Reader question #84: Sailor with a Past

Dear Captain Awkward, 

I met a guy. At a club. I know, I know- not usually the place to meet men you want to bring home to mother. But I approached him, we talked for a long time, and we later met up again a few days later. There was a strong attraction, and we made plans to have sex before he left, because he is in the Navy and his boat was scheduled for a month out at sea. I figured it would be a toot-it-and-boot it type of situation, but we had a lot of fun when we were hooking up and realized we might want to keep in touch. So we did. We emailed, we texted, then we started calling each other and talking through the night. We started to like each other, and said so. During one of our conversations, the topic of our sexual pasts came up. He talked around the subject, saying he hadn’t been with “too many girls.” We talked about something else. A few days later, I brought up the topic, saying, exactly how many sexual partners have you had before me? Again, he waffled. At this point, I felt uncomfortable and asked if I was his first. He said no, and finally said, okay- “there were two.” But his tone still seemed…off…to me. Like he didn’t want to delve too deeply into the topic. Again, I couldn’t put my finger on it; after all, I thought, well his words and presence have seemed honest and kind thus far. 

I asked him all the places in the world he has been with the Navy. He listed a plethora of SE Asian countries. Countries notorious for sex tourism and human trafficking problems. The light bulb went off in my mind, making the connection subconsciously. I asked, “In these places did any of your buddies or you go ashore and buy a prostitute?” He was silent, then started to nervously laugh. A minute later, and it was all clear. I was the first woman he did not pay for sex. And this realization caused my stomach to turn. 

I feel torn over the politics of sex work. I view it as a legitimate profession and as a feminist I loathe the demonization and dehumanization of women who seek sex work as their economic livelihood. On the other hand, the geography of where he bought sex (Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia)- well, I have read and heard about girls who endure the worst brutality at the hands of sex tourists. And I view what he did as sex tourism. I have so many questions I can’t seem to articulate but I will try-

Does what he did (more than once) make him a bad person? Is a man who will buy sex from a woman, maybe even a minor, (I don’t know) who may have been trafficked, someone a feminist should have qualms about getting with? Is this something inherent to military culture, and perhaps that fact exacerbated, or provoked, the occurences?

I could use advice or just simply…some illumination on this matter…
Thank you, thank you.

Stuck between a prostitute and a hard place

Dear Stuck:

I want to start by saying something about how you got this information.

You really pushed this guy to tell you about his sexual past.  And when he said he didn’t really want to talk about it, you kept pushing.  And kept pushing.  And then when he was honest with you, you got mad about what you found out.  Let’s reverse the genders here for a second – a guy meets a cool girl at a club, they hook up and then develop a thing.  He asks her about her sexual past, she doesn’t really want to talk about it, he keeps pushing, she finally admits some stuff – a number of partners that’s too high for him, or maybe she’s BEEN a sex worker – and then he gets upset and fixates on it and wonders if he should tank the whole relationship based on what she told him. We’d call that slut-shaming and tell him to get over himself.

We have sexual pasts.  I have a sexual past.  You have a sexual past.  Does yours completely define you as a person?  If some future guy you are dating wants to dump you because you fucked a sailor that you met in a club, would that make you feel okay? You apologize for that in your letter – “I know, I know…” but I’m confused about who you are apologizing to.  Me?  (Believe me, I’m not going to throw any stones).  Yourself?  Your family?  The patriarchy?  What I’m saying is that I think we can benefit from approaching each other’s sexual pasts with a lot of gentleness and respect for boundaries.  That doesn’t mean that everything is in bounds or that you can’t find something to be a huge turnoff or morally unacceptable.  It just means:  Tread gently and ask a lot of questions.

Now, someone is hiring all those sex workers. (If anyone has links to actual peer-reviewed research, comment away).  It’s the world’s oldest profession for a reason.  So it stands to reason that some nice-sweet-kind-eminently-datable-available-smart-cute man that you know has paid for sex at some point.  If the price of that experience is that they must never, ever, ever admit it or they will become perpetually un-dateable, good luck getting away from the demonization and dehumanization of sex workers, because it will always be a filthy little secret and we will all go on pretending that there are such things as “good” girls and “bad” girls and that we can know the difference.

