‘Idon’t get anything out of sex with prostitutes except for a badfeeling,” says Ben. An apparently average, thirtysomething,middle-class man, Ben had taken an extended lunchbreak from his job inadvertising to talk about his experiences of buying sex. Shy andslightly nervous, he told me, “I am hoping that talking about it mighthelp me work out why I do it.”
I, too, was hoping to understandhis motives better. Ben was one of 700 men interviewed for a majorinternational research project seeking to uncover the reality about menwho buy sex. The project spanned six countries, and of the 103customers we spoke to in London – where I was one of the researchers –most were surprisingly keen to discuss their experiences.
The mendidn’t fall into obvious stereotypes. They were aged between 18 and 70years old; they were white, black, Asian, eastern European; most wereemployed and many were educated beyond school level. In the main theywere presentable, polite, with average-to-good social skills. Many werehusbands and boyfriends; just over half were either married or in arelationship with a woman.
Research published in 2005 found thatthe numbers of men who pay for sex had doubled in a decade. Theauthors attributed this rise to “a greater acceptability of commercialsexual contact”, yet many of our interviewees told us that they feltintense guilt and shame about paying for sex. “I’m not satisfied in mymind” was how one described his feelings after paying for sex. Anothertold me that he felt “disappointed – what a waste of money”, “lonelystill” and “guilty about my relationship with my wife”. In fact, manyof the men were a mass of contradictions. Despite finding theirexperiences “unfulfilling, empty, terrible”, they continued to visitprostitutes.
I interviewed 12 of the men, and found it afascinating experience. One told me about his experience of childhoodcruelty and neglect and linked this to his inability to form closerelationships with anyone, particularly women. Alex admitted sex withprostitutes made him feel empty, but he had no idea how to get to knowwomen “through the usual routes”. When I asked him about his feelingstowards the women he buys he said that on the one hand, he wantsprostitutes to get to know and like him and, on the other, he is “notunder delusions” that the encounters are anything like a realrelationship.
“I want my ideal prostitute not to behave likeone,” he said, “to role-play to be a pretend girlfriend, a casual date,not business-like or mechanical. To a third person it looks like we’rein love.”
I felt compassion for Alex. No one had shown him how toform a bond with another human being and he was searching for somethingthat commercial sex was never going to provide.
But another ofthe interviewees left me feeling concerned. Darren was young,good-looking and bright; I asked him how often he thought the women hepaid enjoyed the sex. “I don’t want them to get any pleasure,” he toldme. “I am paying for it and it is her job to give me pleasure. If sheenjoys it I would feel cheated.” I asked if he felt prostitutes weredifferent to other women. “The fact that they’re prepared to do thatjob where others won’t, even when they’re skint, means there’s somecapability inside them that permits them to do it and not bedisgusted,” he said. He seemed full of a festering, potentiallyexplosive misogyny.
When asked what would end prostitution,one interviewee laughed and said, “Kill all the girls.” Paul told methat it would take “all the men to be locked up”. But most of them toldthe researchers that they would be easily deterred if the current lawswere implemented. Fines, public exposure, employers being informed,being issued with an Asbo or the risk of a criminal record would stopmost of the men from continuing to pay for sex. Discovering the womenwere trafficked, pimped or otherwise coerced would appear not to be soeffective. Almost half said they believed that most women inprostitution are victims of pimps (“the pimp does the psychologicalraping of the woman,” explained one). But they still continued to visitthem.
An upcoming new lawwill make it illegal for men to pay for sex with a trafficked or pimpedwoman – and a punter’s ignorance of a woman’s circumstances will be nodefence. Critics have suggested that this is unfair, that a man can’tpossibly know whether a woman is being exploited. Our interviewschallenged this notion. The men knew, to some extent, about abuse andcoercion in prostitution – they weren’t operating under the convenientillusion that women enter the trade because they love sex. More thanhalf admitted that they either knew or believed that a majority ofwomen in prostitution were lured, tricked or trafficked.
Morethan one third said they thought the prostitutes they visited had beentrafficked to London from another country, and a small number said theysuspected that they had encountered a trafficking victim based on thewoman’s inability to speak the local language or on how young orvulnerable they appeared. “I could tell she was new to the country,”said one man. “To be new in a country and be a prostitute – it can’t bea choice . . . She looked troubled.”
Another said that he had”seen women with bruises, cuts and eastern European accents inlocations where lots of trafficked women and girls are”. One mansuspected that an African woman he had met was trafficked because”she was frightened and nervous. She told me she had been tricked. Ihad sex with her and she seemed fine with the sex. She asked me to helpher, but I said there was little I could do. She might have been lyingto me.”
One of the most interesting findings was that manybelieved men would “need” to rape if they could not pay for sex ondemand. One told me, “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to aprostitute instead.” Another put it like this: “A desperate man whowants sex so bad, he needs sex to be relieved. He might rape.” Iconcluded from this that it’s not feminists such as Andrea Dworkin andmyself who are responsible for the idea that all men are potentialrapists – it’s sometimes men themselves.
Half of the intervieweeshad bought sex outside of the UK, mostly in Amsterdam, and visiting anarea where prostitution is legal or openly advertised had given them arenewed dedication to buying sex when they returned to the UK. Almosthalf said that they first paid for sex when they were below the age of21. “Dad took me and my older brother,” said David. “He paid. Maybe hewanted to make sure we weren’t gay. We went to a brothel. Dad didn’t doit, and I don’t think he told my mum.”
Another man paid for sexduring a stag trip to Thailand with eight of his friends. He wasdisappointed. “It was a Russian girl, it wasn’t the escort experience.She didn’t want to talk, just lay on the bed and wanted to do the [sex]act only.”
Many men seemed to want a real relationship with awoman and were disappointed when this didn’t develop: “It’s just a sexact, no emotion. Be prepared to accept this or don’t go at all. It’snot a wife or girlfriend.” Others were clear that they paid for sex inorder to be able to totally control the encounter, including Bob, whosaid, “Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoeverhe wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to themthat real women would not put up with.”
Although some of the mensaid they thought the women they bought enjoyed the sex, many othersadmitted that they thought the women would be feeling “disgusted”,”miserable”, “dirty” and “scared”. Ahmed said he thought the womanmight feel “relief that I’m not going to kill her”.
Only 6% ofthe men we spoke to had been arrested for soliciting prostitutes.”Deterrents would only work if enforced,” said one. “Any negativewould make you reconsider. The law’s not enforced now, but if anynegative thing happened as a consequence it would deter me.” Perhapsthe new law will make Albert think twice about paying for sex. He toldme, “If I’d get in trouble for doing it, I wouldn’t do it. In thiscountry, the police are fine with men visiting prostitutes.”