Stomping Johns: The Demand Side of Prostitution

Interview with Mickey Z published at World News Trust September 19, 2015

My Interview with Samantha Berg

Mickey Z. — World News Trust

“Marie Antoinette never actually said, ‘Let them eat cake’ when told the poor have no bread, but neoliberals really do callously say, ‘Let them have unions’ when told prostituted women are raped and murdered in strikingly high numbers.” (Samantha Berg)

Samantha Berg is a radical feminist journalist, activist, and event organizer. Since 2003, she has primarily worked against men’s demands for prostitution and pornography, and to those ends she created the abolitionist website and the blog

Samantha’s articles about the sex industry have been published in progressive media for more than a decade and in the past four years she has organized four radical feminist conferences in the United States and Canada.

I became aware of Samantha’s work through some mutual friends and quickly found badass commentary like this from her:

“The reasons a woman only has to make one porn film to be a ‘porn star’ are similar to the reasons a man has only to sign on the dotted government line to be a ‘war hero.’ The ‘war hero’ and ‘porn star’ are calculated lies told by exploiters to keep expendable flesh walking through their doors.”

Needless to say, I suggested we do an interview. She was kind enough to agree and our conversation went a little something like this… 

Samantha Berg

Samantha Berg

Mickey Z.: How did you get started in such work and why do you focus on johns?

Samantha Berg: I was for legalization in my early 20s when I was volunteering for women’s reproductive rights and started earnestly educating myself about prostitution. Soon I learned that no one has less reproductive rights than prostituted women, no one is raped more, no one gets more STDs, no one endures more unwanted pregnancies than prostituted women. 

The harms are obvious yet so hard for people to see because of the pretty girls being dangled to distract them. In conversations I would bring up men’s responsibility to not engage in the destructive behavior of paying for sex and people kept bringing it back to the pretty girls.

In Portland, Oregon, the john-to-prostitute ratio is estimated at 20:1 — 20 johns to every prostitute — yet our words for these men are limited to ‘john’ or business terms like client and customer. There are dozens of ways to call women prostitutes (escort, streetwalker, whore, harlot, hooker, ho, call girl, courtesan, etc.) but a distinct lack of terms for the far more numerous side of the equation. Blame is still largely placed on women, but the radical feminist goal to make the millions of men who pay for sex visible and accountable for the first time in history has been speeding along successfully.

MZ: What role does such high demand play in trafficking?

SB: Countries where men are permitted to pay for sex are countries where sex-based slavery increases. The usual johns just keep on, but they’re joined by hordes of more casual prostitute-using men and that means an increase in trafficking to meet the expansion.

MZ: With, is it safe to assume, a concurrent expansion of men’s violence?

SB: Research from Norway proves that johns will get away with as much violence as they think they can get away with. Common sense says no man who uses prostitutes has to assault the prostitutes they use. The Norwegian research is the latest in a fat pile of evidence proving violation itself often motivates johns (violation of women, violation of laws, violation of vows, etc).

In the Netherlands, johns seek out the most desperate women and children because their powerlessness and addictions make them more willing to do unsafe acts for less money, an obvious outcome when consumers demand the most “bang for their buck.”

If the wives and daughters whom men claim to love and can’t stop the sexual coercion their loved ones commit against them, surely it is unreasonable to expect prostituted women to stop sexually coercive men from committing violence against them. Raped wives and mothers are barely believed, prostituted rape victims are believed even less.

MZ: What else can you tell us about the demand side of prostitution?

SB: Johns are by far the largest demographic involved with prostitution, greater in numbers than all prostitutes and pimps combined. People quibble over what percentage of prostitutes choose it while ignoring that 100 percent of johns choose prostitution.

There are no johns rights organizations. This consumer block of anonymous millions remains adamantly silent because they already have what they want. Men never had to march on Washington to purchase porn DVDs in corner shop convenience stores or to get lap dances in strip clubs.

The phrase “red light district” refers those neighborhoods in every sizable city where men can go to sexually prey on girls with society’s permission. They are the rape neighborhoods, places where rape is a little more okay than elsewhere and everyone knows it.

When sex is “work,” rape is theft. Every time someone calls prostitution “sex work” they affirm for misogynists what misogynists already believe, that a man raping a woman is more akin to a man shoplifting than a man inflicting life-wrecking torture. A man’s agreement to pay $150 for sex makes the rape he commits a crime worth $150 in the public eye.

MZ: Do you feel your research and work has had an impact in educating the general public, countering the neo-liberal narrative, and naming the problem?

SB: I’m realistic about how much one freelance journalist can achieve, but feedback over the many years I’ve been doing this activism says I’ve been at least somewhat successful changing minds. I’m especially proud of my work analyzing prostitution research from Norway, those writings have been translated into several languages and used by abolitionist activists in Europe to press for the Nordic model of criminalizing demand.

As much as I would love to take more credit for the heightened awareness about sex trafficking in the past few years, I honestly think the problem itself has exploded at such a rate that citizens can no longer ignore it or pretend it isn’t happening in their own communities.

MZ: Is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you, doing this work, and what might like that be like?

SB: Because I have a full-time nonprofit day job, evenings and weekends are when the glamorous work of Skype meetings and note-taking, reading news, and writing happen. Most of the daily work lies in responding to emails and otherwise corresponding with people in a timely way. The weeks are punctuated with an educational event here or an activist action there, and these past few years I’ve been organizing one large conference each year, but mainly it’s the small interactions with others that are the real business of building a movement against prostitution.

MZ: What can someone reading this article do to help? 

SB: There’s a role for everyone to do something about sex-based slavery. For some that means joining and supporting abolitionist groups locally and online, for others it begins with ending their own personal consumption of sex industry products like pornography. Start small and reject any impulse to rush in and “rescue” women or girls in prostitution because that’s best left to people trained to deal with violent, organized criminals. 

Feminists are seeing pushback from their success with reframing prostitution as a human rights violation. The better we are at what we do, the stronger the pimps and traffickers have to work to convince men that paying for sex is a safe and ethical use of their money and bodies.

MZ: Is there a question you’ve always wished someone would ask about your work but so far, no one has? If so, please tell us and answer that question now!

SB: It has come up in private conversations, but most people don’t ask me to delve into the emotional risks that come with constantly thinking about and working against organized rape for profit. Secondary trauma from doing this activism needs to be taken seriously if we’re not going to burn ourselves out. 

I’ve gotten better at handling the empathy I feel for survivors as I learn the details of what they endured. These are horrific injuries no one wants to listen to but someone has to, and I have committed myself to listening. If I want to serve women, then I need to take good care of the resource that is my life. Thankfully, the international community of radical feminists I’m a part of sustains me when I’m overwhelmed and want to give up.  Days when I can give back that gift of hope to other women who are slipping into despair are my brightest days.

MZ: How can folks get in touch with you, get involved, and help with this essential work?

SB: I can be reached at my blog or my email ( to connect you with people who can make the most of the skills you have to offer this critically necessary political movement.

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