This age-old concept has been the driver of economies around the world. From fledgling entrepreneurs to savvy CEOs, every businessperson recognizes the key importance of identifying if a given product or service is really desired by potential customers—if there is “demand” for it.
The tragic reality is that there is substantial demand for buying sex in America and around the world—from major cities to rural towns.
Tragically, this demand has led to the commercial sexual exploitation of millions, whether in prostitution or sex trafficking. Buying sex inherently contributes to increased sexual violence against individuals in prostitution or sex trafficking. Further, buying sex and respecting women, or valuing sexual mutuality and meaningful consent, are fundamentally incompatible.
It’s time to challenge the beliefs and behaviors of sex buying and to put sexual exploitation out of business.
FACT: There are likely sex buyers in your community, and they tend to blend in with everyone else.
Because buying sex is illegal in most of the country it is difficult to gather robust research on their identities, but there have been several useful studies that help shed light on this population. According to one study, “about 14% of men in the United States report having ever paid for sex.”
A survey of sex buyers in Minnesota reported that sex buyers were found in a “wide variety of employment sectors, including businessmen, doctors, lawyers, dentists, judges, professors, police officers, correctional officers, pastors, executives, truck drivers, manual laborers, farmers, and sailors.” In this same survey, a law enforcement officer stated:
“A good majority of them are going to be your middle-aged to older white males as a demographic on them. A little bit, I would say, higher up on the economic scale – they have a little extra money to spend. A good majority of them, I would say 80-90 percent are married with children.”
Interviews with Chicago men who purchased sex revealed a more diverse ethnic range of sex buyers—40% African American, 36% European American, 14% Latino, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% identified as “other.” This suggests that the behavior of sex buying is not limited to any race. The majority of men interviewed had a college education and a girlfriend or wife. While females have been known to purchase sex, it appears that they are in the extreme minority, and so sex buying is a predominantly male behavior.
The age when interviewed men first bought sex “ranged from 10 to 52. The average age was 21.
[Further,] 54% of interviewees bought sex for the first time by themselves. For those who bought sex while with other people, 36% did so with a group of friends and 17% with a relative. For 29% of interviewees, the first time they had sex was with an individual in prostitution… 43% of interviewees stated that if the man pays the woman for sex, she should do anything he asks.”
FACT: When there is a buyer, there is an incentive for so-called “entrepreneurs”—pimps and sex traffickers—to provide a “product” (i.e. real men, women, and children) through sex trafficking.
A 2013 study of 150 countries from the London School of Economics found that wherever prostitution was legal, sex-trafficking tended to increase, not decrease. Why? Because once something is legal, there is increased demand for it.
And because prostitution is inherently dangerous and harmful, there are not many women or men who enter into it “willingly.” This means that sex traffickers push victims into the sex trade through force, fraud, or coercion in order to make a profit off of the high demand for commercial sex.
Further, it is essentially impossible for sex buyers to vet and know if the person they are purchasing for sex is a sex trafficking victim or not. Most sex trafficking victims are not held in dungeons with literal chains but are instead imprisoned through psychological coercion and threats, so that they can meet sex buyers at various locations.
FACT: Sex buying behavior cannot be isolated from the larger cultural context of male sexual entitlement that fuels sexual harassment and assault as highlighted by #MeToo, along with strip club attendance, pornography use, and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation.
One study found that “sex buyers were more likely than men who did not buy sex to report sexual aggression and likelihood to rape. Men who bought sex scored higher on measures of impersonal sex and hostile masculinity and had less empathy for prostituted women, viewing them as intrinsically different from other women.”
These degrading attitudes towards women are likely fostered by, and/or encouraged by, the use of pornography. A 2011 survey found that “sex buyers [used] to pornography more often than non-sex buyers, imitated it with partners more often, and had more often received their sex education from pornography than the non-sex buyers.”
“We see between 400 to 500 women and girls per year who have been trafficked/prostituted by their pimps, drug dealers or by organized criminals in gangs…Stripping is a gateway into prostitution, it’s the place where the training begins. Until we as a society recognize all forms of sexual exploitation including “stripping” we will never end the vicious cycle of sex-trafficking and prostitution.”
Wherever a person uses an imbalance in money or power to instigate, pressure, or coerce someone into sex, it is sexually exploitive and fosters unhealthy and harmful attitudes towards sex, and often women specifically.
Buying sex and respecting women, or valuing sexual mutuality and meaningful consent, are incompatible.
FACT: Purchasing sex is ultimately an act of sexual entitlement—just like so many other forms of sexual exploitation.
Reams of studies recognize the pervasive violence found in prostitution, across prostitution types and locations—whether one is a male or a female, whether one is prostituting in America or a third world country, indoors or outdoors, for drugs or to pay the rent, on a street corner, in a car, back alley, brothel, massage parlor, or strip club—both the threat of, as well as actual violence, permeate everyday existence in prostitution.
