I sat with a man named Jeffrey who had been arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution. He is one of the tens of thousands of Seattle’s johns. In our first session together, Jeffrey remarked, “Friday afternoons are always the most difficult for me to control myself. I am not sure why, but it usually turns out to be the day I end up with a prostitute or an escort. ” Buyers of sex tend to be addressed at this point through a moral framework, which is largely ineffective from a treatment standpoint because it fails to explore how the johns’ current behaviors serve as a map to help us understand the geography of their past. For example, an often overlooked point about the Somali pirates who are now notorious for terrorizing ships off their coast is that they used to be fishermen until their waters were stolen by foreign fishing vessels (the U.N. estimates almost $300 million dollars worth of seafood is stolen each year from their coastline). We look to the past not to find excuses for reprehensible behavior, but because narrative holds the key to unlocking destructive patterns and implementing all future change.
I asked Jeffrey what Friday afternoons have meant for him historically. “Like in childhood?” Jeffrey asked. I nodded my head in agreement. “Well, my mom would usually leave my older brother and I home alone on the weekends because she needed to work her second job -we were dirt poor. My brother would be stoned out of his mind and I don’t know, I usually just rode my bike around the neighborhood. I remember cruising through my neighborhood trying to find girls that I knew from middle school. I would ride around for hours, even after it got dark, just to see if I could get ‘that look’ from a classmate.” Twenty years later, Jeffrey’s Friday afternoon ritual, unbeknownst to him, was essentially the same. The mountain bike became an SUV and a mother with a second job was now a spouse whose job at a concert venue required her to work weekends.
At the end of our first session, it was apparent that Jeffrey’s getaway vehicle from the loneliness and anger of a painful childhood had become the very vehicle that was now driving him into a life of crisis. This is often the case with our addictions; the activities and behaviors that help us survive our formative exiles tend to lead us into slavery or relational conflict later in life. The faces he sought out in middle school which brought him a sense of validation and even rest were now costing him over $40,000 a year when we added up all of the expenses associated with buying sex.
The word sex is taken from the Latin word secare meaning to sever, to amputate, or to disconnect from the whole. Sex then is the awareness of how severed we are from one another and the way we go about reconnecting. This perspective echoes back to the language of Genesis 2 where God says, “it is not good for man to be alone.” A few verses later, in one of the most comical portions of Scripture, Adam is watching the entire created world copulate, but “finds no one suitable for him.” The one thing that is not good prior to the entrance of sin is that man is alone. The way Adam’s aloneness is rescued is through the creation and presence of Eve.
It could be said then that the goodness of sex gives us the experience with our beloved of finding ourselves less severed, less amputated and less disconnected from our fragmented world. Sexual sin or perverse sexual behavior on the other hand exists to the degree to which an individual consciously or unconsciously experiences secare but then requires or uses another human being or created thing as the object of their lust and anger. Those who are sexually exploited or trafficked in this scenario experience what it means to be more severed, more amputated, and more disconnected from their humanity and status in the community. The complexity however is that even the one who has sinned is still seeking a form of goodness – to be less stressed, less alone, less burdened, more alive, more in control and more connected to another. The irony of sexual addiction or compulsive sexual behavior is that it is actually against sex and therefore cannot give us the experience of what erotic love is intended to offer.
The biggest biblical idea about sin is that it is an intruder and therefore once in the world, the only way for it to survive is to become a parasite of goodness. Think this over. The intelligence of a pimp or trafficker came from God. The physical power and even the manipulative kindness used by a pimp toward a teenage runaway comes from the gift of good health and the mind to see vulnerability. In every childhood story we read, the villain could not be an evil genius without being a genius. Nothing about sin is created ex nihilo – out of nothing; all its power is trafficked from goodness. “Goodness” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”
Evil needs good to be evil. Through this lens, johns or sex buyers would be seen as under the domain of evil, which seeks to traffic their longings for legitimate experiences and convert them into coercive and demeaning desires. The outcome is that johns experience alienation in their shame and guilt for buying sex, which leads them to buy more sex, all the while increasing the excruciating alienation and trauma of the women (and men) whose bodies are purchased. The compounding interest evil earns through sexual harm makes it the most profitable enterprise of all time.
In my work as a pastor and psychotherapist, the razor edge I must walk with people who come into my office is over the slickest terrain on this earth; the place where the origins and motivations of their addictions reveal a goodness so stunning it has taken my breath away and simultaneously where we discover that the harm many of these johns have experienced in childhood was orchestrated by a perverse, yet brilliant conductor who used the goodness and desire of these boys to seemingly implicate them in their own abuse. These dynamics are not easily understood for there is far too much complexity. What I know to be true however is that it takes guilt for men like Jeffrey to understand the failures of their sexual behavior, but it takes dignity for them to discover their goodness, no matter how spoiled. The problem is that our society thirsts far more for stories of failure than it hungers for redemption.
Working with men who buy sex over the years has solidified for me the notion that we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against the very rulers and powers of this dark world. This in no way excuses the behavior of johns, but it does provide us with a more efficacious framework to engage these men. This framework matters because if we desire to work for a better world, we must learn new ways of addressing and understanding the men who are responsible for so much if its harm. The initial steps we can take towards this end are found in the paradox of sexual sin that I have attempted to underscore – that evil must hijack dignity and beauty in order to be successful. If this is true, the question becomes, will we have eyes to see not only women in prostitution, but also the buyers of sex as the faces of those who are trafficked through the economy of evil?
Part 2 of this series will address how power and control dominate the lives of men who buy sex.
Jay Stringer is a licensed mental health counselor and a soon-to-be ordained pastor. Stringer holds an MDiv and a master of counseling psychology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He is a psychotherapist and a lecturer on sexual addiction for the City of Seattle’s john school, a program for men who have been arrested for soliciting women in prostitution. Jay is a Fellow at the Allender Center and a cofounder of Awake Church, a neighborhood-centered community in the heart of Seattle. He is married to Heather Stringer, who is also a therapist. They welcomed their first child, Amos, into the world in March 2013.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Double Day, 1999), 193.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (repr., New York: Macmillan, 1977), 49.
 This idea is taken from Dan Allender who says that evil receives a staggering ROI (return on investment) from sexual abuse.