Finding John: Who Buys Sex Slaves?

By Gamal Hennessy

There has been a welcomed amount of increased focus on the condition and plight of sex slaves. At the same time, articles have placed more scrutiny on the merchants of slavery and the methods they use to ensnare and abuse their captives. The only aspect of this brutal economic situation that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the demand side of the equation. Sex traffickers are providing a service. If there were no johns, the business model would collapse.

So where do these customers come from? How can they perpetuate this human rights violation and what, if anything, can be done to discourage them from feeding the most cruel industry humanity has ever developed? Unfortunately, calculating and defining the sex slave customer is currently impossible because of the amorphous and ambiguous nature of the world we have created for them.  

Defining the Sex Worker

If you can’t accurately define the sex worker, then how can you differentiate between the john who is abusing a sex slave and one who is purchasing services from a willing participant? Not every sex worker is a sex slave. Every sex worker exists on a continuum of agency ranging from complete freedom to complete subjugation. The factors dictating where a sex worker might fall on the continuum vary for each individual and can change over time as their personal circumstances and broader laws of their country change.

Calculating a fixed number of sex workers also isn’t the same as figuring out the total number of Uber drivers or coal miners because the illegal, underground nature of the industry is designed to hide its existence from public scrutiny. Various law enforcement, social services, and governmental organizations on all levels provide statistics for trafficking in persons, but many of these studies are skewed by the political and financial agenda of the organization providing the data. The clandestine and fluid environment of sex work does not lend itself to accurate estimations on the macro level.

The John Perspective

If we as a society can’t calculate the number of sex workers or sex slaves in the industry, or even understand the existence of the continuum, then the situation doesn’t get clearer for the individual john interested in purchasing sexual services. In addition to this general foundation of ignorance, johns often lack any emotional or mental interest in understanding the situation facing sex workers.

Of course, there are obvious situations where johns know, expect, or specifically seek out sex slaves instead of independent sex workers. The animal who rapes a drugged child while she is chained to a dirty mattress can’t claim ignorance about her condition. But the situation is harder to determine the farther along the john moves on the sex slave/ sex worker continuum, especially when personal motivation is added to the equation. Whether it is an attempt at escapism, or feeding a sexual desire they can’t satisfy by other means, or because of a physical, mental or emotional deficiency, or because of a casual disregard for others, the lack of empathy from the john to the worker is common.  

The murky nature of the transaction is amplified by the motivations of the sex traffickers on one end of the continuum and the sex worker on the other, because both sides of the supply chain take steps to hide personal details about themselves from their customers. Whether it’s from an attempt to evade law enforcement, a struggle to maintain personal privacy, or a basic need for personal safety, the cliché sex work encounter leaves both the john and the worker with little or no real information about the human being they confront.

Untangling the Knot

The attempt to define Johns is less about determining some abstract profile and more about understanding the relationship between the purchasers of sex slaves and our society.

As long as sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, sex workers will be abused in some fashion. As long as johns feel they can abuse, rob, rape, and kill sex workers without consequences, sex workers will be forced to protect themselves with secrecy or subject themselves to slavery. As long as our society views sexual expression in hypocritically negative terms, we give power to those men who are willing to exploit women, children and other men without any regard for their humanity.

The man who buys sex slaves benefits from a society that punishes sex slaves, sex workers, and women in general.

The demographics, psychographics and motivations of johns can only be unpacked as part of a broader rejection of sexual slavery and more of an understanding and acceptance of sex work in our society.

About the Author

Gamal Hennessy is a commercial contracts and entertainment attorney and author from New York City. His legal work focuses on helping companies and individuals benefit from their art and creativity. His Crime and Passion novels explore the darker elements of personality and society against the backdrop of international sex slavery.


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