Your politics just ran right smack into your life, kiddo.  I can’t imagine that feels good and I just don’t want to just beat you up about it, but I think the truth is that we live in a patriarchal system and the rest of the truth is that it’s really, really complicated.

Some further thoughts from Intern Paul:

Imagine this guy’s a virgin on a Navy boat. How much shit do you think he was taking from his other crewmen? And there are women on the boats, but relationships are prohibited and he would be punished if it was found out. And he’s putting his life on the line and could die this way.

Being a male virgin at that age weighs on your psyche, it truly does. Brings up a whole host of questions about your masculinity and doesn’t exactly help your self-esteem. And I grew up in the nice suburbs in liberaltown, I can only imagine how much worse it would be in a hyper-masculine environment.

So they dock in Singapore, and his buddies go on shore for some hookers. He tagged along, they egged him on, maybe they even paid the girl for him. (I remember my fellow clerks at my summer job buying me porno mags for my 16th birthday). This guy’s not thinking about the politics of it or stories of human slavery – he’s thinking about how a girl will finally have sex with him.

You’re imagining underaged girls who are coerced, Intern Paul’s got this scenario with Navy buddies going, but I want to know – Have you asked him what it was like?  Without judgment, just to listen and know what he experienced and what he thought about it?  Is that even possible after your initial discussion?

I think you should ask him. There may be things about his story that weigh on you so much that you can’t let it go, and you can’t have a relationship with him. But you don’t know that until you can talk about it like adults in a way that admits the complexities of the world and of desire, and admits the agency and humanity of people who sell sex.

You asked me “is a man who will buy sex from a woman…someone a feminist should think twice about getting with“?  I don’t know the answer to that, and any blanket answer does exactly the kind of belittling of sex workers that you and I don’t want to do.  There are plenty of times I’ve seen people who are miserable without sex and under the pressures from the Cult of Masculinity to have sex and thought “You should just hire someone and be happy.” Is that a simple, problem-free proposition?  Hell no.

There is no Central Feminism Committee standing ready to audit you if you keep dating this guy. There’s just you and him and a room and the choices you make there. That’s all there ever is for anyone.

Edited to Add:  I’m not trying to minimize the problems of human trafficking or underage prostitution (scroll down for the good stuff).  I think we can take it for granted that those things are bad!  I’m saying:  Ask him what happened.  I’m not saying prostitution is no big deal!  I’m saying:  Ask him what happened.  I’m not saying keep dating someone if you find out unsavory things about his sexual past, like, whatever, at least you have a boyfriend!  I’m saying:  Ask him what happened.  Because I think it’s better to deal with truth than speculation. Because it’s an opportunity to get a first person account of what that whole thing is like.  Because he himself may have very complex feelings about it after the fact. Because prostitution is so widespread that there have to be a lot of men we know who have bought sex and not been honest about it, so it makes it almost impossible to have an honest conversation about the subject.  Because there’s something problematic about the “Well, he’s just a young military guy on shore leave, of course he bought hookers!” attitude, but servicewomen can’t get access to reproductive health care or protection from sexual assault and maybe those two attitudes are linked, like, A LOT.

But the global and systemic become personal and specific when two human beings are in a room together, and it matters how you treat each other.  So why not ask him about it?  What do you lose by asking him?

62 thoughts on “Reader question #84: Sailor with a Past

  1. Love this:
    “There is no Central Feminism Committee standing ready to audit you if you keep dating this guy. There’s just you and him and a room and the choices you make there. That’s all there ever is for anyone.”

    That is all.

  2. I think you missed an important distinction:

    Did he hire an of-age, consenting sex worker and treat her well (safe sex, tip, manners, kindness)? if so, then I think a feminist woman could be with such a man, at her discretion. If he didn’t, if he coerced, assaulted, didn’t use good manners, or didn’t make a reasonable effort to find out if the sex worker he hired was of age and not being coerced, then I think you have a problem.

        1. Well, he should plan to provide full contact information for the women and she can launch a full investigation!

          Or she could ask him what happened and see if his story jibes with what she knows about him. Or she can decide the whole thing is not for her.

          I think she should ask him what happened and how he feels about it. What do you suggest? Anyone could lie about their past sexual experiences and how they treated their past girlfriends, so any trust or intimacy with anyone comes down to “Can I take this person’s word for it and do their behaviors match up to their word?”

