Male Sex Buyers and Their Disturbing Attitudes about the Rights of Prostitutes
A couple of weeks ago Newsweek published a story on prostitution based on a study on the attitudes of men who buy sex. The study was conducted by a clinical psychologist named Melissa Farley who is, frankly, anti-sex work in any form. Newsweek describes her as someone who sees prostitution as, “inherently harmful,” and something that should be abolished completely. For many women prostitution is not a really a choice so much as a desperate response to unfortunate circumstances, and it can indeed be very harmful, but not all sex workers are forced into their position and treating all forms of sex work as wrong denies the agency of many women, some of whom do choose sex work because they enjoy it. While her attitudes do come from a position of concern for victimized women, Farley’s views are somewhat extreme and they show in the design of the study in ways that, I think, hamper its impact.
The study relied on interviews of approximately 100 Boston men who admitted to purchasing a sex act from a prostitute, escort, or massage parlor worker, or to trading something of value for a sex act. The men were interviewed about their attitudes toward sex workers and women in general. The study also included a control group of 100 men who were defined as non-sex buyers. It’s in the definition of this group that the underlying bias of the researchers is most obvious. Men were considered non-sex buyers if they had not exchanged goods or money for a sex act. But they were also required to not have purchased phone sex, not been to a strip club more than once in the past year, not purchased a lap dance (presumably ever, though it’s not clear from the paper), and not viewed pornography more than once in the past week. Not surprisingly, the researchers had difficulty finding men who fell under this category, and in fact the definition had to be relaxed somewhat to find even 100 men (the authors don’t mention what the original definition was, but they do state that they assumed it wouldn’t be that hard to find men who watched porn infrequently, so it would seem that porn use was at least initially considered to be a form of buying sex).
I know plenty of men who aren’t that into strip clubs and wouldn’t ever think to buy phone sex in this day and age, but I know very few who watch pornography less than once a week. Hell, I know plenty of women who watch more than that. And defining regular use of pornography as purchasing sex when there are so many free sites (many of them featuring people who aren’t getting paid to have sex on camera) and numerous torrent programs for downloading things that you haven’t necessarily paid for is a little misleading. Most of the men I know don’t actually purchase the porn they watch. Sure, they probably would spend at least a little if they couldn’t get it for free, but it’s not so straightforward to say that watching porn is a form of purchasing sex, and the majority of people, as well as society in general, don’t judge porn consumption as being on the same level as paying prostitutes.
The men were between the ages of 20 and 75 (mean 41). The two groups were both composed of men with a broad range of education and income. There did not appear to be any correlation between education and sex purchasing, but the largest group of men who purchased sex had incomes between 20,000 and 40,000. The men did, however, differ in their views about women and while I think the study design is flawed the results are still interesting. Men in the sex-buyer category were more likely than those in the non-buyer category to consider prostitution consensual sex (62% vs 37%). Disturbingly, a good portion of the men who purchased sex believed that the women they were sleeping with did not actively choose prostitution but were forced into it by circumstances or chose it as a result of a history of abuse and violence, but they didn’t let that stop them from exploiting these women. 66% of buyers acknowledged that they believed the women were, “lured, tricked, or trafficked,” into prostituion. A large number of men - 37% of buyers and 21% of non - believed that prostitutes were obligated to do whatever the customer wanted once they’d been paid. That’s a deeply disturbing attitude about the humanity and rights of prostitutes and the numbers are large enough to be unsettling. Both sex buyer and non-sex buyers (despite their infrequent use) indicated in large numbers that they used pornography to learn about sex (74% and 54% respectively). That’s not great news, since most pornographic sex is not safe sex nor is it designed to be physically pleasurable for the actors. Porn sex is meant to look good, not feel good. Sex buyers in general had self-serving attitudes towards women in prostitution. They tended to believe that prostitution had no adverse psychological effects on women and to believe that the women were enjoying the sex. They also were more likely to believe that prostitutes were “different,” than other women, and as being, “ethically or morally deficient,” beliefs that they no doubt used to justify their behavior to these women.
The men interviewed for these study who purchased sex did not have healthy attitudes toward sexuality or women, which will probably not be a surprise to most of you. The Newsweek article is spinning this to make it look like the majority of men are in fact sex-buyers, but the inclusion of frequent pornography use makes this conclusion seem a little extreme. This study doesn’t actually imply that most men purchase sex - it doesn’t attempt to determine the percentage of men overall who purchase sex, just the attitudes of those who do - but the definition of non-sex buyer used is misleading and implies that most men do buy sex, at least on the level of porn. As sex industries go, pornography is actually one of the better regulated ones and one of the safest, and a good portion of the porn viewed today does not feature paid actors but rather amateurs who choose to share their sex lives with strangers for no monetary gain. Most reasonable people would agree that porn can be a healthy part of a normal sex life and while some might argue that the performers are being exploited, it’s not really up to us to decide that porn actors aren’t capable of making an informed choice about their line of work. In a perfect world, no one would be put in a position where they were forced into sex work or felt they had to engage in sex work to survive. But even in such a world, it’s likely that at least some women would choose such work anyway, because they genuinely enjoy it.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.
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