By Tanda Gmiter
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved. Used with permission

His friends would tell you he’s an ideal father and a good provider. He has a loving relationship with his wife, and is well-liked at work.

He’s also a sex addict. He delves into Internet pornography sites when his wife and children aren’t watching, and he has paid prostitutes to perform sex acts.

“He could be your neighbor,” said Bob Baird, a clinical psychologist who runs a sexual self-control program for Human Resource Associates in Grand Rapids. The thumbnail sketch he offered reflects one of his recent clients.

A large number of the men he sees are being treated for sexual addictions and sexually compulsive behavior.

It’s a side of life that’s getting a lot of attention lately in West Michigan.

Kent County’s trial in the slaying of millionaire developer Robert Fryling, who secretly frequented hookers and was allegedly gunned down by a pimp, has cast a spotlight on prostitutes and their johns.

A recent prostitution sting that netted two law-enforcement officers, and revelations that police had questioned both in the past for being with suspected prostitutes, have only intensified the spotlight.

That sting was part of stepped-up efforts by police to round up johns as well as the women working the streets.

In some parts of the country, police departments use Web sites and billboards to publish names of people arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Grand Rapids officials considered doing something similar, though the proposal never was adopted. Still, since 2000, more than 250 johns have been arrested by Grand Rapids police. One undercover sting on South Division Avenue last summer netted 54 men in a few hours.

‘A Little Bit of Everybody’

The faces behind the numbers show that these men can’t be wedged into a particular mold. They represent a slice of West Michigan. They are old and young, encompassing all races, income levels and professions. They are accountants, business owners, factory workers and attorneys. One former vice officer said each sting he ran caught at least one clergy member.

“It’s a little bit of everybody,” said Grand Rapids police Lt. Mike Johns, who oversees the vice unit. “We’ve had a guy driving his older dad around trying to pick up a hooker. We get guys cruising on stag parties. We’ve had the guys that wanted the girlfriend or wife to pick up someone for a threesome.”

If there is a distinction, it’s the cash in a john’s pocket. Men with money to spare can more easily buy what they want.

“I think the reality points toward more middle class and upper-middle class, if we are going to point to stereotypes,” said Randy Flood, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill in Grand Rapids. The center offers counseling and treatment programs for men who have been involved in prostitution, extramarital affairs and sex addiction.

“An attorney can spend $200 sexually acting out that evening and can easily hide that from his partner, whereas a person making $10,000 a year can spend $100 and his wife might know,” Flood said.

What motivates men to seek out prostitutes is as varied as their backgrounds.

Some are what counselors describe as “socially marginalized,” meaning they have a difficult time establishing meaningful relationships. Others are looking for sex without emotional involvement, or want to engage in activities frowned upon by their wives and girlfriends, Baird said.

While a lot is known about the local prostitution scene, questions remain about what makes johns tick.

“There is a tendency in society to want simple explanations for complicated situations,” said Anton Tolman, an assistant professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University and clinical and forensic psychologist.

“There are hundreds of studies done on prostitutes and there are literally a handful of studies done on the clients of prostitutes. There is an enormous disparity between the two.”

Studies have shown two distinct groups of johns: men who equate sex with a prostitute as an intimate situation, and the thrill-seekers who like the variety of something new in each encounter.

Flood said this feeling of excitement, even euphoria, that johns get while cruising for a prostitute is heightened by the underlying idea that they might get caught. The more a person isn’t supposed to fit this type of behavior, the more it might appeal to them.

“If you are conservative and live a life of convention, it can be quite thrilling and exhilarating and liberating to be acting out in such a manner,” Flood said.

Even law enforcement officers have been convicted of prostitution-related offenses. In 1996, a former Grand Rapids Police officer was sentenced to 90 days in jail after pleading no contest to misdemeanor soliciting and accosting. He was accused of ordering a “known prostitute” to perform a sex act in his police cruiser. He resigned. That same year, a fellow department officer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor solicitation and was sentenced to fines and costs or 10 days in jail. That officer was accused of soliciting a prostitute while off duty and trying to rob her. He was fired.