          1. Yes, people lie, and no, obviously she can’t talk to the women herself. But my point was more that if his reaction is “Why would I do that?”, I would walk away. If his reaction is at least to realize that those are the correct ways to treat a sex worker, that’s a step in the right direction, even if he’s lying about having done them.

    1. I completely agree. I support the sex work industry, and though I haven’t dated anyone who (to my knowledge) utilized its services vis a vis prostitution, for me the question would be how treated the worker. What if the guy hadn’t engaged the services of a sex worker, but was just a real dick to his previous girlfriends? I’d rather be with someone who was courteous, polite and treated a sex worker like the human being she (or he) is, than someone who treated anyone badly.

    2. I was gonna say — in SE Asia the field is probably very different, but I do know some strongly feminist, pro-women sex workers. it’s a very complicated discussion.

      1. I’m really, really, really, really not an expert on this, but I think it’s dangerous and condescending to assume that sex workers in SE Asia get into the business for reasons that are substantially different from sex workers anywhere in the history of the world, like it’s okay if you are part of an Enlightened White Womyn’s Collective in San Francisco who has read all the right blogs and books but it’s not okay if you’re just a person in Singapore trying to make some cash so you can eat.

        Prostitution is legal in Singapore.
        The situation is more complex in Thailand and Indonesia, where it is overall illegal but often tolerated and regulated by the authorities to protect the health of the workers and prevent underage prostitution.

        Trafficking, sex tourism, really creepy underage sex tourism all exist. Coercion exists. But not every transaction is that kind of transaction, and I’m not going to grant women in SE Asia less agency than women anywhere on earth.

        1. hence why I said it’s a very complicated discussion. I said that I assume the field is very different though because of the problem/awareness internationally about sex trafficking in SE Asia, not because of a lack of agency there. I should have clarified more on that point.

        2. The OP should also be careful not to assume human trafficking is limited to only a certain selection of “notorious” countries. It goes on anywhere. Everywhere. It’s well documented to be going on in the United States, especially in the Southwest, where Mexican women are frequently targeted because of their vulnerability. The world is a dangerous place wherever we go.

          I agree with you that the main focus of the conversation, if they have one, should be about the experience itself. She can be honest about her feelings and concerns about prostitution, but she should try not to be overtly judgemental. The socialized dehumanization of sex workers is very thoroughly embedded in the Western cultural ideology, so she’s going to have to be prepared for answers she might not be entirely pleased with (and on the other hand, that conversation might also give him something to think about, if necessary).

  3. You really pushed this guy to tell you about his sexual past. And when he said he didn’t really want to talk about it, you kept pushing. And kept pushing.

    Yep. Ask a question, get an answer. Maybe not a pretty one.

    As the Captain notes, there are a lot of intersections here between the cult of masculinity, racial and class privilege, sex work, feminism… You probably won’t get far by asking yourself how to navigate this situation in the way that works best with your politics, imo. Make it more about your – and his – personal boundaries and ideas about sex / relationships. If you really feel that what he did is unequivocally wrong, obviously don’t date him. But maybe it’s more complicated than that?

    And. I don’t mean to lecture here. But a relationship is not a deposition, and a hookup-with-online-friendship is definitely not a deposition. Strongly reconsider when it is or is not cool for you to be asking someone about their “number”.

    1. Oh and judging by the tags, I thought the sailor would turn out to be a former call boy. Hmm.

    2. I mean, obviously you get to ask your sex partners questions that may impact your sexual health, like, when was the last time you were tested for things? Have you always had safe sex? Anything I should know? But there are two questions that, when asked in bed, always have an agenda of insecurity behind them. They are:

      1) What are you thinking about right now?
      2) How many people have you had sex with before me? (Or the Dirty Dancing version: “Have you *had* many women?” which is actually very relevant to this question, because in that film Johnny Castle WAS actually working as a prostitute!)

      Faux pas. Those questions always mean “Reaffirm that I’m important and special to you.” Which, okay. That’s a legitimate human need. So ask for what you really want.

      1. OFF TOPIC

        1) What are you thinking about right now?

        I ask HusbandLogic that ALL. THE. TIME. At first it made him nervous, but after I explained (and demonstrated) that I really just want to know what he’s thinking, because I cannot read minds, and that “nothing” or “rocks” or “Cyndi Lauper” are all equally cromulent answers, he just rolls with it.

