“I honestly believe it stops rape,” Benjamin told me. “It allows men to let off steam and have our natural urges met.” Benjamin was talking about the benefits of prostitution. It is good for women, he argued, because rather than rape, men can have sex how and when they want by paying for it with a prostituted woman. For men, it ensures their needs are met. In Benjamin’s view, everyone is happy.
But his assertions are as far from the reality of the sex trade as possible. Men are not programmed to rape if they cannot get immediate access to sex, and there is no such thing as a “right” to sex. “When men claim that prostitution reduces rape,” sex trade survivor Fiona Broadfoot says, “What they really mean is that it is OK to rape prostituted women, which is how we experience sex with johns. Prostitution is rape.”
Over the past two decades, I have interviewed scores of men who pay for sex—in legal brothels and illegal massage parlors, and on the street. I have heard every justification from these men, including one about helping women feed their kids with the money exchanged for sex. Although prostitution—both buying and selling sex—is illegal across most of the U.S., very few sex buyers are ever arrested. Prostituted women, however, are heavily and unjustly criminalized, despite evidence that the vast majority are coerced and exploited into the sex trade
Nevada is the one state in which prostitution—including pimping, brothel owning and sex buying—is legalized. It is allowed in only seven of its counties, but research into the Nevada sex trade shows that legalization has resulted in prostitution becoming normalized across the entire state. The majority of visitors to Las Vegas believe that prostitution is completely legal in the city. That allows men to easily justify paying for sex.
With debate currently raging in Nevada about whether or not to close its legal brothels, and pro-prostitution lobbyists in New York City now pushing for its sex trade to be decriminalized, it is imperative that the focus shifts from the women selling sex to the men who drive the demand.
That is why recently published research on men who pay for sex, by Demand Abolition (DA), a U.S. group that campaigns against sexual exploitation, is both timely and vital.
Its research shows that the majority of men in the U.S. choose not to pay for sex, but that the “creeping normalization” of the sex trade leads to a prevailing view that prostitution is a victimless crime. And in countries and states with legalized prostitution, rates of sex trafficking increase.
The DA research is based on the behavior and attitudes of johns. More than 8,000 adult men across the U.S. were interviewed, and a number of sex-trade survivors were asked to give their views on the research and make recommendations for change. One survivor involved in the research is Marian Hatcher. Hatcher, a victim advocate in the anti-trafficking division of Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff’s Office, was one of the peer reviewers.
“The report benefits survivors by acknowledging [that] the unequal playing field needs to be leveled, holding buyers accountable,” Hatcher says. “It provides victims and exited abolitionist sex-trade survivors [with] hope, hope that they will live in a society that provides exit opportunities and educates would-be buyers of the harms. I would like to see the policy recommendations in the report applied to both the illegal and legal sex trade. You cannot adequately impact one without the other. Together they promote the commodification of human beings, promoting violence against women and girls.
The DA interviews focused on “push factors” (why men pay for sex) and potential deterrents. The group considers the act of paying for sex harmful, both to the women who are exploited and to wider society, because a global culture of misogyny is on the side of the john. There are some universal similarities about men who pay for sex. Research I conducted with Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and coordinator of the California nongovernmental organization Prostitution, Research & Education, found that among U.K. johns, one key push factor was peer pressure from other men, within the culture of acceptance that surrounds prostitution.
The U.K. research concluded that even the lightest of deterrents, such as the threat of arrest, the risk of family members or employers being informed of johns’ actions, or details being added to a police database, can be effective. Aside from entrenched buyers, such deterrents would usually make men think twice about paying for sex.
The DA findings tell us that only about 6% of American men who pay for sex (outside the legal zones in Nevada) report having been arrested for it. When buyers perceive that risk, it could lead them to alter their activities. About one-quarter of buyers “strongly agree” that “the risk of arrest is so high I might stop.”
The DA research found that what the group referred to as “high-frequency” buyers account for a disproportionately large share of the illegal sex trade. Around one quarter of active johns report paying for sex weekly or monthly, and these transactions account for almost three-quarters of the market. These buyers are more likely to have started at a young age, with the help or encouragement of others in their social networks.
There is a lot of money involved in the sex trade, with much of it going to pimps, brothel owners and drug dealers. On average, American sex buyers spend more than $100 per transaction. Prostitution generates vast profits—estimated at $1 billion a year in the U.K. and $186 billion globally. It is capitalism at its most ruthless and predatory, with human beings as the products.
How is it, then, that so many men consider the pinnacle of women’s freedom as being penetrated by multiple male strangers? And why have so many leftist individuals and organizations, such as the International Labour Organization and Amnesty International, adopted the pro-prostitution line?
