Four months before Violet, a 25-year-old transsexual with dollish cheekbones and a primary color wardrobe, moved to Brooklyn, she toyed with the idea of holding “a farewell tour” in her lifelong home of Portland, Oregon. Her approach to putting a bow on her 20-plus years in a city mocked for its liberal leanings was to collide her two disparate worlds: her friend circle of Juul-puffing mulleted Bernie Bros with her recent professional foray into sucking cock for cash.
“What if I put it out there that I’m available as a sex worker for people I know for highly discounted rates?” Violet, now a good friend of mine, recently tells me over FaceTime, recalling the logic behind her “maniac idea.” She admits it was both a stab at giving her friends a “last chance to fuck” while also raking in as much money as she could before she hit the Big Apple.
Violet took to Instagram Stories to vibe-check these guys: “If you’re someone who supports sex work at an intellectual level, would you ever hire a SWer yourself?” she wrote.
She assumed that her peers — millennial-zoomer cusps with art degrees and hard-ons for progressive politics — would be prime clients. After all, as youngish liberals, they seemed to overwhelmingly support sex workers and the decriminalization of their profession, and they were right in line with those of others in their demographic categories. According to a January survey by Data for Progress, more than half of American men (58 percent) and about two-thirds of twentysomethings (of all genders) are down with the New Zealand model, which removes criminal penalties for selling and paying for sex. More than three-quarters of “very liberal” folks also claim to throw their support behind it.
Despite stereotypes of johns being unattractive older men, some research shows that clients of sex workers tend to have their first experience of paid sex when they’re young, hot and in their 20s, despite having more opportunities for sex than their more aged counterparts. In two different studies, three-quarters of arrested johns and slightly less than half of online clients using sex work review websites first paid for a sex worker when they were between the ages of 18 to 29.
In other words, the numbers suggest that more of Violet’s followers should have been down with paid sex, but that’s not what happened. The woke guys in her social circle who responded weren’t bringing the same kind of hoo-rah they had for the idea of standing in solidarity with sex workers, and exactly none of them offered to cough up cash.
That left her confused — if these young dudes were politically rooting for sex workers and are in the period of their lives when they’re most likely to first see one, why weren’t they seizing en masse the opportunity for one of Violet’s bargain-bin BJs, or those of their friendly neighborhood sex worker, for that matter?
Some have pragmatic excuses, of course. “I don’t have the money; I don’t want sex that bad; I can get pussy without paying for it,” they DM’d Violet. None of which surprises sex therapist and sex work researcher Christine Milrod. “They’re young, they’re millennials or zoomers and they don’t need to pay for sex work because they can just go on an app,” she says. “When I ask them for my own research, they respond, ‘Because I don’t have to.’”
But it’s also more than that. As two trans girls who keep leftist male hotties in their company and turn tricks as a side hustle, Violet and I have both observed that our peers can’t get their politics straight. For one, these guys support decriminalizing sex work because they’re feminists, but they also seem to not pay for sex because they’re feminists.
To that end, one particular response to Violet’s Instagram Story by a decriminalization supporter stuck out to me. It said something to the effect of “My mom taught me to respect women.” But… isn’t “respecting women” paying them to do their job? It seems that some of these men’s theoretical recognition of women’s ability to make decisions for their own body ends up being overridden by skepticism of a sex worker’s ability to consent.
The feminist politics put forth by sex worker activists locate the imperative for sex work decriminalization at the intersection of racial, gender, economic and immigrant justice. The recent policy platform signed by major progressive organizations argue that decriminalization “removes people from cycles of arrest, incarceration, criminal records and/or deportation that prevent them from accessing health care and building economic stability, allows people in the sex trades to seek legal remedies for violence and exploitation and encourages sex workers to negotiate and organize for safety and better working conditions.”
Milrod has a therapy client who is emotionally “tortured by” paying trans women for sex, even though he keeps going back for more. “‘Oh my god, I’m assaulting them,’” Milrod says, describing his line of thinking. “And that’s because his mother drilled into him that women have the same rights as men — that he needs to be a ‘good’ feminist.” Essentially, his mother’s thought process seems to assume that being paid to suck and fuck subordinates the worker to the payer.
Walter, Violet’s roommate and an artist formerly on the payroll of teen feminism’s bible, Rookie, heard something similar as a kid. Despite now being a huge fan of strip clubs and paid cam shows, he says he’s “never purchased sex work because the feminism my mom raised me on was traditional white feminism, and that meant ‘leave that girl alone.’”
Anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley dramatically articulated the sentiments of these Boomer moms in a 2004 Psychiatric Times article. Alleged to be a “feminist” by Wikipedia, she claimed that sex work is “paid rape,” regardless of the worker’s voluntary and consensual decision to do the labor and the client’s kindness and respect for her.
Today, hostility toward decriminalization is fueled by, among others, the National Organization of Women (NOW), a group founded by the patron saint of White Boomer Feminism, Betty Friedan, and now supported by another White Boomer Feminist matriarch, Gloria Steinem. They’re in favor of the so-called Nordic Model for decriminalization, which prescribes the continued criminalization of customers, but not providers.
Advocates for the removal of criminal penalties for both providers and clients see the Nordic Model as insufficient, often citing police operations that harmed sex workers, but didn’t involve their prosecution. Take Norway’s Operation Homeless, which systematically evicted sex workers from the private residences from which they were allegedly seeing clients. Cops would go undercover as a john, looking for evidence that sex was being bought — their tireless investigations would use damning traces of illicit behavior such as “creams” and “a candle,” an Oslo police representative explained — and then they’d threaten to press charges against the landlord for promoting prostitution.