Sex buyers are the primary perpetrators of violence against prostituted women.
One survivor of prostitution explained how purchasing sex eradicates empathy and boundaries during the encounter, stating:
“You know when you buy something and it doesn’t work properly, the first thing you will do is pick it up and shake it. The same principle applies to prostitution. If your mouth isn’t open wide enough or your throat isn’t deep enough. So you are always at risk of being raped or abused if the buyer feels he is not getting what he paid for.”
Further, many sex buyers purchase sexual access to women primarily to act out on violent fantasies. One social service provider reflected on conversations with women in prostitution, noting: “There’s a lot of men [sex buyers] that will tell you right up front- you’ll get an extra hundred dollars, but I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”
FACT: Sexual exploitation is nobody’s ‘job.’
Several years ago the advocacy group Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution (WHISPER) developed a powerful tool that communicated the extent of the harms experienced by persons in prostitution. Just what was this tool? Answer: a “job” description.
Few things undermine the myth of “sex work” like a detailed list of exactly what people caught up in the sex trade are expected to do¾night after night, day after day, month after month, year after long, miserable, interminable year. For those readers of stout mind and heart, you can read that “job” description here. However, for those who are triggered by depictions of sexual abuse and violence, do yourself a favor and skip the link. We’ll try to convey WHISPER’s message more delicately in what follows, but understand that there is nothing delicate or tender about the sex of prostitution.
At the heart of the debate about decriminalization of prostitution (by this we mean the removal of laws against prostitution, the removal of which infer a right for persons to barter and trade other persons for sexual consumption in brothels, strip and night clubs, street corners) is what one believes about work, and what one believes about human worth and dignity.
While there are several meanings ascribed to the term, for the purpose of this discussion work should be understood as the labor, task, or duty that is one’s means of livelihood. For most people work is a necessary part of ensuring one’s survival: we work as the means to earn our wages and to sustain ourselves and those we love. For some, work may be a drudgery, a toil to be endured; for others, it may be a passion—a lifelong pursuit of one’s deepest interests and aspirations. From banking, engineering, janitorial service, the insurance industry, food service, education, medical professions, agriculture, journalism, law enforcement, aviation, to horticulture and beyond, there are a myriad of occupations in which one may work.
But this work is typically pursued within parameters. As a society we recognize that work should be performed within certain boundaries, and thus create rules concerning how it is carried out, such as the number of hours and days per week one must work, the number of sick days granted, and the minimum wages one can be paid. We also define certain conditions in which the work must be carried out—for instance mitigating the risk of injuries due to environmental hazards, and prohibiting certain activities such as smoking or drug use in the workplace, as well as racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
It hasn’t always been this way. Current labor conditions in the United States are the result of generations of reforms (and even a civil war which resulted in a constitutional prohibition of slavery). And, while the current American labor context is no panacea, in many parts of the world others dream of working under the rights and protections ascribed to American workers.
But whether one lives and works in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, or Brazil, or Italy, Syria, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Thailand, or anywhere else on the planet, what does it mean if one’s livelihood by means of prostitution is a normalized form of work?
It means that that your daily existence will likely entail:
- routine verbal degradation;
- threat of physical assault and a wide array of physical injury;
- extreme risk of sexual assault and rape;
- being groped, pinched, licked, bitten and breathed upon by people who pay to use you;
- serial utilization of one’s orifices as a receptacle for male genitalia and other objects;
- likely acquisition of alcohol and/or drug addiction;
- likely acquisition of post-traumatic stress disorder;
- likely acquisition of any number of (potentially incurable) STDs; and
- possible premature death as the result of homicide.
In practical terms, it also means that while you experience these abuses and injuries:
- others will have a “right” to profit from the sale of your body;
- others will have a “right” to sexually access your body as long as they paid to do so (and even if they don’t);
- sexual harassment, assault, and rape are on job requirements;
- law enforcement will look the other way, as no “crimes” have been committed;
- the public will at best turn a blind eye to your plight, or at worst mock your abuse by calling it “your job.”
Thus, experiences that the rest of the world’s workers are protected from (or at a minimum, most rational members of society believe they should be protected from), comprise the core duties and conditions of “employment” for those in prostitution. Some job.
At NCOSE we recognize that many (if not the overwhelming majority) of persons in prostitution around the world, have turned to prostitution not because it’s a fantastic experience and they love the “benefits,” but because they were groomed for it, sold into it, can’t escape it, or have no other means to support themselves.
But whatever the circumstances by which they became entangled in the sex trade, we believe people deserve better than prostitution. We believe sexual exploitation is nobody’s “job.”
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Related NCOSE Projects addressing sex trafficking and combatting demand for commercial sex.