Recently, comedian Jim Norton, known for his crude talk and sexist comedy routines, wrote and article in Time called In Defense of Johns, in which he defends his right to pay women for sex acts. As a self-proclaimed expert, Norton writes, “I cannot even fathom a guess as to how much money — let alone time — I’ve spent on paid sex in the past 25 years.” I was interested in learning more from this “expert john,” especially because, in the same article, he confesses, “… the most shameful thing I can admit is this: I’m not really ashamed,” and says other men shouldn’t be either. While researching, I came across several blog posts defending Norton’s position. His defenders cite Norton’s position, calling it “consensual sex with adult women,” despite Norton’s own words to the contrary. Norton says, “When I first began soliciting sex for money, it never occurred to me that some of them are possibly forced into prostitution or have abusive pimps. I must have known it down deep on an intellectual level but hadn’t witnessed anything to confirm it. Until I did.”
Norton goes on to describe the night it did dawn on him. One night while soliciting sex, a pimp appeared and “bounced [the girl he was soliciting] across the hood of his car, and threw her in a van with a group of girls.” Norton said he was ignorant when “he first began,” but he has admittedly continued to buy sex, calling the money he spent the “equivalent of a Harvard Law School education,” for perhaps more than two decades.
Unfamiliar with Norton, and wanting to learn, I watched one of his more popular comedy shows. Norton took the stage to an enthusiastic audience and flashing lights, then opened with a confession that after sex with his long-time girlfriend, he had to remind himself, “not to hand her cash.”
Although extremely difficult to stomach – his one hour routine included derogatory remarks against African Americans, women, people with disabilities, gays, transgender people, Muslims, and others, all set to the backdrop of men and women bent over in laughter and ending with a standing ovation – I certainly learned a lot from this expert john.
During the show, Norton described himself as a “pervert” who became sexually active in the second grade, engaged in oral sex with other children, used both men and women in acts of prostitution, and preferred acts of violence and dominance. At one point, he remarked, “Yea, a lot of people say it’s rape…no,” he said while shaking his head and joking that, when he finished, he showed the person that the gun was fake. He also shared of a time when, at a family dinner with his girlfriend, he blurted out his desire to have sex with child-celebrity Dakota Fanning (age 13 at the time). These statements are in odd contrast to his article that claiming he feels “extraordinarily loving and close [to prostitutes].”
We don’t have to speculate about his feelings toward pimps and women involved in prostitution. During his routine, he said the uninspired, non-rhyming music of today’s rap industry would be improved if a “prostitute” walked onto the scene and said to her pimp, “You gelling?” And her pimp knocked out her teeth, saying, “Bitch, get back to pussy-selling.” Perhaps to stave off potential feelings of shame, Norton commends his audience for laughing at the “inappropriate one,” and instructs them to “not feel guilty.”
One of the most compelling portions of Norton’s show was his self-awareness - where he admitted that his “greatest insecurity” is sex. That seems to be an understatement. His attempts to convince listeners of his hyper-masculinity include statements like: In order for women to be called sex symbols, they “should have the decency to film [sex acts] and sell it,” like Paris Hilton did, “so the world can judge their worthiness.”
I hope you’ve heard enough to know that Jim Norton is no expert. Instead, he’s a case study of a sex buyer who affirms harmful attitudes and behaviors of some of the men who buy sex. His comedy takes the form of bullying: deliberately harming and humiliating others. He is a sad, hurt, insecure man who uses the stage and his dollars to gain a sense of acceptance and approval. He is not a man who knows the facts about the harm of prostitution or it’s legalization.
In this context, it makes sense that he feels no shame. He lacks empathy, or his empathy seems to have atrophied in order to serve his greater desire to be worshipped and accepted by others. What doesn’t make sense is while Norton delivers these demeaning and crushing statements, cameras pan the audience to find men and women, bent over in laughter, clapping and cheering with no sense of reservation or regret. What they may not know is that, not only are they standing in defense of johns, but are standing with racism, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry. Knowing that, are they still laughing?