These so-called human rights organizations take the “sex work is work” line, despite the adoption of the Nordic Model, or, as it is increasingly referred to, the Abolitionist Model, by Sweden, Norway, Finland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Israel and France. Under this approach, prostituted people are decriminalized and given assistance in exiting the sex trade, but the buyers are criminalized. Although there is significant and growing support for the Abolitionist Model, those who believe in the inalienable right of men to buy sex consider it an abomination. When the law was being debated in France in 2013, a group of high-profile French intellectuals signed a petition that stated: “Some of us have gone, go, or will go to prostitutes—and we are not even ashamed.” They added, “Everyone should be free to sell their charms, and even to love doing it.”
A recent op-ed in Teen Vogue by a South African doctor, titled “Why Sex Work Is Real Work,” made the claim that “[t]he clients who seek sex workers vary, and they’re not just men. The idea of purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people who need human connection, friendship, and emotional support. Some people may have fantasies and kink preferences that they are able to fulfill with the services of a sex worker.” Aside from the disgrace of a publication aimed at girls and young women promoting commercial sexual exploitation as a viable career option, such propaganda perpetuates feelings of male sexual entitlement.
The continued existence of the sex trade relies on misogyny, class prejudice, racism, colonialism and imperialism. “If leftists can’t see how harmful the sex trade is to women,” says Bridget Perrier, a Native Canadian survivor, “you would think they would give a damn about the racism and colonialism it is built upon.”
Many of the 50 sex-trade survivors with whom I spent time while researching my book on the global sex trade, “The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth,” told me about the racism, bigotry and prejudice they faced as women of color. Indeed, many black sex-trade survivors link their prostitution experience to that of slavery. Vednita Carter, an African American sex-trade abolitionist, says, “The slave-trade era is where sex trafficking began for African American women. Even after slaves were free, black women and girls were still being bought and sold. Today, there are too many poor urban areas that middle-class men drive through for the sole purpose of finding a woman or girl of color to buy or use.”
In the U.S., prostituted women are disproportionately young African Americans and other women of color. One john I interviewed in a legal Nevada brothel told me that the main reason he paid for sex was so he could “try out different colors of chicks without dating them.”
“I’m not going to take a black or Latino to meet my folks,” he told me, “but they sure are hot to fuck.”
According to the DA research, buyers and non-buyers hold strikingly different views on masculinity and sex buying. Non-buyers are much more likely than buyers to say that purchasing someone for sex involves treating females as objects, and that those actions exploit others. Active buyers are very likely to say they are “just guys being guys” or “taking care of their needs.” But the research also found that many men who have bought sex in the past wish to stop. About one-third of active buyers interviewed said that they do not want to do it again.
Nevertheless, the strongest support for legalizing the U.S. sex trade, aside from the pimps and brothel owners, comes from buyers.
Many active buyers believe that the women “enjoy the act of prostitution” and “choose it as a profession.” During a recent trip to Amsterdam, I met a young man in the notorious window brothel area who told me he had first paid for sex when he was 12. “My father took me to a brothel, and said I would learn to be a man,” he told me. “It is legal here, so there is no problem.”
Prostitution is, in fact, fraught with danger. A review of homicides of women in street prostitution found that they are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than other women. Johns and pimps are the main perpetrators of homicide and other violent crimes toward prostituted women—in 2017, between 57% and 100 percent of homicides of prostituted women in the U.S. were committed by sex buyers.
Research by Farley has found that men’s acceptance of prostitution helps to encourage and justify violence against women; DA research reached a similar conclusion. When men feel entitled to rent the inside of a woman’s body for one-sided sexual pleasure knowing that she is consenting because of the cash, it is no wonder that these men consider women to be subservient to them—an attitude that breeds contempt.
“Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoever he wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with,” one john told me. I have heard countless men describe the act of prostitution as masturbation without the effort.
The DA report concludes with recommendations that are endorsed by the sex-trade survivors who helped analyze the findings. One is to roll out public education messages that challenge the normalization of sex buying, and to focus on education and public health sectors to spread the word about the realities of the sex trade. Another is to implement mandatory minimum fines for convicted johns, which would go toward exit services for the women, education programs aimed at johns, and the policing of sex buyers.
The research could make a difference, by providing more evidence of the harms of prostitution, and by helping those struggling with the polarized debate on whether we are talking about “sex workers’ rights” and “women’s agency,” or the commercial sexual exploitation of vulnerable, prostituted people. What is needed, alongside such research, is for every one of us to imagine a world without prostitution, and to ask the question, “Why does it exist?” In a world where women and girls were liberated from male supremacy, in which we could live as equal human beings, prostitution would be starved of oxygen.