        He’s even asked me once or twice. The answers I remember are “Bees. They’re just so… buzzy.” and “That porch looks really cool.”

        1. There’s a comic somewhere that does a great bit on this, where he asserts that he’s always thinking of the most ninja way to get out of any room/building into another one. It’s become a joke between my husband and I so now when one of us asks the other that question there’s lots of smoke bombs and repelling down buildings and very well timed sneaking involved.

      2. I stopped asking about numbers sometime when I was in college because I realized that the conversation just made both parties uncomfortable, and didn’t impart any useful information. I don’t think I was looking for affirmation of my specialness so much as trying to gauge the other person’s level of experience and comfort with sexuality, about which a mere number doesn’t say much. A person coming out of a long monogamous relationship with their first-ever partner may have had a far wider variety of experiences and may be more comfortable with his or her sexuality than someone with a higher number whose experiences have mostly been hazy drunken flings. Of course, the “ask for what you want” advice still stands. Once I realized I was curious about the types of experiences my partners had had, and that that curiosity was really about wanting to know what types of experiences my partners were seeking, I started asking about that.

        Oddly, I never really thought of Johnny Castle as a prostitute until just now. I knew his students were inviting him to their rooms and paying him more money for his company, but since it seemed like he wanted their affection much more than he wanted the money (though he did need it), I never put him in the “move prostitutes” file. The point being, Agency! It is complicated!

  4. I’ve enjoyed Brooke Magnanti’s (aka the former Belle de Jour’s) commentary on sex work and pornography. She’s certainly not a neutral observer, but she takes the time to defend and corroborate her arguments (sometimes with peer-reviewed citations, as she is a scientist); so it might be worthwhile for the LW to look over some of her work.

    Captain A, I basically agree 100% with the substance of your response, but I thought the “kiddo” remark was unnecessarily condescending and might be a little gentler. Even if we’re always learning, I don’t think growing older saves us from coming up against the disjuncture between abstract belief and concrete reality over and over again. Yes, it was a mistake for the LW to push him on this topic, and I agree “how many” is not a question we need to ask; but as you note in the comments, there are other areas of sexual history that we do need to ask about. I can imagine that, if someone got all strange and awkward in the course of a conversation about “sexual pasts”, it might feel like a red flag for someone in a new relationship, causing the LW to push a little harder than she might otherwise.

    Regardless, I’d still agree–give the guy a break, and listen to what he has to say. I imagine he was pretty young when all this happened. Youth isn’t an excuse for everything, but it’s context. Speaking of which, ending up in Southeast Asia while you’re in the military is NOT the same as true sex tourism, i.e. traveling there expressly for the purpose of buying yourself a good time, especially with the underaged.

    Best wishes to the LW and the sailor both.

  5. He wasn’t a sex tourist. He was a military guy on shore leave.

    You can still have problems with what he did and have legitimate questions about the whole business. I get that. But let’s acknowledge that there is a difference between him, and the hypothetical guy who buys a plane ticket and burns vacation time to go halfway around the world to get his rocks off doing stuff to girls that he can’t do at home.

    1. Agreed. You can still be skeeved out by the whole thing. It can still be a sketchy scene that you want no part of. But rather than worry about what could have happened, why not ask the person who was there what actually happened and make an informed decision?

  6. I agree with everyone else that you should absolutely ask him about the experiences. You definitely need to have a drawn out conversation where he can share his thoughts about why he did it repeatedly and where you can share your thoughts about men who purchase women’s bodies for sexual use.

    As the good captain said, there is no feminist cabal ready to scold you for dating the wrong type of man. The only question that matters is whether you can be happy with a man who believes he has a right to buy a woman and use her for his pleasure. A man who is also part of an organization that travels the world looking for people who are suspiciously non-white so they can kill them and destroy their countries. (Frankly, I’m not sure how being part of the military is different from Karen’s example of a guy who “buys a plane ticket and burns vacation time to go halfway around the world to get his rocks off doing stuff to girls that he can’t do at home.” What? You think they leave the violence on the battlefield?)

