This essay first appeared in Cliterati on November 30th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.
Ignorance and misinformation are the norms in mainstream articles about sex work, especially when the author and/or sources have prohibitionist inclinations. But since misinformation constantly rains down like a tropical monsoon from the vast cloud of obfuscation (formed from equal parts of prohibition, secrecy and stigma) which perpetually hangs over the demimonde, even sex workers and authors who are typically well-informed about sex are very likely to be drenched in it. And when that happens, we shouldn’t be surprised if the resulting article is all wet. Behold “Why Are So Many Young Men Paying for Sex?” from the November 24th Telegraph:
Last week, a report revealed that 1 in 10 British men have paid for sex…the same report…also found that those most likely to have paid for sex in the last five years are single men aged 25 to 34. The research…led lead researcher Dr Cath Mercer of UCL to conclude: “The picture that emerges does not necessarily fit the stereotype of the lonely older man … men who pay for sex are more likely to be young professionals”…
Nope, nope and nope. First of all, the absurd claim that only some tiny fraction of men pay for sex – numbers used to typically hang in the low teens but due to “end demand” propaganda are now often below 10% – says a lot more about ant-sex stigma and poor methodology than it does about the reality of sex work. Here’s how I explained it in an article I wrote over a year ago for Slixa:
…on sensitive topics carrying criminal penalties or heavy social stigma, the results [of such surveys] are less than solid; negative opinions of…dependability on such matters range from “unreliable” to “useless”. The fact of the matter is that human beings want to look good to authority figures (like sociologists in white lab coats) even when they don’t know them from Adam, so they tend to deviate from strict veracity toward whatever answer they think the interviewer wants to hear…claims about the fraction of men who have ever paid for sex have always been absurdly low, more closely resembling the fraction of the male population who hire sex workers occasionally (say, while on business trips) than those who had ever tried it even once. To get an idea how far off the claimed numbers are, let’s look at a typical figure for the last [couple of decades]…13%. Now, just for giggles, let’s pretend that this is the fraction of men who admit to paying for sex once a year rather than once in their lives. According to the National Taskforce on Prostitution, roughly 1% of American women have sold sex as a job for at least part of their lives; my own calculations (based on comprehensive figures from New Zealand) indicate that less than a third of that number are doing it at any given time. So if 1/3 of 1% of women are sex workers, but only 13% of men buy sex annually, that would mean we all average 39 appointments a year…less than one per week. I’ll give you a minute to catch your breath and wipe the coffee off of your computer screen before I remind you that what [such studies] actually claim…is far worse; that’s supposed to be the number who have done it at least once in their lives, not once a year, which would mean we should all be averaging, say, ten appointments per year or less…
My go-to figures are that about 20% of the adult male population – fully twice the new figure – pay for sex occasionally (not “have ever” as stated), and that about 6% of them pay regularly. Given what I wrote about stigma sharply reducing the number who’ll admit to paying, I suspect you can guess where the idea that those “most likely to pay are 25 to 34” comes from; it’s the demographic most likely to admit to paying rather than the one that’s actually most likely to pay. I think it’s safe to suggest that younger people are much more likely to read my blog or those of other sex workers, and to be familiar with our arguments for the goodness and importance of sex work; therefore, it’s not remotely “shocking” that they are more likely to recognize the importance of admitting the truth about paying for sex in order to combat the propaganda that “sex buyers” are abusive, abnormal perverts.
The article then goes on to interview one escort who says her experience upholds the claim that more clients are young; big deal. I could just as easily pretend that my experience that the average client is in the 45-55 age group “disproves” the research. Different escorts attract different types of clients; I billed myself as “the thinking man’s companion”, and lo and behold I attracted a lot of doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers. That’s a demonstration of the power of marketing, not proof of what the market in general looks like. Another idea put forth in the article is the popular belief that more men pay for sex now and that the demographic has widened; this, too, is supported by the experiences of one escort, and it is equally wrong. To be sure, the internet has made advertising easier, thus allowing some escorts to attract a broader demographic than might previously have been possible. But that is not the same as saying that those men were previously not customers; they were merely someone else’s customers. Even if there has been an increase in the past decade, this does not necessarily represent a true increase; rather,
…it would merely be a rebound toward normal levels from a probable low in the 1970s due to the high availability of “free” sex at the time. Kinsey found that 69% of men in the 1940s had paid for sex at least once in their lives, and though the tendency of more recent studies to generate lower numbers is due partly to poor question design and partly to underreporting due to increased social stigma since the 1980s, it’s certainly possible and even likely that the increased availability of “free” sex had some impact…during the Victorian Era nearly every middle- or upper-class man saw whores occasionally, and there were many more of them; roughly 5.5% of the female population in a typical 19th-century European or American city worked in the trade at any given time, as opposed to less than 0.3% today. But as more women entered the industrial workforce in the 1910s and 1920s and premarital sex became far more socially acceptable over the same period, both the number of prostitutes and the demand for their services began to drop to today’s unusually-low level…
In other words, if more men are buying sex now it’s probably due to the fact that the “free” stuff has become scarcer, scarier and more socially expensive in today’s prudish, rape-obsessed, anti-sex climate infused with ridiculous concepts like “sex addiction”, which this article mentions as though it really existed. There’s also a reference to the media myth that young Japanese people are abandoning sex, which the author could have dispelled by a short visit to my blog. Oh, well, at least he gives one sensible person the last word:
…Dr [Chauntelle] Tibbals offers a caveat to the notion that young men paying for sex is a modern phenomenon: “There are endless historical circumstances…Sex workers were an integral part of westward expansion in the US, for example, or in the lives of people in the military…I wouldn’t say that the ‘lonely old men’ idea is outdated so much as it was always off mark.”
Alas, I doubt many reading the article will pay much attention to that; every young generation loves to think it invented extramarital sex, and every older generation loves to condemn them as though it were really true.