Understanding Buyers of Sex

Eliminating Commercial Sexual Exploitation

In order to eliminate the problem of commercial sexual exploitation, we must look at the demand side of the problem.  After all, without buyers of sex, there would be no sex industry.  By understanding the who, what, where, when, and how of sex buyers, strategies can be implemented to decrease the demand for commercial sex.  One way of analyzing sex buyers is to compare them to non-sex buyers.  What unique characteristics do buyers of sex embody versus non-buyers of sex?  What strategies can be implemented to decrease the demand based on these characteristics?

A new study was released comparing sex buyers with non-sex buyers, highlighting several significant differences.  Statistics regarding sex buyers, also known as johns, varies and is far and few between—ranging from 16-80% of the male population.  In the recent study released by Farley and her colleagues, it was revealed that they had a hard time finding men who do not buy sex in some shape or form (i.e. whether it is through prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, etc.) on a fairly regular basis and had to rework their definition to get a representative sample of buyers and non-buyers.  They learned that buyers and non-buyers had similar perspectives of women and sex, but there were many clear distinctions.  Here are some of the key findings:

1)      Sex buyers committed crimes more often than non-sex buyers.  Crimes included felonies and misdemeanors related to violence against women, substance abuse, assaults with and without weapons, and defiance against authority.  None of the non-sex buyers reported crimes against women.

2)      Sex buyers engaged in aggressive and coercive sexual behavior much more often than non-sex buyers.  Falling under this category is rape—many more sex buyers reported the likelihood of committing rape than non-sex buyers if they could get away with it.

3)      Sex buyers showed less empathy towards prostituted women and demonstrated less acknowledgement of the harm imposed on prostituted women and the community as a whole.  Non-buyers of sex were more aware of the harmful effects to sexually exploited women and the community.  Deterrents for non-sex buyers included respect for women, the perception of their masculinity as being in jeopardy if they had to pay for sex, paying for sex as emotionally empty and unsatisfying, and personal experiences of abuse.

4)      Sex buyers masturbated to pornography more often and reported their overall sex education as coming from porn more so than non-buyers.  Buyers reported engaging in sadomasochism and anal sex more often than non-buyers, due to their increased use of pornography and prostitution.  Non-buyers were more likely to perceive porn as exploitive and violent; those who found some types of porn as pleasurable to watch reported its use more for fantasy than reality.

5)      While both sex buyers and non-buyers were generally aware of the physical and psychological harms of prostitution, buyers were not deterred.  Both groups understood that the majority of women in prostitution were lured, tricked or trafficked, as well as understood the lack of economic opportunities and alternatives available to those who enter prostitution.  Many sex buyers reported purchasing women directly from those who controlled them or acknowledged that they were aware the women were being pimped or trafficked.

6)      Both sex buyers and non-buyers reported that the biggest deterrent to buying sex would be having their name placed on the sex offender registry.  Public exposure and shaming techniques were seen by both groups as most effective—names and pictures of offenders on billboards, newspapers, internet, etc.  Jail time was also seen by the majority of both groups to be effective.  The least effective deterrent reported was educational programs.

This study offers important insight into the culture of sex buyers.  Perhaps one of the most useful pieces of information found in the study is the last point made—that is, what are the most effective techniques to prevent individuals from buying sex?  What techniques will likely have the most sustainable outcomes?  Based on the findings, buying individuals for sexual purposes should be illegal, placing strong emphasis on criminality.  Buyers of sex need to be treated as criminals, particularly since the majority of those interviewed were aware of the negative impacts of prostitution on the individuals they buy and the overall community beforehand.  Using the knowledge revealed in the study, qualitative information coming directly from those who buy sex, stricter laws (state & federal) should be implemented.  Programs like John Schools, are likely ineffective according to the findings of this study.  I blogged about these programs a few weeks ago—check it out here.  I would also like to note that given the responses of buyers regarding the likelihood to rape women if they could get away with it, and the high levels of crime they commit in general, DNA testing upon arrest for buying sex should be implemented.  If individuals are willing to admit that there is a chance they would rape, and have been arrested for violence against women in general, DNA records could assist in catching and prosecuting rapists in the future.

Cynthia Castaldo-Walsh is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focused on gender-based conflict, non-violence and peacebuilding for conflict transformation, and sustainability for conflict resolution.

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