Often the draw to prostitutes is their status as forbidden fruit, said James Houston, director of GVSU’s School of Criminal Justice. Houston said that fruit could be drugs, stolen property or prostitutes.

“Over the years, my observation is we are a bunch of risk-takers,” said Houston, who worked in the corrections field for years before turning to teaching. Flirting with the possibility of being detected could make the misstep more attractive, he said.

But therapists believe sex addiction is behind many people’s interaction with prostitutes. While no statistics are available, therapists say the number of local johns who are addicts is larger than most people realize.

“Sex addiction is a concept many people have difficulty in accepting,” Baird said, adding the community perceives it as a moral and spiritual failure.

“If you can think of sexual addiction in terms of other addictions, it’s very parallel. Some people chronically use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, to deaden the pain of rejection and loneliness. Sex addicts do the same thing.”

It’s similar to chemical dependence, except that the chemicals aren’t ingested. The men are addicted to the chemical structure that occurs in their bodies, Baird said.

“Sex addicts are so chronically sexual that their bodies after a while only feel normal when they are in that state of arousal, and the body continues to crave that chemical. Someone today could be anticipating looking for prostitutes later this week.”

Sex can be a progressive addiction, the counselors said. Just as an alcoholic may start drinking beer and graduate to hard liquor, a sex addict may start by looking at adult magazines, then move to pornography videos and strip clubs.

“Then, perhaps for some, it moves to an actual sexual encounter,” Baird said. “They need greater and greater sexual novelty to achieve the rate of sexual arousal that they once did.”

According to court testimony, at least one woman who performed sex acts for Robert Fryling described the 65-year-old construction company owner as a sex addict.

Fryling was shot to death in his Cascade Township home in 1993. The accused triggerman is Pietro Terrell, a pimp whose prostitutes had regular “dates” with Fryling, according to witness statements.

A string of prostitutes and masseuses have testified to the secret life Fryling led for more than a decade.

In a written statement to investigators, the family counselor who had worked with Fryling and his wife described Fryling as having sociopathic behavior that allowed him to break the rules without guilt or remorse. Left unchecked, this type of behavior becomes increasingly obsessive, and requires more risk-taking to achieve a thrill, the counselor said.

If sexual addiction is ever to be brought out of the dark and addressed by the community, Baird said, people first have to understand what it is. It’s only then that more men will feel comfortable seeking treatment.

“I think we have to question the validity that male customers use prostitutes just for sex. For many of them, they’re doing it because they are hooked,” Baird said.

Some addicts seek help at the urging of their wives or families. Others are court-ordered into treatment programs after they are convicted of soliciting.

Facing the Problem of Sexual Addiction

More than 500 men have been ordered to attend the John Group run by Grand Rapids District Court’s probation department. They’ve all been convicted of soliciting prostitutes. Many have paid more than $500 in fines and court costs, and been sentenced to community service. A few have had their cars immobilized, too.

The group’s purpose is to offer counseling and educate the men about the system of prostitution, said Cindy Sikkema, a probation officer who helps run the program.

The men are divided into small groups. They meet once a week for five weeks. At the first meeting, many men are angry about being there, Sikkema said. Some believe they were set up for arrest; others don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

“Certainly they go away with a much better understanding that this is not a victimless crime,” Sikkema said.

Whether it’s a court-ordered session or a voluntary treatment group, a turning point for many johns is hearing from a former prostitute, counselors said.

When they hear a woman discuss her childhood scarred by abuse, the history of drug addiction and domestic violence, a prostitute then becomes a person, not just an object.

“A lot of these men are churchgoing fathers and husbands who are doing a lot of humanitarian activities in the community,” Flood said. “They suddenly develop some empathy for that person as a human being and it makes it more difficult for them to use that person as an object. It’s such an important part of their treatment.”