    I have an obvious bias, but for what it’s worth, I’ve also been there. My partner was in Asia, got drunk, and a young woman told him to follow her. He thought she was taking him to bed for him to sleep it off, but she ended up blowing him and then asked him for money. How much of this story is true? I have no idea, I only have his side of it. What I do know is that he told me as soon as he came back home to the US, and that it was the first time I saw him cry. He voluntarily quit drinking for about a year or so after that situation, and even now he rarely has more than a beer or two at a time. After about six months, I decided to break up with him because being with that kind of man was simply not in line with my feminist principles. He asked what he could do and I told him to make a substantial donation to a non-profit that supports sex workers in the country. It took another 3 months or so for him to save the money for the donation, but he was dedicated to doing something concrete and effective. We were together for about 3 years when it happened, and have been really happy together for another 6 years. His actions (always louder than words) showed me that he felt remorse and regret for it, and I trust that the story he told me is the truth.

    In my opinion, you should break up with him. You don’t have much a history with him, and it obviously bothers you. But again, this is between you, your feminism, and your expectations of love. In five years, which will you regret more? Missing out on a relationship with him, or knowing that you stayed with someone who has a sexual past that, in your words, makes your stomach turn?

    1. Wait, so you made him perform 3 months of Feminist Penance for his “crime”? (You are aware his story is total bullshit, btw. He just thought he was in one of those nice bars that provide free beds for their drunk patrons….)

      Also “whether you can be happy with a man who believes he has a right to buy a woman and use her for his pleasure”? Way to deny agency from all female sex workers in existence.

      1. Drive-by, you don’t know shit. What you read is an extremely skeletal outline of facts that have been slightly altered to protect my anonymity. You look like an idiot trying to make up details about a story that I know inside and out.

        Furthermore, I didn’t “make” him do anything. *He* wanted to stay in a relationship with *me*. The donation idea was essentially a Hail Mary pass that I didn’t expect (or, at the time, necessarily want) him to catch. If it was too much, he could have chosen not to do it. (Of course, you may need to be reminded that he’s not entitled to a relationship with me if I decide he’s not who I want anymore.)

        I acknowledge that he could still be lying to me about it. I doubt it, but it’s obviously possible. As far as I’m concerned, the donation along with the three months of living under austere measures suffices to counteract that possibility.

        Finally, I don’t deny agency from female sex workers. They have every right to do whatever they want to do. Selling is much, much different from buying. I support sex workers. I don’t support johns (unless, of course, the john is my Nigel).

        It seems to me that you’re confusing *my* relationship and *my* feminist values and *my* expectations of *my* partner with *your* relationship, feminist values, and expectations of a partner. It sounds like you would make a different decision. I don’t care.

        1. Okay, let’s everyone get back to the letter writer and her situation and stay focused on that.

          Her sailor-friend did this stuff BEFORE they were together. He didn’t cheat on her. Different animal than your experience, it sounds like. That must have been a hard story for you to hear.

          Second, I’m going to go back to what I said in my response to the letter writer: If we make it clear that men who have bought sex can never, never, ever talk about it and are completely untouchable and unacceptable, we aren’t going to make prostitution go away – we’re just going to make them lie about it and keep it underground. Underground = unsafe, no regulation, no legal or health safeguards for workers, more coercion. SOMEONE is paying for sex – someone’s dad, someone’s husband, someone’s brother, someone’s son, someone’s uncle or boss or grampa or teacher or soldier. Maybe mine. Maybe yours. We can’t talk about what is happening if we put everyone under pressure to pretend it’s not happening.

          Third, I wasn’t too thrilled with your comments about people in the military being the same as guys who go trolling for underage women to fuck. Not cool.

          Keep it civil, please, everyone.

          1. “Third, I wasn’t too thrilled with your comments about people in the military being the same as guys who go trolling for underage women to fuck.”

            It was inartfully put, but “Don’t date soldiers” and “Being a US soldier means you are a bad person” are perfectly legitimate, if fringe, points of view.

          2. I’m not a fan of current (or many past) US military adventures. Really not a fan.

            But I’m also not a fan of blanketly comparing soldiers to domestic abusers or child molesters on the website that I write, and while it may be a “valid-but-fringe” sort of argument, it’s not one that’s adding civility or sunshine to this discussion, so let’s cool it.

          3. “Frankly, I’m not sure how being part of the military is different from Karen’s example of a guy who “buys a plane ticket and burns vacation time to go halfway around the world to get his rocks off doing stuff to girls that he can’t do at home.” What? You think they leave the violence on the battlefield?”

