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
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?