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It’s different for girls?

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.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

24 responses »

  1. I’m a heteroflexible cis-gendered male sex worker in Vancouver. Thanks for writing this article. It’s timely. If anyone is interested in a blog post about women buying sex here’s one in my blog
    (please excuse the shameless self promotion)

    About 70% of my clients are women. That percentage is increasing as more and more professional women with busy lives, desire and money turn to me and other male sex workers for satisfying sexual/emotional experiences. So far the Patriarchy has not stepped in to prohibit this.

    My women clients want different things. Some want healing from sexual trauma. Some, the post-kid and post-husband types especially, want to explore what their own sexual desire looks and feels like when not referenced on what a man wants. And some, who know their desires very well, just want to have them fulfilled from a skilled professional without all the hassle and frustrating disappointments that often come with dating and relationships.

    I do not in the least feel violated and exploited by my women or male clients. The only violence I experience is the ongoing criminalization and stigma directed towards me and my peers.

  2. Laws against either buyers or sellers in the sex industry are ineffective, expensive and dangerous. The notion that some magical ‘solution’ (to an ill-defined ‘problem’) lies in the so-called Swedish ‘model’ is unproven. In no other sphere of life does the de jure differ so markedly from the de facto.

    Sweden had hardly any prostitutes per head of population BEFORE the new law – about 2,500 was the official estimate, and less you would find in Copenhagen. It’s only proven effect is to reduce street prostitution during periods when it is enforced.

    The general consensus that I have made out is that there is a market of women who buy sex but that it is very small. Worth a read:
    and disabled women who pay for sex:

    The premise that selling sexual services is inherently exploitative is highly contested. So is the question of who, if it is, it exploits, with one extensive study showing that more indoor independent sex workers felt they were exploiting than exploited by taking advantage of people’s loneliness or charging more than could be reasonably afforded. I’ll find it if you want it.

    As for Jeffreys’ assertion that female sex workers get no sexual pleasure from their work, to quote from a Ronald Weitzner paper:
    “Whereas streetwalkers tend to have fleeting interactions with customers, escorts and call girls are much more likely to have encounters that resemble dating experiences (with conversation, gifts, hugging, kissing) as well as to receive massages and oral sex from clients. In a Los Angeles study, for example, 30% of call girls (but only 2% of street prostitutes) reported receiving nonsexual massages from their most recent customer; 42% of call girls (3% of streetwalkers) said that their most recent customer had caressed, kissed, or hugged them; and 17% of call girls (4% of street prostitutes) reported that they received oral sex from a customer in their most recent transaction (Lever and Dolnick, 2000). The same receipt of sexual “services” from customers has been reported in other indoor venues. In Queensland, Australia, two-thirds of legal brothel workers and four-fifths of call girls have received oral sex from a customer, compared to only a third of street workers (Woodward et al., 2004). And a comparison of 75 call girls and 75 street prostitutes in California and 150 women working in Nevada’s legal brothels found substantial differences in whether workers experienced orgasms with customers – 75% of call girls, 19% of brothel workers, and none of the streetwalkers reported that they frequently had orgasms with customers. (Prince, 1986: 482).”

    All of this, of course, would be double dutch to radical feminists, who are famously blind to any research which fails to conform to their idealogical dogma. Yet their excessive and disproportionate influence on policy delays and impedes appropriate progress towards harm-reduction strategies to reduce the spread of HIV/Aids and other STIs and reduce violence. How many women have died or been harmed as a result of their actions will, tragically, never be known.

  3. “The websites to seriously clean up their act, especially the situation with the belfast trafficking ring, that was some reallly bad stuff, you can’t just fucking advertise victims like that, its fucked up. ”

    I always thought one solution regards sex work and trafficking is…
    Only allow sex work in licensed premises they can do “out calls” but must be based in these premises.
    Police or others are allowed to talk to the workers and it is required that leaflets or posters for support groups (ruhama or others) are displayed.

    Know not everyone will agree with that and it is by no means a hardened belief of mine but its one thought I had

    • You underestimate the difficulties. To get all sex workers to do anything – work from specified premises or take part in mandatory testing etc – you have to register all sex workers. And most won’t register through stigma, especially if it means they have to go on jumping through hoops, like working from certain premises or get regularly tested, and most of the minority that do register regret it. Try Greece.

