostitution that make their work so dangerous.

I agree that sex work does contribute to the objectification of women however, some women have no other options, while other women choose sex work within the constraints of our patriarchal capitalist society. Unless we are going to eradicate patriarchy and capitalism immediately (not likely), sex workers are going to continue being victimized and all women, not just sex workers, are going to continue to be oppressed. It is essential to remember that oppression is not solely due to patriarchy. Some women have more power than others which adds a layer of oppression which is experienced by marginalized women. In other words, our privilege as female university students creates a situation in which we are oppressors as well. We are all products and producers of the capitalistic patriarchal system in which we live. Just because you do not view sex work as a legitimate profession does not mean that women in this work should not be protected.

A harm reduction approach is needed to keep these women safe. For this to happen, sex work needs to be decriminalized. For that to happen, we need all kinds of research on sex work and the issues surrounding it to inform the ongoing debate. I applaud Chris Atchison for carrying out this research.


Meghan, isn't that peculiar logic? I don't condone the study either for other reasons, but to justify silencing one voice because it has been heard before seems to go against the basic tenets of feminism. Feminism should generate equality by building, not stifling, and I don't like being silenced because my grandfather was a misogynist. I've done nothing to perpetuate misogyny and yet it seems I an constantly assumed to have done so. Granted I don't like the report, but I will defend it's right to exist. And for what it counts I'm not White.

Again I'm not touching the original issue with a 10 foot pole; I can defend equality, but nowhere in my heart can I defend johns.


I think many of these responses show exactly why this research is necessary. Prejudices exist regarding the "evils of prostitution" that result in knee-jerk responses like these. Sex worker's alliances that are fighting for the legal right to do what they do and for the protections that come with that are being held back by such attitudes. The Dworkin-McKinnon view of all heterosexual relations as inherently oppressive may have uncovered some valid points in 1980, but it is too broad, too sweeping, and ends up justifying the oppression of women, namely those who wish to work in the sex trade.

Modern feminists tend to support a more nuanced and less condemnatory approach to the topic of prostitution and the above commenters would benefit from moving beyond the 80s.

Jim Wiggins

I can well understand Natashas general critique of prostitution and can empathize with the plight of many in the profession and agree that the circumstances of those are deplorable tragedies which justifies every effort to alleviate them.

However, while she generally does not make many categorical statements, there seems to be any number of biases and stereotypes there (and in other comments) that seem to be decidedly questionable. For one glaring instance, buying a womans body or a sex-worker selling her body is, I think, irresponsible hyperbole at best and, at worst, misleading and emotionally charged, politically motivated innuendo, propaganda and stereotyping they no more sell their bodies than does a licensed and registered masseuse or physiotherapist.

As a John, as the one interviewed on CBC Radio, I have to admit to periodically having had some trepidation over the prospect of taking advantage of, engaging the services of, someone who was essentially or in fact a virtual or actual slave or in the words of the author of the book I referred to [The Human Use of Human Beings; Norbert Wiener], enforcing a sharp bargain by duress [pg 106]. But I feel the same sense of trepidation when I put on a shirt that was manufactured in, say, Bangladesh or when tying-up my Nike running shoes: were they manufactured in some third-world sweat-shop where the workers were physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, or economically abused?

While arguing by analogy can be a slippery slope, it seems to me that the situations are similar and that the solutions should be likewise proper and enforceable labour laws and things like Fair Trade programs in the latter case and a rationalization of the existing laws (ambiguous at best, hypocritical at worst), along with a change in the attitudes and stereotypes towards both sex workers and clients in the former. I think that if society wasnt looking down its collective nose so much at sex workers.


Natasha this is in response to your comment: "Most women in prostitution are poor. And aboriginal women, with their histories of oppression, are disproportionately represented in prostitution in Vancouver. "Sex work" is not usually taken up by white, middle-class women who just want to do it:.

Yes that might be the majority in Vancouver, but it is not always so in other countries.The women you see in Vegas, for example, are high priced escorts who can charge $5000 per hour. There are a vast majority of white 'working girls', from middle class homes who are just hoping to hit it big. The same goes for johns... there are those 18 year olds who are looking to lose their virginity for the first time, or others who cannot form proper relationships with women even while there are those who systematically target prostitutes for abuse and murder.

While I dont personally agree with prostitution, I will defend someone's right to engage in it. That is their body and they cannot be told what to do with it by me or anyone else. Since prostitution is a trade that is obviously here to stay, it is important to study the implications that our current laws have on the safety of women. Its actually quite interesting that someone actually had the idea to interview the johns as well instead of being one of the countless hundreds who always interview prositutes.

Maybe if we interviewed pimps, for example, we would find out their modus operandi's and be better equipped in protecting these women from predators who wish to truly subjugate women.

I recently finished a book that detailed the lives of 5 middle class working girls over the course of a number of years and it described their johns in detail. Some were just looking for companionship and didnt even engage in any type of sexual activity, while others were long-standing customers who only had intercourse with one lady and would often help support her financially just as one would with a mistress I guess. Then there were the 'tricks' who had a great time burning them


Meghan, your argument that "There is a power dynamic that exists between men and women, for one, within this patriarchal society, as well as there being a power dynamic that exists between those with means (the buyer) and those without means, or those in need of 'means' - ie. the prostitute, that has been completely disregarded."

your argument is one that has been repeatedly used to maintain the current legislations on prostitution, and it is important that you know that this same argument has been posed to prostitution advocacy groups.

Prostitues do not sell their bodies, but their services. They see their services, not as a commodity, but the same as another employee working at a retail store for example.As for prostitution being the result of a patriarchal society, this is not necessarily so. In areas such as Europe, many madams and escorts actually command a great deal of power and serve a large clientele which seeks them for favors. It is not the men who come buying, but the men who come begging. This is the same answer that many groups have used when posed with the same question.

If prostitution were decriminalized, the trade itself would not hold such a stigma, these women could engage in safer practices, and it would definetely shift the power struggle.

Whether we like it or not, Prostitution is one of the oldest trades in the world. Whether we try to ban it or not, it is here to stay and will always exist in our society. We need to wake up and admit to ourselves that we cannot prevent people from engaging in prostitution because it is a stuck up perception. That if we stigmatize johns and place such harsh penalties on prostitues, that they will somehow see 'the light of day' and stop engaging in the practice.

Understand here that the women are allowing for access, and that it is not to be taken by force, which would otherwise constitute as rape.

When both participants are willing, and a verbal contractual agreement has been made, I dont see it as being a shift in power for men or women. I se


Sheena, your argument is excellent. There are women working in the trade outside of the DTES and there is a big difference between survival sex trade workers and women who chose to enter the trade because they want to. I have a family member who I love and *gasp* respect who is a sex trade worker. She has travelled the world many times, volunteering in orphanages in her travels. In turn, I also have male friends that pay for sex and they are not bad guys. In fact they are pretty regular guys. It seems that women want to demonize them for buying sex because they don't understand it.