Book Review – Paying for Sex in a Digital Age

Paying for sex in a digital ageReview of Teela Sanders, Barbara G. Brents & Chris Wakefield, Paying for Sex in a Digital Age: US and UK Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2020) xvii + 250 pp.

This book differs from most scholarship on sex work in that it focuses not on the demography and experiences of sex workers, but of the consumers who pay for sex. Much feminist and social conservative rhetoric demeans this group as men who exemplify the worst aspects of “toxic masculinity”: a desire for dominance and control, indifference to relationships and emotional intimacy, neglect of family, compulsive hypersexuality, misogyny, and violent abuse. This ideology has engendered a progressive orthodoxy, often known as the “Swedish model,” that favors decriminalizing the sex worker, but criminalizing anyone who purchases sex. The present book offers a much more nuanced and humane view, based on two separate surveys the authors conducted in the UK (1206 participants) and the US (687 participants), recruited from users of online sexual services platforms. This population yields a sample more typical of most sex work customers today than previous studies based on men arrested for soliciting sex on the street, who tend to be intoxicated or relatively indiscreet in their interactions.

Comparing US and UK samples is helpful: despite the cultural similarities between the two nations, they have very different approaches toward the legal status of sex work. In the UK, it is completely legal as long as it is privately negotiated between two parties, kept off the street and out of organized brothels. The US, as in most sexual matters, adopts a much more restrictive and intolerant regime, criminalizing it in all but a few counties of Nevada with regulated brothels (whose customers the book also studies, as two of the authors are located in Las Vegas). Indeed, the repressive state apparatus in the US has recently moved in the direction of shutting down web platforms utilized by sex workers and their clients, such as Craigslist, Backpage, and Rentboy. US media, academics, and legislators justify this repression in the name of protecting victims of sex trafficking, which they assume to be so ubiquitous that one study estimated over 1% of the population of Texas had been trafficked. The frequent users of sexual services who responded to this book’s surveys, in contrast, found that trafficking and other forms of third-party coercion were relatively infrequent in their experience.

Chapter One examines the demographics of those who buy sex. General population surveys show that 11% of adult men in the UK have at some point in their lives paid for sex, 14% of men in the US, 17% in Australia, and over 20% in Spain, where it is fully decriminalized. Carceral repression would thus in theory involve locking up a significant proportion of the male population. In the UK and Australia, younger men in their 20s and 30s without a regular sex partner are most likely to be consumers of paid sex, whereas in the US, it is more common among men in their 40s, but older men who do pay for sex tend to do so more often. In the US, the religious are just as likely to pay for sex as the non-religious, men living in rural areas just as likely as those in urban areas, and the poor just as likely as the rich. Contrary to feminist dogma, surveys find no evidence that buyers of sex score higher on psychological tests of entitlement or control; indeed, these authors accumulate evidence that they are more gender-egalitarian in their attitudes.

Chapter Two surveys the contemporary political and legal landscape with regard to sex work in both the US and UK. Religious conservatives and feminists have joined forces to combat prostitution, nominally out of concern for the welfare of female sex workers, but perhaps with greater zeal to demonize male moral turpitude and hypersexuality. They have successfully exploited a dominant media and public policy discourse around “sex trafficking” as justification, but this book argues that the evidence for it is often little more than anecdotal, the data sources dubious, and the generalizations unverifiable. The authors maintain that the more punitive approach does not lower the supply or demand, but it does make sex work encounters more dangerous for both consumers and providers by dismantling safer online platforms and driving transactions underground. Legal developments in both the US and UK hold consumers strictly liable for enhanced “trafficking” penalties if they engage anyone who later claims to be trafficked or compelled by a third party, even if the consumer is completely unaware of the circumstance.

Chapter Three treats in more detail how digital platforms enable both consumers and providers to screen each other more carefully, set out clear understandings in advance, and communicate multiple times to increase each party’s trust and comfort with the transaction. The authors note that the impact of the 2018 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) has been to thwart most online communication in the US, forcing formerly independent sex workers back onto the street (note the fourfold increase in street prostitution in San Francisco the week after passage of FOSTA/SESTA) or into brothels/agencies managed by organized crime. As such, it has made them less safe. By pushing any remaining online commerce onto the invisible “Dark Web,” it has actually made it more difficult for law enforcement to identify real cases of trafficking. The sex workers rendered most vulnerable by the loss of online platforms are not the high-end call girls or gay porn stars, who can rely on extensive interpersonal networks, but precisely the poorest and most marginalized, women of color and trans persons.

Chapter Four gives a more in-depth look at the data about sex-work clients accumulated in the authors’ US and UK surveys. They acknowledge a key limitation of their data sample, namely its probable over-sampling of regular users of sexual services who frequent some of the more specialized online platforms, such as those that provide ratings or reviews of sex workers. Both their sample and previous studies have suggested that most online clients are “white, middle-aged, middle-class, cisgender men with slightly higher than average education and income.” However, depending on the sampling technique, studies show some significant differences with regard to how many clients are married or have other regular sexual partners, with the figures ranging from 75% with regular partners to 75% without. The authors’ US survey showed 42% married, but only 31% in monogamous relationships, suggesting that many of the men who sought sex work did so with the knowledge, permission, and in some cases participation of their wives. Unfortunately, their data was not granular enough to distinguish how many of the men remained married in sexless or sexually unsatisfying relationships (e.g. for the sake of the children) and resorted to sex work out of loneliness or need for physical contact and how many were men with very strong sex drives who continued to enjoy sex with their wife, but felt they needed more. Significantly, and in contrast to some previous surveys, the authors’ work showed that sex work clients are much more politically and socially liberal than the general population.

