More women may be paying for sex, but this does not equate to female sexual liberation

Women’s motivations for paying for sex are notably different than men’s, and demonstrate we are a long way from female sexual liberation.

A University of New South Wales (UNSW) report, published in September, speculates that a growing number of women are purchasing sexual services. The report is based on Dr. Hilary Caldwell’s research, and relies on findings from interviews with 21 women who have bought sex in Australia, and one self-identified transwoman, as well as interviews with 17 “sex workers”* (both male and female).

Of the 17 “sex providers”* interviewed for this research, all unanimously agreed, based on their own experiences, that the market for female sex buyers appears to be increasing. As of yet, this is speculative and is not reflected in data. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), conducted between 2010-2012 by researchers from the University College of London (UCL), found that only 0.1 per cent of British women admitted to paying for sex, while one in 10 men admitted to doing so. A 2010 IBISWorld market research report found that just six per cent of those using commercial sexual services in Australia were women. It is evident that female sex buyers continue to represent just a tiny minority of those paying for sexual services overall, nonetheless, female sex buyers do exist.

Is this a sign of female empowerment and sexual liberation, as argued by Caldwell and many others, or is it something else entirely? The clue may lie in what motivates women who pay for sex.

The women interviewed by Caldwell offered the following as “motivation”: designer sex, educational sex, therapeutic sex, and professional hook-up. In other words, these women wanted either their pleasure prioritized, to learn something new or improve sexual skills, to be treated with compassion (often due to having experienced sexual trauma), or an increased level of safety. Women gave different reasons for purchasing sexual services than men.

In a 2009 study, Eaves, a charity addressing violence against women, interviewed London men about why they paid for sex, and found the main reasons were: a desire to satisfy immediate sexual urges, “sexual variety” (meaning the men wanted to select certain women based on body type, race, etc.), an inability to achieve sexual satisfaction in their relationships, and convenience. Notably, no men cited safety concerns as a reason to buy sex. Men and women engage in buying sex differently, too, reflecting motivation. Certain venues, like strip clubs, massage parlours, or “peep shows,” cater specifically to women, offering burlesque events, “feminist porn,” or discounted sexual services for women. Women are more likely to pay for longer sessions, erotic massage, or sexual services that are marketed as “therapeutic.” The “sex workers” interviewed by Caldwell admitted they had not heard of women seeking out lower-priced services such as street-based prostitution, 15-minute sessions, or brothels. These cheaper and arguably less intimate services appear to be almost exclusively accessed by men.

Regardless of the sex of the buyer, their motivation, or their methods, purchasing sexual access to another human being is ethically dubious at best. When women pay for sexual access to men, they might not be upholding patriarchal power relations, but they are using financial means to coerce someone into allowing them sexual access. Turning an inherently abusive dynamic on its head does not guarantee an ethical outcome, nor does it necessarily challenge structures of power. Paying someone for sex, whatever the circumstances, is choosing to manipulate the structures of power in a way that will benefit you, rather than dismantling them to end the exploitation inherent to the sex trade.

Changing the sex of a villain doesn’t automatically make them a hero — challenging the structures of power requires considerably more nuance than that.

Moving away from the question of whether or not buying sex can ever be ethical, let’s focus on the claim that when a woman pays for exactly the kind of sex she wants, she is empowered or liberated by that action.

Women’s motivations for buying sex provide some answers.

Women buy sexual services in order for their needs and pleasure to be prioritized. “Interviewee 8,” a male prostitute, told researchers that not taking responsibility for a sexual partner’s needs is likely to be contrary to women’s general experiences:

“For the first time… they are coming into an environment where it is all about them. They don’t have to worry about pleasing anybody. You know, they don’t have to have fellatio, or anything to get what they want. They can come, lay down and get exactly what they want.”

Sometimes, they are paying for sexual services whereby they learn a new sexual technique or hone sexual skills. The “sex workers” interviewed for the study felt that women are much more likely to take up specific sexual educational services than men.

Caldwell’s research also found that women who have suffered sexual trauma in the past, who have been abused, or who have been traumatized in previous relationships seek out sexual services. “Interviewee 17,” a a straight man who sells sex to women, said he gets “a number of women… they have been run down and made to feel worthless… so they come to me to rebuild their trust in themselves and in men… they are not coming to me just to have a sexual experience, they are coming to me to repair something in themselves, in their life, in their sexuality.”

