Axiom 1 of sex work research: if it doesn’t fit into the male buyer/cisfemale seller paradigm, few people have studied it. There’s limited research into male and trans woman sex workers, but it amounts to only a small minority of overall sex work research. Anything else? Black hole.
Axiom 2: researchers are much more interested in the people who sell sex than the people who buy it.
Put these two together and one thing you get is we know fuck-all about women who buy sex.
There are women who buy sex, and I’m not talking just about sex tourists in the Caribbean or wherever. Women buy sex from men, as is shown by the existence of agencies like Escorts for Women in Sydney. They also buy sex from women, and the always-worth-reading Because I’m A Whore blog has an interesting piece about that (I’ve seen a few other female sex workers describe their experience of woman clients in similar terms). It can certainly be described as far less common than men buying sex from women or even men buying sex from men, but it’s not the non-existent event that the dearth of research might suggest.
And if this phenomenon rarely appears in empirical studies, it is even more notable by its absence from radical feminist theory. Anti-sex work feminists rarely mention it except when prompted to do so; when they must, they usually engage in all sorts of contortionism to show how this too, to the extent it is relevant at all, merely reinforces women’s victimisation. One of the few to give any amount of thought to the issue is Sheila Jeffreys, in her influential book The Idea of Prostitution:
The numbers of women using men in prostitution seem too tiny to be of note, and women using women are mostly doing so as part of a couple where the man wants a threesome, and is still serving his own sexual interests.
These assertions are uncited, and the latter runs contrary to what Jane of Because I’m A Whore has to say about it: that the female partner’s curiosity is the impetus for most of the “threesomes” she’s been professionally involved in (of course, Jeffreys would probably not believe that anyway). Jeffreys only reluctantly acknowledges the existence of lesbian sex-buyers, saying that
lesbians have not, historically, been johns
and explaining them away as either victims themselves who seek to “recycle” their abuse or, essentially, as gender traitors. These brief mentions aside, the bulk of the chapter focuses on male and trans woman sex workers, who are described as being very much like cis-female sex workers when they are coerced and abused in prostitution, and very much unlike cis-female sex workers when they are not.
This in itself is interesting, because in her analysis there is room for commercial sex to take place between two men on a non-exploitative basis. She cites studies to the effect that male (but not female) sex workers regularly experience orgasm, engage in sex work for the purpose of sexual pleasure, suffer little violence from their clients and see their activities as ego-boosting rather than stigmatising. Moreover, she asserts, in contrast to female sexual behaviour,
Male gay sexual practice, which values quick, impersonal contacts in public places, does not differ greatly in procedure from what will take place for money.
Jeffreys doesn’t deny that male sex workers can suffer abuse just like female sex workers, but what she appears to be saying is that abuse is not inherent in the male buyer/male seller relationship, the way it is when the seller is a woman (and irrespective of the gender of her client). In other words, women cannot sell sex without being exploited; men can and, often, do.
To my mind, this really calls into question the assertion by many radical feminists that the problem they have with sex work isn’t the sex, it’s the power imbalance. They often have to defend themselves against charges of prudishness and sexual morality, in part because of the fact that they’re lined up with religious conservatives on the issue (who really are mainly bothered about the sex). I have been generally willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this – but if Jeffreys’s views are typical, I have to wonder. I can see the power issue when it comes to paid sex between men and women, and between men and boys, men and very vulnerable men, men and trans women. What I cannot see is how it possible to decree that two men on the same “level” can have non-exploitative paid sex, while two women cannot. For Jeffreys, it really seems to come down to an assumption that women just don’t do that sort of thing in their natural womanly behaviour (as opposed to gay men, for whom such activity is perfectly normal, according to the quote above). And that really is about the sex.