    • @kmj: The problem is that registrations like these often lead to work conditions that are bad and the autonomy of sexworkers to choose how to work is severly limited, which is why most of us would work illegally in such a scenario (take for example licenced brothels in Nevada; the women are practically forced to live inside the brothel for the time they work there, have little to no say in what prices they charge, probably also what services they offer and what clients they see. They have to hand over large sums of it. They are controlled, which is the definition of pimping. No wonder the majority of women there are illegal independent escorts rather than legal brothel workers).

      Furthermore, having to registrate as a prostitute (which would very likely come with the regulation you mentioned) is abused by the people responsible for keeping track of the registrating. Sex work is still highly stigmatised, so the threat to “outing” is often abused for blackmailing sex workers. In Austria, sexworkers have to register themselves- I know of a few cases where the police showed up at sex workers day jobs to humiliate them in front of their colleagues and get them fired. Also, data was freely handed to people who had no right to see it.

      Trafficking is less common than the current hysteria would have one think. Some measures introduced under the guise of “fighting trafficking” are actually used to harrass independent sex workers and stigmatize them.

      • personally I feel it is criminalisation or regulation and this is one model I would aprove of.
        But its not my call, I got into the anti-torl campaign because I feel sex workers need to given a voice and I felt at the begining of the year this legislation will be rushed through the dail (which is fairness it hasnt)

        I want SW to have their say and I advice you and all other SW to do so
        Write to the minister or local TD outlining your points what you feel should be done and what you like to see if you are irish mention it.

        Get your voice heard

  4. isnt
    this the case in germany though (at least in theory) all sex workers are meant to be registered to pay tax and arent all New Zealand and Australian brothels registered

    • Registration isn’t mandatory in Germany. In Australia the laws vary by state, but where there are onerous brothel registration requirements a consequence has been that illegal brothels have flourished. New Zealand only regulates managed brothels – small owner-operated establishments don’t have to go through all that.

      • I’ve never understood this occupation of licensing buildings, given that we have planning laws. It’s not the buildings that create the problems, but the way they are managed. New Zealand very wisely licenses brothel managers. The licenses are low cost but mandatory, enable criminal record checks, and can be revoked in the event of problems.

  5. The simple fact is that women do buy sex from other women and from men. The marketing is different however which makes it less in your face than women selling sex to men or men to men.We need more research but that takes money and the big money tends to go to researching women selling sex, ideally (allegedly or perhaps real) trafficked or abused/coerced women.

    Despite advertising as a gay male male escort I regularly am asked to see male/female couples. When I do so it is usually the woman who arranges the appointment and leads in the appointment.

    From my perspective it seems that rad fems deliberately play on gender stereotypes of the domestic/docile/victimised woman because it sells their ideology.

  6. The book I wrote “Putas of the Caribbean” (Prostitutes of the Caribbean). I have a chapter that deals with female clients, all of which paid for sex with female sex-workers.

  7. Amazing post!

    “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.”

    I am doing fieldwork in a domestic violence agency and grapple with this issue a lot, sometimes it seems woman = victim, and I can’t sit well with that. To me this would uphold the idea of woman as inferior. I also am not a fan of the Duluth model, which is a feminist approach in America to treating male batterers. It is an utter failure that I think needs to be changed completely.

    I also have come across an ideology that can be as dogmatic as religion, among some radical feminists. Yet I also come across this pie in the sky idea of the sex industry that doesn’t sit well with me either. As a result, I claim feminist, and will never claim to be a radfem or a sex postive fem.

    I am torn on this issue, utterly torn. I think because there is just so much gray area, so little research, and as a result – no definite answers. It is still a field in need of so much.

    I have already mentioned in the past that my opinions have formed due to the populations I work with in a slice of the sex trade (Sex abuse, street prostitution, and trafficking).

    • The peer-reviewed, reliable research that has been done indicates that sex work has a very hiearchical structure. Undoubtedly, the bulk of the violence occurs among the survival street sex working population, but here in the UK it is not just, or even mainly, from clients, but from buyers/sellers in the illicit drugs trade, sex workers’ partners or families, or just passing strangers with a down on either women or sex workers or both. And sometimes from the state, which fines sex workers and/or kidnaps their children.
      I think you get a very unbalanced view if you work just with street sex workers in trouble, it’s good to see you’re aware of this.

      • Because it is so obviously hierarchical, what would legalization do to the people at the bottom? The people I am working with. I hear a lot about people at the top of the hierarchy, but what about the marginalized?