            At the very least she was implying that all members of the military are violent abusers. Still not cool.

            By your standard, “Being fat means you are a bad person” and “Being gay means you are a bad person” are also perfectly legitimate, if fringe, points of view. However, all 3 POVs are not the kind of statements that are welcome here.

          4. Very true, I agree completely. Secrets are destructive. But it’s not my nor the letter writer’s obligation to be in relationships with those men. We have our own consciences to live with, just as they have theirs.

            The fact is that his sexual history turns her stomach. To put it another way: should he stay with someone who feels grossed out by his sexual history? That’s a pretty large issue upon which to lay the foundation a new relationship.

            Couple more things to think about:

            If she continues a relationship with him, she will end up at parties and social situations where people ask about where he was stationed. When he tells them he was all over SE Asia, some of those people are likely to make “jokes” about the prostitution there. How is she going to feel about those jokes knowing that the *real* joke is that he actually did it?

            After the Eliot Spitzer scandal, my friends asked me what I would do if my partner paid for use of a woman’s body. I had to come up with a way that answered the question honestly without violating his privacy or sharing too many intimate detail about our relationship. I was also in the position of either telling them that a man they respect *has* done that, or letting them continue to base their respect on the fact that they think he has *not* done it. Sure as shit gave me an different perspective on Silda Spitzer, that’s for sure.

            But as we’re saying, this is between her and her feminism. What does she think about the men who buy women? This is not about the *women* he bought, it’s about the fact that *he* bought them.

          5. You managed to work it out with a man who bought sex from a woman. Yes? Yes? He had some redeeming qualities? When you told him how it made you feel he understood it and took steps to deal with it so that you could be comfortable? Yes?

            I’m not saying the letter writer has to keep dating him or work ANYTHING out, I’m just saying “Ask him what happened so that you’re dealing with facts vs. worries and the worst case scenarios.”

          6. I knew my partner for years before he bought a woman, and it took me six months to realize that I wouldn’t be able to move past it. Not only was it not fair to me to be with someone I didn’t respect, it wasn’t fair to him to be with someone who didn’t respect him. At least, not until he did something concrete and effective to turn the situation into a tangible positive. Am I with a man who bought a woman? Yes, but I’m also with a man who made a substantial donation to help a lot of women and who has lived a pro-feminist life since then.

            (Speaking directly to the letter-writer.) As far as I gather, you’re still in the getting-to-know-you phase. Does he offer you something fantastic that balances the scale? Something that every time you think about it, your stomach flips right-side up? Could you tell your mother/sister/mentor what he did, and why it shouldn’t matter because he also did xyz which makes up for it? If you end up married and he wants you to stay home to raise your kids and rely on him for your economic security, how will you feel about that?

            Before you have a conversation with him, I suggest thinking about what he could say about what you would need to hear in order to put your mind at ease. If he was at a bar and got seduced by a woman offering comfort and company for the evening, can you work with that? If, as Intern Paul suggests, he was getting shit from his friends for being a virgin, is that okay? Would you be happy being with a man who lacks self-confidence to the extent that he can be bullied into having sex with someone, let alone buying a woman’s body?

          7. Could you tell your mother/sister/mentor what he did, and why it shouldn’t matter because he also did xyz which makes up for it?

            Holy slut shaming, Batman! I can’t imagine experiences this guy had in another country, in the past, before he and the LW got together, ever, ever, ever being the business of the LW’s family. If he does it again, if he gets arrested, if he contracts an STI and infects the LW, fine. She still doesn’t have to tell anyone she doesn’t want to about it and still deserves total respect and non-judgment from that person. I’ve had partners who freaked out about my past, and even just their perceptions of my sexual ethics, and I kicked them to the curb and I told them why. If my partner told his family about [example of thing I’ve done that I happen to have told him about that might freak some people out, which I am purposely not giving here cuz it ain’t your business any more than it is theirs] and I found out about it, he’d be history.

          8. Sexy Gay Jesus on a Pogo Stick, this is dead-on. “Could you tell your mom/sister/mentor/most judgmental family member your partner’s entire sexual history?” is not the gold standard.

            Also, WTF about staying home and raising kids while he supports her? How is that even relevant? You do raise some good questions in this and other comments, Feather Tips, and the Letter Writer commented below that she found your perspective helpful, but there is A LOT of projection running through these as well.

