The guys who buy it aren't who you think. Nor are their reasons for doing so.
According to Dr. Teela Sanders, a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, and the author of Paying For Pleasure: Men Who Buy Sex, nearly one in three men will buy sex at some point in his life. . . and we're not talking porn. Below, Sanders offers some provocative ideas on why that's the case—and what you need to know about it.
What prompted you to write this book in particular?
Generally my area has been in the sex industry—my first book was about studying women working as escorts, looking at how they manage risk, the economic choices, and their decisions to work as sex laborers.
The new book is the flip side: Men Who Buy Sex. I wanted to look at the myths around who these guys are, and the relationship they have with sex workers. And I wanted to dispel the idea that they’re all these dirty, seedy curb crawlers and look at what is going on in terms of sexual consumption.
Why did you choose to write this book now?
In Britain, we're trying to have this law that criminalizes men who buy sex. It's based on a Swedish model. There's this notion that the demand for sexual services is fueling human rights violations… I demystify all of that. This economic model is not demand-driven. We have a whole supply chain, and the majority of the supply chain is women making these economic decisions. There are women in the caring industry leaving professions like nursing and going into sexual labor type jobs because the benefits are higher. The pay is higher. Also students… a big trajectory of women who are students. That's a new thing in the UK because students have only recently had to pay for higher education.
So if not a dirty, seedy curb crawler, what does the typical guy who buys sex look like?
This is the whole thing: There is no typicality. You don't get men of a certain age or just bachelor party groups. There is a whole range of life stages, professions, and classes. There are all sorts of markets… from low end to high end. From the research, they’re not the people who have criminal records; they're regular citizens who have professional jobs and are in relationships. This is where you see the proliferation. It’s not an uncommon thing.
Did you detect any purchase patterns, so to speak?
There is a typology of different type of purchases. There are guys who I call "the bookends" who will buy sexual experiences in their teen years, then have decades away. Then in their 60s, they'll go back. For them, it's about purchasing sex later in life. It's an interesting group to look at in terms of aging and sexuality.
There are "permanent purchasers," who purchase sex throughout the whole of their life, including when they're married… maybe those who are expats, or working in the military, but as part of their occupational culture.
The interesting thing when it comes to men who are married or in relationships is a group of guys called "the regulars." They always go back to the same sex worker. I've got a quote from a guy who says, "I don't like having sex with strangers." Which is a funny thing for a guy who buys sex to say, but the thing is: He always goes back to same woman. That is about the purchase of intimacy. The sex laborer is not just about release. It's about emotional support, familiarity… quality time out for a guy who may be feeling like he needs to have that in his life.
So you're saying buying sex isn't just about the sex?
No. For this group of men it's about buying something other than sexual experiences; it's about having "the girlfriend experience." Getting to know the person…maybe having a social occasion, having a longer amount of time. For this kind of service you're paying a lot more money. You'll see this person time and time again. The women are sexual laborers, and they're emotional laborers.
This actually reflects very similarly conventional relationships: a man wanting to be romantic, wanting communication, wanting mutual sexual fulfillment.
But why can't men get this from their marriages?
Married relationships can't provide this special "time out" stuff. Marriages are centered around finance, around children. This is a time out where it's purely about men having sexual satisfaction outside the bounds of a normal relationship. Men use their financial privilege to buy an intimate experience they can't get in their conventional relationship.
Also, this relationship is protected by the exchange. The men don't feel as though there's going to be some other emotional component, because the contract is very clear. This level of intimacy is an exchange, and the women who do this emotional labor make a lot of money. That's why you see this high end.
But typically these men don't want to leave their wives. They want to be a provider and a father and a breadwinner. Buying this extension of their private lives is not an either/or. They want to have community status. But that’s separate, a whole different idea from having a private life.
Yes, but it seems to be a deal with the devil, in that you can't have both. That's the question everyone's asking: Why would a guy like Eliot Spitzer take this risk?
Why do powerful men like Spitzer take the risk of buying sex services? It's no different than Joe Blow down the street in his life than it is for someone who's rich and powerful. The risks aren't any different… the risk of the personal stigma, the job loss. Sure, Joe Blow may hold a different position in the community, but his emotional and sexual needs don't work any differently.
The ultimate example is Bill Clinton. Why would the president of America say, okay, I'll just have this extramarital affair with this woman, and then think of the consequences later? He didn't sit there and think about these things. It was about him and his private sexual life. It had nothing to do with him being in a powerful position of authority. It all works on the same level.
But, arguably, women are the ones who have a greater chance of not being sexually satisfied in a relationship. Why don't we see them seeking out prostitution?
We live in a society where it's entirely acceptable that men seek out sexual gratification. It's okay for men to sow their wild seeds. You have very strong gender stereotypes. Women who do are seen to be sluts or slags or promiscuous.
The interesting thing is that's what happened in this one case—which could be one of many—is that we decide that anything that’s not the idea that sex should happen in a heterosexual relationship, with your wife, for reproduction, seems to of a deviant nature. There's a benchmark about what sex is for that seems to be pervading.
So it's not that a man who seeks this out is necessarily a sexual deviant?
That's my experience. Lots of married men will buy sex. They don't want to get out of their marriage. It's about wanting to have a private sex life. A bit of their life that is a time out… and it's not about being a teacher or a policeman or a senator.
What percentage of the population seeks this out?
It's different in most countries. In the UK it's 30% who will buy sex at some point in their life.
And we're not talking pornography?
No, literally buying commercial sex. This concept of buying sex is interesting—we have this lapdancing club in the UK; it's a very accepted part of the nighttime economy. And yet we have this strong anti-prostitution thing. It's this weird hypocrisy. Certain kinds of sexual consumption are okay. We've got real contradictions around sexual consumption.
So, should we legalize prostitution or not?
It's impossible to eradicate any entrenched aspect of human nature. The more you have stuff going underground, the more dangerous it is, the more victimization you see. I think legal brothels are a good idea. The toleration zones in Amsterdam, those areas of the street where women can go safely. There's definitely clear evidence that in those zones there's very little violence. I think we need a legitimate sex industry. We need to grow up about it, really.
What would you say to a wife who is, arguably, a victim of this?
This is a really interesting thing. If you look at all of the sex scandals—that have mainly happened in America—you have this whole dialogue about the wife. This "stand by your man" syndrome. Often in reality the women is aware that the man is having some other sort of sex life. It may be about how they live their lives separately. As long as it doesn't come back to the doorstep, for example.
It didn't seem like the case in this Spitzer case. Why do women always come out and say, "I stand by my man"? Why didn’t she say, "I'm completely disgusted. I want to get a divorce?" There's this whole bandwagon of expectation. It's this "stand by my man" narrative that women have to, all the time… Hillary did it. Why are they doing it? Why do these women? Why doesn't he or she come out in support of having private lives? They toe this apologetic line, and they underscore this idea of the nuclear family, and it's only right to have sex with your wife, when it’s clearly not their reality.
So is there an answer?
Not when everyone wants to pretend. But the sex industry exists because of marriage, not in spite of it. It's this one public institution that has to look a certain way. But that doesn't preclude having other types of experiences. It's those discussions… people just don’t have them.