The authors note that previous studies of men arrested for street solicitation reveal a very different demographic: younger, poorer, and more likely to be non-white. It remains unclear whether this is because less experienced or socially polished men are more likely to make awkward or drunken advances on undercover officers or because more affluent, educated, and experienced gentlemen prefer to go online and book their trysts in advance. What is certain is that street work is much more risky for women and trans persons, and it is now far less common in the UK, where online communication and privately negotiated sex work indoors are legal.

Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

The information on prices paid for sexual services was not as useful as it could have been, failing to distinguish between male and female sex workers, older (i.e. wealthier, but less physically appealing) clients and younger clients, and prices paid for overnight stays or multi-day travel from those for brief encounters. The US and UK surveys were not comparable, because they asked fundamentally different questions (average monthly expenditure vs. average expenditure per encounter), but they do suggest that prices are considerably lower in the UK, probably because of the lower threshold of legal and physical risk for both parties. Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

Chapter Five is in many ways the most interesting to me, as it focuses upon niche markets for atypical consumers, including women, gay and bi-sexual men, disabled people, and the older man. Despite feminist denials that women would ever purchase sex, they constituted about 1% of the respondents to the UK survey, 6% of the US survey, but the authors make no claim these numbers are representative of the general population. Female purchasers are mainly unmarried professionals in their 30s and 40s (and in the US, also their 50s). The UK survey asked about the particular services purchased: women were more likely than men to purchase anal sex, threesomes, and webcam services, but since there were only 13 women in the UK sample, this may not be representative. They frequently purchase services from other women (8 of the 13 in the UK sample, not asked in the US survey).

Disabled and elderly men find sex workers less judgmental toward them than other women, so they provide a valuable service to those who are otherwise lonely. The older buyer tends to have more disposable income, but may be divorced or have a wife who is ill or no longer interested or no longer attractive to him. Indulgence in periodic purchase of sexual services may be less disruptive to his life and family than a regular mistress would be. A significant percentage of older men only begin buying sex in later life (31% of the UK sample began after age 56). If we include more informal “sugar-daddy” arrangements that are on the margins of being definable as sex work, older men’s engagement with the sexual market is even more widespread. Older men who do purchase sex tend to be more frequent purchasers than younger and middle-aged men, unsurprising given their higher income and lower prospects for finding attractive partners just based on their looks and vigor. They also tend to value ongoing relationships and some measure of emotional intimacy with a favored sex worker to a greater degree than young consumers.

Chapter Six explores the phenomenon of webcamming as non-contact sex work. This tends to take two forms: public performances open to multiple viewers who can encourage the performers with electronically transmitted tips (comparable to strippers in a club) or private one-on-one performances in which viewers are able to share their own (often unclothed) image with the performer and talk with them directly. Among those who use this latter medium, many report having favorite performers with whom they develop online friendships and talk about non-sexual topics as well.

Chapter Seven provides an insight into the motives and ethical attitudes of online consumers of sex work. Contrary to feminist doctrine, the vast majority have no interest in “control” or coercion. 66.5% of the US sample said they sought “emotional intimacy” with sex workers, whereas only 14.2% cited “power or control” as a motivation. Many even say they seek sex workers to deal with stress, anxiety, and a need not to be always in control; many cite disappointments in non-commercial relationships, appreciate the clearly negotiated boundaries and expectations of a sex work encounter, and see their sex work experiences as having more to do with validating their masculinity among their male peers than about asserting it toward women. US samples of sex consumers report much more egalitarian attitudes toward women in work, politics, and the home than the general population of men.

Indeed, most clients report compassion toward the sex worker and avoid situations where they suspect exploitation. Only 2.2% of the US sample of regular purchasers admitted having ever bought the services of someone under 18, suggesting that media-driven narratives of a widespread industry of “child sex trafficking” are overblown. 23% of the UK buyers reported that they had at least once in their life encountered a sex worker whom they believed was being exploited by a third party; in the qualitative portion of the survey, they said such situations were a turn-off and they would even pay the fee without actually engaging in physical contact. The authors did not explore what clients thought about the ethics of supplying cash to sex workers who were in thrall to a drug habit. But they did emphasize that criminalization of buying sex (with especially harsh penalties for buying from a victim of exploitation) deterred clients who encountered exploitation or abuse from reporting it to authorities. This only makes it more difficult to stop.

The US survey revealed that 16.1% of respondents had ever been in a “heated argument” with a sex worker, but only 3.4% had been in a “violent confrontation.” These figures are less useful than they should have been, because they did not specify whether the conflict or violence came from the sex worker or the client, and whether the sex worker was male (more likely to resort to threats and violence) or female.

A brief concluding chapter ties together the threads of this investigation and again warns us that poor public policy comes out of ideologically motivated “stereotype, falsehood, and generalization” concerning clients of paid sex. Their data proves conclusively that clients are not the chief source of the exploitation and violence that characterizes some segments of the sex industry. In a fully decriminalized context, where they feel free to report abuses to the authorities, clients can be a key part of the solution.

I have noted a few places where I wish we had more granular data. My largest criticism is that the authors should have made a greater effort to recruit more gay and bi-sexual users of online platforms, who would likely confound the reductive feminist shibboleths about power and control even more resoundingly than straight men. The UK data about lesbian or bi-sexual women purchasing sex from other women is intriguing, but the number responding (eight) is too small for us to conclude very much about this phenomenon. As the old sexual and gender binaries break down, sex workers may provide a key role in allowing previously straight men and women to broaden their horizons of attraction and self-fulfillment by experimenting with alternative desires, ethnicities, and body types. Not every bi-curious man is ready to put his profile out on Grindr.


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