Her position also contrasts sharply with the other issues on which feminists are often criticised for ignoring male “victims”. I’m thinking specifically of rape and domestic violence: although men can suffer from them too, few feminists – radical or otherwise – would deny their largely gendered nature. But I think it’s safe to assume that feminists (and pretty much everyone else with a conscience) would see rape and domestic violence as inherent wrongs; their gendered aspect explains both why they happen so frequently and why women are their usual victims, but does not make them “wrong” where they would otherwise be acceptable. No feminist would write a book called The Idea of Rape and include in it a chapter claiming that men can be raped non-abusively. There is no such thing as non-abusive rape or domestic violence; but implicitly Jeffreys accepts that there is such a thing as non-abusive prostitution – it just can’t involve any women (at least in the role of seller).
Why is this important? Because theories do not, as much as I would usually like them to do so, remain simply abstract expressions of some people’s opinions. Theories often become policies, and affect our laws. And while it’s all very well for theorists to ignore those examples that don’t support their conclusions, or to deem their numbers “too tiny to be of note”, those who make and interpret the law don’t have that luxury.
What this means is that we can have laws that prohibit commercial sex altogether, or that tolerate certain aspects of it – but we cannot make those laws depend on the gender of either party. It’s possible that gender-specific prostitution laws might be on the books in some countries, but it’s pretty hard to imagine them surviving constitutional challenge in a liberal democracy. In fact, I’m aware of a few cases where an equality-based challenge – i.e., an argument that the law breaches equality requirements because of its differential impact on men and women – has failed precisely because there is no discrimination in the law itself. An example is the South African case S v Jordan, where it was held that
a gender neutral provision…cannot be said to be discriminating on the basis of gender, simply because the majority of those who violate such a statute happen to be women.
So getting back to places like Escorts for Women: if the favoured model of anti-sex-work feminists was brought in, these places too would have to be outlawed – but it would be the woman buying sex, rather than the man selling it, who would face prison. The woman would be deemed the criminal, the predator, the sex offender; and the man who had sex with her and took her money would be the “victim”.
Would these feminists be terribly be bothered by this? Perhaps they would not. After all, they do not believe there are many women buying sex from men in the first place (although they cannot know this with absolute certainty, because there is so little research) – and since the whole notion is so foreign to them, perhaps they would find it impossible to sympathise with the woman in this position. Perhaps they would also argue that it is a reasonable price to pay for legislation to address the much larger phenomenon of men buying sex with women. It seems strange to me that any feminist would be content with a law which allowed police to raid a premises where a man was having consensual sex with a woman, remove the woman in handcuffs, and allow the man to lie back, smoke a cigarette and count the money he made from the encounter. But maybe it seems perfectly logical to them. It’s hard to know, since they simply never address the issue.
As for women who buy sex from women? When they do so alone, Jeffreys believes they are exploiting other women, so I guess that means she wouldn’t mind criminalising them. But I also presume that in a threesome situation she would want the female partner to be deemed a “victim” equally alongside the sex worker, since she believes it is inevitably the man who instigates such activities. Again, though, I doubt that this would wash from a legal perspective.
This may all seem very hypothetical, and probably it is. Few clients of sex workers are ever arrested, even in Sweden; women are only a very small proportion of clients, so the odds of them ever being arrested are probably infinitesimal. But it tends to be precisely these “hard” cases that test laws, so it’s wise to at least think about how we would deal with them.
And beyond that, women who buy sex really do challenge our thinking about commercial sex, its role in society and what (if anything) the law should do about it. Maybe that’s not true for radical feminists, but it is for the bulk of the rest of us who don’t have One Single Theory That Can Explain Everything. When Jeffreys only half-addresses the issue, and most other radfems ignore it completely, it just looks like they either don’t realise it exists, or they want to dodge it. And that undermines the credibility of their position on prostitution. If they want to convince people who don’t already share their certainty that it all goes back to the patriarchy, it’s in their own interest to develop their analysis on this. Perhaps they have and I just haven’t seen it yet, but if that’s the case I’m sure one of FeministIre’s readers will kindly point me in the right direction.