          9. No, I don’t expect anyone to call up their mother to tell them their partner’s sexual past. However, this shit comes up all the f’ing time in life, especially during a break-up.

            One friend told me after a years-long relationship ended that her ex had served time in juvenile detention for rape. She was 20 when she met him and he told her what happened after they were together for a few months. The main reason she stayed with him was because he was honest and upfront about it, and she didn’t think that she should “further punish” him by breaking up with him. And then a year passed, two more passed, a few more, and suddenly she realized that she hadn’t had an orgasm in four years. Then, during a rape scandal in our city, she noticed she was engaging in victim blaming and had basically become someone she hated so that she could handle having him as a boyfriend.

            I think a good thing to ask yourself in these situations is who you want to be in 5, 10, 15 years, and which choice will help or hinder you from becoming that person. At 21, I think the letter writer can do better for herself than becoming weighed down by someone who buys women’s bodies for his sexual use.

        2. Is it so unusual to be introspective about what kind of impact potential partners will have on your life and your self-perception? Or to call your mother/sister in a sobbing fit because you want to tell everyone all the horrible things your ex had ever done to anyone ever? You all are much better people than I hope I ever am.

          1. People do talk shit about their partners during a breakup or a bad period, and that’s to be expected. But sometimes the things you look back and go “Oh my god, I should have KNOWN he’d turn out to be a grade-A jackass, because when we first met blah blah blah” are not at all the things that were freaking you out early in your relationship. I’ve tolerated/overlooked lots of stuff my female friends would consider dealbreakers, and vice versa. You can’t set the LW’s comfort level or her values for her.

          2. It’s not unusual. Like I said, you’ve raised some good questions and have been helpful to the Letter Writer, but you’ve definitely been playing the part of the Stern Feminist Committee Who Is Very Sure About What the Letter Writer Should Do, even when you yourself made a different choice when it came down to your life and your relationships, so your tone isn’t always sitting well with me, because you seem to be very invested in getting her to lay down the law in a way that you ultimately didn’t – or maybe you did – but y’all worked through it…or something? So it keeps reading to me like “You should not be with Men Who Buy Women, Ever, though when My Man Bought Women, That Was Totally Special and We Talked It Through And He Changed.” No matter how you keep explaining it, that’s not sitting well, ok? It’s just not. Because my point is “You don’t have to decide anything, but maybe a good first step is to find out what happened and what he thinks about it.” I mean, is that totally crazy? Ask the person you are in the relationship how he feels about what went on and make a decision based on some information vs. the worst case scenario in your head?

            Anyway, it’s cool, we can disagree about some tonal stuff, that was very helpful to the LW, and your perspective is valuable and you raised good questions. Since she’s happy, I’m happy.

      2. What’s bothering me about this is it sounds like the woman might’ve blown him when he was not in a state to consent. Obviously I don’t know the case, but didn’t that ring any alarm bells for anyone else?

        1. It would explain why he was so upset, which makes the girlfriend’s anger at him pretty upsetting. It didn’t jump out at me at first because the whole story sounded fishy. Good (and very sad and disturbing) catch.

        2. Yeah, I noticed that too. Another reason to not be judgy or blamey. Like the Captain said, I think communication (or at least attempting communication) is an important first (next?) step in this situation.

        3. As I said, I know his story inside and out, and that’s not the case. But I apologize for writing it in a way that made it sound like that.

  7. Not a helpful response, but I just assumed that the sailor’s surprise was going to be that the two people he’d had sex with before her were guys, and he hadn’t realised he was attracted to women too till he met her….

    1. I’m kind of loving all these alternate versions of the sailor’s dark history.

      1. I’d like to imagine that he was a pirate. Not modern off-the-coast-of-Somalia pirate, but one of those old-school dudes who say “ARRRRR” and have parrots on their shoulders.

    2. That’s what I thought too. I also thought that he might have been a virgin and be making the previous encounters up.

    3. I was thinking was a bit of a combination of your take and k’s take. I somehow got it in my head that he would have been a rent boy that serviced men.

  8. In addition to knowing very little about the circumstances surrounding the sailor’s sexual history, it doesn’t sound like the letter writer has quite figured out what she really thinks about prostitution in the first place.