Caldwell’s research found that women also pay for sex if they have issues with trust and safety, and are cautious about hook-ups. These women are interested in a casual sexual experience, but concerned that doing so with an unpaid stranger might be dangerous. Paying a “sex worker” gives these women an increased sense of control over the situation. “Interviewee 15,” a male prostitute who sells services to women, explained:

“If you just want sex, you can go and get that. They will come and I’ve said that to a few people and they have said, ‘Well, I’ve tried, but you are safe, this is safe.’ So they are paying for safety. They are paying for trust.”

One of the female sex buyers who participated in the research had suffered childhood sexual abuse to a dreadful degree and said that when she paid for sex, “it was the first time that, when she said no to someone, they actually stopped.”

Caldwell concludes that women who buy sex “challenge constructions of the sex industry as unethical or as a scourge to society only because they escape the stigma that male clients suffer,” but that “slut shaming stigma appears to prevent women from publicly owning sexual purchases.” She claims that it is necessary to broaden the debate about the sex trade by abandoning a singular view of immorality, and that we ought to consider women as potential consumers of sex to move towards “gender equality” and acknowledge female sexual agency.

But based on the reasons women pay for sex, as detailed above, the idea that this is empowering or that it moves us towards gender equality and reverses “gender power dynamics that occur in heteronormative relationships” is fallacious.

Paying for sex involves a financial sacrifice — it follows that an individual might make such a sacrifice due to a perceived inability to access such an experience without it. If it were possible for someone to have an experience for free, it seems less likely that they would pay for it. This argument is somewhat more difficult to make in the case of male sex buyers, as even men who have access to sex often pay for it — they are not necessarily paying for sex due to an inability to access safe, pleasurable sex, but often due to a desire to skip the apparent inconvenience of typical flirtation and the process of dealing with another human with needs and desires of their own. In the case of female sex buyers, the priority appears to be pleasure, compassion, and safety rather than convenience. If women are paying to have sex where their pleasure is prioritized, where their trauma is understood, and where their risk of rape is minimized, it stands to reason that such sexual experiences may be a rare commodity.

Caldwell reports that the ability to pay to have exactly the kind of sex they want, with minimized risk of sexual violence, and without coercion, liberates women: Women’s pleasure and safety can finally become a priority — rejoice! 

But the fact that this comes with a financial and human cost is largely ignored.

When women are required to pay in order for their pleasure to be prioritized during a sexual interaction, the structures of power remain entirely unchallenged. Whereby men, on the whole, are able to have their pleasure prioritized and their safety ensured without the need for a financial sacrifice, women must pay for that privilege. Women in the study said one of their motivations for buying sex was a desire to hone sexual skills, theoretically increasing their ability to satisfy a sexual partner later — an indication that women more readily value a partner’s pleasure. Even if, a decade from now, one in 10 women have paid for sex and gotten the mind-blowing, compassionate, safe sexual experience of their dreams, the circumstances will not have improved for the nine out of 10 women who haven’t paid.

During casual heterosexual hook-ups, women orgasm approximately 40 per cent of the time, whereas for men it’s 80 per cent. Men aren’t considering women’s sexual needs or prioritizing a female partner’s comfort and pleasure. More worryingly, one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, and the figure is higher on college campuses where a culture of casual sex prevails. If the research on female sex buyers can be taken as representative, women are spending money to be prioritized during casual sexual encounters, to be treated with empathy, and to not be raped.

We can’t dig our way out of this mess with wads of money — with dire circumstances escapable only for those with the financial means to pay for the sexual experience they feel they deserve, exploiting others in the process. We need to challenge the way women’s sexual pleasure and safety is devalued in heterosexual encounters, not by paying up but by sticking together and challenging the system that fails to make women’s sexual satisfaction a priority. Women’s sexual empowerment will be achieved by demanding that female pleasure, comfort, and safety become an integral element of unpaid heterosexual intimate encounters.

Equality isn’t encouraging women to unapologetically and shamelessly pay for respect and pleasure, but asking why — for women — safe, pleasurable sex comes with a price tag.

*This article uses the terms “sex provider” and “sex worker” as these are the ones utilized in the report. These terms do not reflect the ideology of the author or of Feminist Current.

Jessica Masterson is a writer, single mother, and PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on sexual ethics and sadomasochism. Follow her on Twitter @moongirlmusing.

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