As a journalist I've covered the sex beat for over a decade. I've interviewed call girls and johns, adult film stars and dominatrixes, strippers and pimps. I've seen a side of America that most Americans don't see. In the movies there are heart-of-gold hookers like Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," falling in love with a john who happens to be a sensitive guy capable of overlooking her profession. But in reality we don't know much about johns or the complicated reasons they pay for sex. So when New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a zealous former prosecutor of prostitution rings, was accused of using one himself, many people questioned how such a smart man could have put his family and his career on the line.
A research project I'm working on may yield some answers to that perplexing question. Earlier this year I posted an online call for letters from johns, asking men to send me anonymous letters about their experiences soliciting sex. In most cases the johns came across "Letters From Johns" [NOTE: this blog is sexually explicit] while surfing the Internet. I'd considered soliciting johns from sites like Craigslist, but I decided to let them seek me out. Most of the letters, I believe, are real; in some cases the men sent them from their personal e-mail accounts, signed their real names, and included links to their professional Web sites. The fake letters are for the most part easy to identify; they lack detail—and frequently end with scenes in which the sex worker returns the money because the sex was so good.
Thus far I've received letters from nearly two dozen johns about why they did it. The men come from all walks of life, ranging in age and across socioeconomic classes. In many cases, like Spitzer, they're married. Many report they are in relationships with women who are no longer interested in sex. Some of the men are in long-term relationships; some are single. Some seek out streetwalkers, while others solicit high-end escorts as Spitzer is alleged to have done. The men find the women in bars, on Craigslist, in adult ads in the backs of their local weeklies.
Often these guys aren't just looking for sex. Many are depressed or stressed, lonely or bored, looking for intimacy or a connection, no matter how transient, no matter the cost. One john who was rejected on a regular basis in the dating scene wrote that, in contrast to the women he met at bars, prostitutes saw him as "a normal and charming guy." Other men recalled youthful sexcapades in the military while deployed overseas, from a German brothel called Crazy Sexy to a barbershop in Asia where women performed oral sex on men getting haircuts. An "overeducated" 28-year-old went through a bad breakup, a death in the family, and the loss of his job. Online he found a "courtesan" who taught him what he wanted in a relationship and gave him his confidence back. "I'm really grateful to her," he reported.
One letter in particular may offer a window into the mind-set of a man like Spitzer. It came in the form of an encrypted e-mail from a state investigator. Professionally, he was dedicated to enforcing the law. Personally, he was in a relationship with a woman with whom he hadn't had sex in years. He'd been seeing prostitutes since 1991. In his encoded diary he recorded his encounters. "1 dot is oral, 2 dots is vaginal sex, and 2 connected dots is anal sex. In the event that someone questions the dots, they are associated with good or bad days: no dots are normal days, 1 dot is a good day, 2 dots is a great day, and 2 connected dots is the best day for that week." For him, sex for money was sex without strings, attachment, or guilt—a transaction.
But for some it's the financial transaction itself that is alluring. In the first letter I received I heard from a successful twentysomething who described himself as "attractive and ambitious." He had a girlfriend—"a wonderful woman"—but there was something about the act of paying for sex, he confessed, that turned him on. "I find the idea of paying for sexual acts to be erotic," he confided. For some men, especially those who are seen as particularly moral or righteous in their public lives (think of all those fallen preachers), part of the appeal is the fact that it is illegal and a moral transgression in their eyes.
What do the women think about why men come to them? As a companion project to Letters From Johns, I created Letters From Working Girls [NOTE: this blog is sexually explicit too]. While johns are eager to confess, letters from working girls are few and far between. But one high-end call girl I spoke to about the Spitzer affair said there are lots of reasons a man in such a prominent position might seek high-stakes sex with a prostitute. Why not just have an affair, which probably wouldn't have destroyed his career? She said that Spitzer, if he did use prostitutes, was probably one of those men for whom the payoff was the excitement of doing something really taboo. "What could be more taboo than going to an agency when you're a crusader for all that is moral and good?" she theorized. "It's only natural," this call girl asserted, "that they'd hire a girl to get off." She speculates that there was probably a "midlife crisis element" there too.
Of course, Spitzer was no ordinary middle-aged shlub. Agencies like the Emperors Club screen workers and clients alike, and discretion was part of what he'd be paying for. Followers of Spitzergate have speculated as to what Client 9's date, Kristen, knew when the club's booker said that her famous client, who had been described by other girls as a "difficult" customer, "would ask you to do things that, like, you might not think were safe." The wording might imply something kinky, but it's more likely that Client 9 was attempting to get Kristen to have sex without a condom—a common and unwelcome request, according to many sex workers. As one self-described twentysomething redhead I heard from (who solicited men on Craigslist to pay off her college loans) asked rhetorically, "How can someone even consider not using a condom with a woman who does it for a living?" That added risk factor may heighten the sexual excitement. For some guys the lure of that particular thrill can obscure any worries about long-term repercussions.
Over these last months I have seen one common thread in the johns' stories: many remain conflicted about paying for sex. Was it right? Was it wrong? Is there more going on than just a need for sex? With his career a shambles, Spitzer may soon have more time than he'd like to contemplate those very questions.