Progressive men might make accidental Nordic Model fans. They support sex workers and their decriminalization, likely at the behest of the hot girls with whom they’re “in community.” But they also seem to withhold their sympathies when it comes to male sex buyers, maybe by virtue of spending decades around their relatives marinated in Second-Wave, anti-prostitution feminism.
Woke boys are likely not just swerving around paid sex because of their mixed-signal feminism, though. Their refusal to pay for sex also seems to come from believing a john to be the antithesis of a successful heterosexual male. To wit: Walter’s stereotyped impression of clients is an older man who is “balding, [has] thick bottled-glasses [and is] driving a Hyundai Sonata.” He stops and LOLs: “When I think about johns, it’s, ‘I don’t want to be driving a Sonata.’”
In short, paying for sex is a “beta move” to some self-proclaimed “woke” men.
For Violet, when dirtbag lefties like Walter are courting her in her romantic life, she’s found that they feel like “they have to get it” (“it” being missionary). But for whatever reason, to them, ass is better slow-cooked, not microwaved. “So much of it is them feeling cool and valuable, earning the attraction of someone,” she says. “Which is a super 1950s kind of vibe.”
From my own seasoned sexuality, woke guys seem to love courting gals — flexing emotional sensitivity and disgust at the Kavanaugh hearings — but bailing once the bussy is scored. Again, they have their feminisms mixed up. They probably hear their mom saying “Be a gentleman, open the door for her,” in one ear and Khia cooing “My neck, my back” in the other.
One recent dude — let’s call him Brad — picked me up at a coffee shop, bought me a latte and put his sophisticated active listening skills on full display. He then took me to a wine bar (assuring me the orange was to die for), and we romantically unpacked our traumas as he walked me home. He kissed me on my doorstep, demonstrating that he had no qualms with kissing a trans woman in public.
Upstairs, Brad came, repeatedly, for hours (I didn’t). At the end of it all, his takeaway was this: “I’m not feeling it,” and “We probably shouldn’t see each other again.”
Brad had only ever been with cisgender women, he told me. I was his first. Knowing this, I checked in with him multiple times throughout the night to make sure his heterosexual ego was still intact. I couldn’t help but feel the whole latte-flirtation and wine date was a charade to bed me, secure his shemale fantasy and then return to his cis girlfriend. If he was looking to suck a girl’s dick, he should have just paid a prostitute — ideally, me! That, at least, is my repressed clients’ strategy, and one I should have offered to him.
It seems that some of these self-assured “Good Guys,” are still chasing “the conquest of pussy,” as Violet describes. Perhaps to them, Venmo-ing someone for it would be an abdication of their masculinity. That flies in the face of anti-prostitution feminists, like Farley, who see johns, regardless of how kind and respectful they may be to sex workers, as the embodiments of patriarchal, misogynistic violence.
And so, the constellation of anti-john attitudes — “he’s a sexist” and “he’s a beta” — cohere into their pervasive stigmatization. “I’ve always been like, ‘Girl, get your fuckin’ loot,’” says Walter. “But I don’t have friends who speak openly about buying sex. In my social sphere, there’s so much more stigma around being a john than a sex worker.”
One friend of mine, Kevin, is a literal Bernie Bro — we canvassed Houston for Bernard (who hasn’t actually endorsed decriminalization) together in the lead up to Super Tuesday — and he has actually paid for sex before. It just wasn’t in the U.S. While he was on vacation in Southeast Asia when he was 19, he got a “happy ending” in a massage parlor. “I felt okay with it there because it was more culturally normalized,” he tells me. “I’d probably pay for sex here if it wasn’t so stigmatized.”
The feminists hellbent on blocking the decriminalization bill from passing the New York state legislature would probably celebrate the fact that shame prevents some potential johns from doing the deed. But other feminists supporting sex workers argue that this very stigma, which is “entrenched at structural levels” through criminalization, as University of Victoria researchers described it, end up putting sex workers at greater risk. A 2018 study found that countries that criminalize sex customers see three times more violence toward sex workers.
This stigmatization of johns cultivates an “increased reluctance and fear” to offer providers of sex workers with “accurate screening details,” explains Milrod. “This makes it much harder for providers to verify the legitimacy and referral history of the client, which in turn can potentially endanger the sex worker.” Worse, if any of us were to take on the plight of johns, we risk sounding like Men’s Rights weasels. To some, sensitivity toward men’s issues — particularly one this taboo — spells insensitivity to women.
From the viewpoint of someone who actually spends hours with these guys, I’ve found that johns who have unravelled the stigma for themselves tend to be more pleasant. They seem to be less awkward, more respectful of my boundaries and more likely to become regulars, which, in turn, offers me more financial stability. And isn’t that the dream of the decriminalization movement?
But, even after all this, I’m not sure it actually matters if leftist guys put their money where their mouths are, and Violet agrees. She suspects our scrutiny of their personal sexual finance has more to do with our own desires — despite plainly needing the money, Violet is aware of the “mystique and coolness of being a prostitute,” and she suspects somewhere within her id she just wants to “share that with people who’d think it was cool.”
Questioning why more woke guys aren’t budgeting their nonprofit salaries for professional sex instead of Bernie’s pleas for $2.70 isn’t an investigation into their solidarity’s legitimacy. Sure, I think male feminists could benefit from some more self-reflection. But when it comes down to it, my pursuit is self-serving. I think I just want to fuck leftists and get paid to do it.