    She herself says she’s really torn about the politics of sex work. It kind of sounds like she maybe has a vague sense of what she’s “supposed” to think (in accordance, it seems, with the Jezebel School of Feminism), but she hasn’t sorted out what she actually thinks. And you can’t very well make a decision that’s consistent with your feminist principles if you’re not really sure what those principles are in the first place. Which isn’t to say, actually, that she has to make this a feminist decision at all. She could totally decide that she doesn’t care and she wants to be with this dude. But I think that there are two halves to the puzzle here – (1) What Actually Happened and (2) The Letter Writer’s Value Set. And it’s pretty much impossible to know what to do without having the facts on both.

  9. Intern Paul has an extremely valid point. I’ve been on six-month deployments to eastern Asia. In the Navy, on a boat with no women and a small crew. Upon leaving, it was quickly brought to everyone’s attention in my small division that one of the men was a 25-year-old virgin. I can’t even begin to explain the amount of pressure that he had to endure.

    It’s certainly a culture. I knew men in the military that were eager to go on deployments for this reason. Sometimes, the command would even almost endorse it. Nothing official, just off-hand comments about being safe when you do it. Because it’s expected that a lot of people are going to do it.

    But it’s certainly not something that people felt like they could talk about outside of private rooms on the boat.

  10. I am the “LW” and I truly just wanted to say Thank You to everyone for the insights. Since I cannot figure out how to directly quote so many individual posts, I just wanted to give shout-outs to some posters:

    Feather Tip, in your last post, thank you for giving me some valid questions to ponder; I appreciate your point of view and your sharing of your own experience. There are definitely many qualities about this young man (we are both 21) that make my stomach turn “rightside up”.

    Andrew, in submitting this question I had hoped to reach someone like you, who could provide an insider’s view of the Navy context, and be an informant of that culture. Your post helped in understanding it.

    Mejane, thank you for calling me out on substituting “what I think I am supposed to think” about sex work for what I actually do think– the latter being a giant haze of vacillating arguments, some just being contemplated for the first time as a result of this discussion.

    L., thank you for the link and the understanding that yes, red flags are worth investigating, especially when you are just getting to know someone and trying to decide what kind of relationship you want to pursue with that person.

  11. The nesting function isn’t really working, but I wanted to comment on this if it´s okay:

    “If she continues a relationship with him, she will end up at parties and social situations where people ask about where he was stationed. When he tells them he was all over SE Asia, some of those people are likely to make “jokes” about the prostitution there. How is she going to feel about those jokes knowing that the *real* joke is that he actually did it?”

    Look, these jokes are racist jokes. Really vicious racist jokes–ha ha, Asian women, they’re all prostitutes, ha ha, they sleep with white men for money, ha ha. (Really, they don’t intend any insult towards the white guys involved.) They’re not bad because they’re blue, or because they trivialize prostitution, but because they stereotype Asian women as whores.

    So you should react to them the same way you would react to other racist jokes: angrily! With extreme discomfort! With shame–on behalf of the jackass who made the racist joke!

    A given man’s history with prostitutes in Asia has no bearing whatsoever on whether these jokes are more or less racist and disgusting, because no incidence of prostitution in Asia could validate the stereotyping of Asian women as whores. And the LW is still totally free to take a strong independent moral stance on that. For that matter, so is her boyfriend.

  12. A bit late to the party, but your friendly, neighborhood HIV educator in here to post a tangential note: since nary a mention was made of whether or not the LW used protection during their hookup, or whether the sailor in question had used it with the sex workers… Well, I optimistically assume everyone totally absolutely did and everything is fine! But if that’s not the case, or if you (LW) don’t know if he used protection previously or not, an HIV test (and other STD tests, for that matter) might be in order. Heck, even if you do know and did use protection, they might be in order, just because that’s the sort of thing it’s good to know for sure by getting it checked out periodically.


  13. Having that much of a problem with the customers *is* having a problem with the workers! Someone buys a service from me, he doesn’t “buy my body for his use”. So a man purchases this service, PIV or oral sex or whatever (*once* according to FW) and all of a sudden it is never again ok for a feminist to have consensual, non-paid sex with him again? Holy shit! How can you say that you are fine with sex workers?! No you aren’t!

    LW If the guy paid a woman who wasn’t coerced and treated her well then he didn’t do anything wrong.

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