The Men who Buy Women for Sex
“Why do newspaper articles about the sex industry almost always feature a picture of a woman as if prostitution were a buyerless transaction?”
This question was posed by The Economist‘s Simon Hedlin in 2015. Hedlin’s comment points to just how effective attempts by the sex industry to obscure the realities of prostitution have been. In an industry fuelled by male demand, the sex buyers have all but disappeared from the equation.
The pro-sex lobby goes to great lengths to reframe the purchase of female flesh by men not as exploitation and abuse, but as an exercise in women’s choice and autonomy. It doesn’t ask why men purchase economically disadvantaged women and girls for sexual exploitation, or examine why male buyers do what they wish with women’s bodies. Instead, we often see clients painted as respectful and simply seeking female companionship.
Radical feminist activist and writer Samantha Berg points out that, “People quibble over what percentage of prostitutes ‘choose’ it while ignoring that 100 per cent of johns choose prostitution.”
It is primarily men buying mainly women and children. According to Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, in the 15 years since buying sex has been criminalised in Sweden, in 1999, police have not detected a single woman paying for sex.
While the media tends to depict lonely and often disabled men as looking for companionship through prostitution, or even just someone to talk to, a major international study – “Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don’t Buy Sex” – debunks these myths and finds that over half of the buyers are already married or inde factorelationships. One exited woman in Canada shared her insights on why men in committed intimate relationships purchase sex. Speaking to Sun News Network,she said:
“I spent 15 years servicing men and allowing them to use me any way they saw fit. I’ve had clients confess that the things they paid me to do were things they would never ask their wives, whom they respected, or their ‘child’s mother’ to do.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study reveals that men who pay to sexually exploit women are aware of the harms they do. It found that, “Two thirds of both the sex buyers and the non-sex buyers observed that a majority of women are lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution,” and that, “41% … of the sex buyers used women who they knew were controlled by pimps at the time they used her.” This awareness, however, did not stop them: “The knowledge that women have been exploited, coerced, pimped or trafficked failed to deter sex buyers from buying sex.”
While knowledge of harm done to women in prostitution was not a sufficient deterrent for the men surveyed, they did agree that the most effective deterrent to buying sex would be being placed on a sex offender registry, being exposed in public, or having to pay significant fines and go to jail.
Sex buyers tend to regard the women they buy as less than human, and as solely existing for their sexual use and enjoyment. Men who purchase sex are quite open about their belief that their entitlement to sex should take precedence over the wellbeing of the women they buy. Sex buyers express contempt for the prostituted women they use, both in research studies and on customer review websites, where they detail and rank the “services” of the women they buy. Common themes emerge among these candid reviews.
One theme is that sex buyers regard the women they buy as mere objects for sexual gratification. The online Canadian Invisible Men Project, which collates postings made by sex buyers on prostitution review websites, records buyers as making comments about individual women such as, “She’s a sad waste of good girl flesh,” and, “If you want an attractive receptacle for your semen she will do.”
At the same time that buyers appear to despise the women they buy, they require of these women absolute compliance and submission to sex acts demanded of them. Sex buyers have been recorded in The Guardiannewspaper as expressing opinions such as, “I don’t want them to get any pleasure. I am paying for it and it is her job to give me pleasure. If she enjoys it I would feel cheated.” In her 2007 book Making Sex Work, Mary Lucille Sullivan writes that:
“The [sex] buyer’s economic power means he determines how the sexual act will be played out. Buyers believe their purchasing power entitles them to demand any type of sex they want.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study crucially finds that, in the system of prostitution, sex buyers are motivated by the opportunity to control and dominate a woman so that they can perform degrading sex acts against her that female partners would refuse.Farley and colleagues recorded statements from buyers such as, “If my fiancee won’t give me anal, I know someone who will,” and, “You get to treat a ho like a ho … you can find a ho for any type of need – slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do – you won’t do stuff to your girlfriend that will make her lose her self esteem.”
This sense of entitlement to treat prostituted women worse than girlfriends does not change even when buyers realise the women they are buying are unwilling participants. The Invisible Men Project documents sex buyers as expressing opinionssuch as: “I wish she had loosened up or pretended to be into it more. She grimaced as I came on her which was a turn off … Would recommend for those interested in ethnic girls, big boobs … just wish she’d lighten up a bit.” And: “She had the gagging expression on her face … again she just lay there and complained about it hurting.”
Perhaps worse still, sex buyers are able to recognise signs of trafficking among the women they use, but this awareness appears to be no impediment to their behaviour. The Australian prostitution review website Punter Planet features a posting by a buyer expressing the sentiment that: “the sex … was the best part as Hana was tight and able to take instuctions [sic] well. Her English is non existant [sic] in April but may be better now. Lucky for me i was able to converse in some Korean with her.”
Psychologist Melissa Farley and her colleagues have conducted years of research into men who buy women for prostitution and their motivations. The factors driving men to become “customers” of the sex industry aren’t too different from those leading them to become rapists. Just like rapists, prostitution buyers are disproportionately pornography users, they resent women’s refusal to do things they want them to do (such as sex acts), and they see their sexual behaviour as not particularly harmful of others.
This self-interested, self-centred approach to others and society manifests itself in the worst behaviours of male sexual entitlement, but it is an entitlement shared by most men, even if each individual man doesn’t buy a woman for prostitution or target a woman for rape.
Pornography users might be understood as coming a step closer to this extreme model of male sexual entitlement, which is concerning if we think about the currently high rates of pornography consumption by men all over the world. The expectation that women will comply with men’s desire to re-enact sex acts they’ve seen in pornography, and some men’s willingness to buy women in prostitution if their girlfriends refuse to submit to pornographic sex acts, shows an escalation in the power of male sexual entitlement which is being fuelled by the global sex industry.
More than any group, prostituted women know about the sexual violence against women and girls that is escalating as a result of the global sex industry.
It is a difficult fact to confront that sex buyers are more concerned with the quality of the “sexual service” they receive than the fact that women they pay to exploit are not there by choice and are gravely harmed by being prostituted. As long as men prioritise their perceived right to the bodies of impoverished women and girls over women’s basic human rights in this way, the prostitution industry will continue to thrive. It is only when men are held accountable for their abuse of women in the sex trade that we will see meaningful progress.
Caitlin Roper is an activist and campaigns manager for grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation. This article is adapted from her chapter in Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.