        • I suspect you will know more about this than moi! What follows is not meant to be a utopia but represents my idea of the right lines to pursue:
          I hate to quote cliches but everyone’s different. That said, it seems to me that today’s street sex workers would be a whole lot safer if they could legally work in numbers in buildings. If the drugs that many of them are addicted to could be administered to them by the state the drugs’ purity could be guaranteed, large sums of cash could be denied to organised crime, needle problems would disappear or be heavily reduced, the wellbeing of the addicts could be monitored, and criminal justice resources could be redeployed to other problems.
          The presence of the sex workers in buildings hugely improves the potential for interventions aimed at promoting safe sex practices and preventing violence and coercion.
          State administered drugs would put more sex workers into a position in which they could choose whether to continue sex work or not.
          However, it seems to me important that the needs of sex workers’ partners’ are also addressed. Too often agencies approaches have been to attempt to get the sex worker to discontinue what they see as an abusive relationship, with only limited success. Very often, however, the partners are themselves addicted, and the sex workers are providing for their needs too. In some ways, this is perfectly logical, as the sex worker risks only the legal equivalent of a slap over the wrist if apprehended, whereas their partners would likely revert to violent crime or crime far more damaging to society than prostitution if denied the sex worker’s income.
          Some excellent pioneering work has been done in this area – with partners of sex workers – by the Open Doors project in Hackney, London. I’m sure if you contacted Georgina Perry there she’d be happy to send you their outcome report. Wish her my best!

        • Oh, and you’re probably familiar with it but Kate Shannon’s study in Vancouver measured the increased violence against survival street sex workers resulting from criminal justice interventions:

    • Can you explain the Duluth model?

  8. Finally, I read this post, it was on my reading list for too long. Thanks for your interesting article.

    “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.”

    I attended an event here in Seoul this week where I was semi-aware I would end up among a room full of such people, who claimed, literally, that patriarchy is the root cause of everything and everywhere. At the Q&A session afterwards, in which I actually acknowledged some of what had been said, while refuting one particular fact*, a single question I asked earned me being called a waste of time to talk to, and criticism for having joined the event “as a man”. God forbid…

    “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.”

    …Apparantly, being a man disqualified me from posing a question even, the question being (in summary) how the speaker could explain the sex workers’ rights movement, if each and every sex worker (females only, of course) would be the victim of violent abuse.

    What I was confronted with in return was how I could dare to care about that 1% with different experiences when 99% would be abused. Interesting stance to let the law trample on the minority in order to help the majority. Interesting stance.

    *The fact that the presenter tried to sell was that only white sex workers would earn lots of money. She would of course not comment on my highlighting that I could at least vouch for high-earning sex workers to exist in both Thailand and South Korea.

    • Matt, you fail to mention here that you were interviewing Korean women as a white male. You’ve admitted yourself that they were likely to mistake you for a John. Which would completely contaminate any data you gained via your ‘research’ (and I use that term ironically in this instance.) Because the women wouldn’t be likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable and honest with a potential John. What’s more, you interviewed women in English, not Korean, because you aren’t fluent in Korean.
      You’ve claimed that your data would be more accurate than the speaker at the meeting you refer to — a Korean woman with decades of history in the movement. I have alot of problems with that.

  9. As a woman who was prostituted in New York City for ten years — I never heard of women buying sex from men. I think this is a ludicrous premise. I’m not sayiing it never ever ever happens. But as an overwhleming rule, Men buy sex from men.

    In my ten years as a New York City hooker, I never heard of lesbians paying for sex with prostituted women.

    This is just a ridiculous premise.

    • So all the sex workers who say that they have had the occasional female customer are just lying?

      • In this video,* a self-styled pro-radical feminist using the alias ‘Rubble of Empires’ explains that a “commonly employed tactic to distract in a conversation about prostitution is to compare it to other jobs. … You take two vastly different things … and then you find a broad category under which you can fit them … and you use that to basically say, well, they’re the same thing because they both fit into this category. And it’s a powerful tactic because you can basically redefine language with it. Anytime you get an argument levelled at you, you can just take the keywords that they used in their argument and completely redefine them so they don’t mean anything, leaving the person basically unable to speak about what they wanted to speak about. But as with most logical fallacies, it’s only as powerful as it is unexposed.”

        I find tactics in conversations about prostitution/sex work quite interesting. In the video, the example of comparing employment as a sex worker and employment as a waitress in a fast food restaurant is used to expose what ‘Rubble of Empires’ considers as tactic. And he is right. This method can be used as a tactic.

        What he doesn’t tell you, however, is that labelling a view different from one’s own as merely a ‘tactic’ is in itself a tactic. If I don’t consider prostitution as work, then I can brush aside anyone saying it fits in the category ’employment’ by claiming that s/he is just using this category as a tactic. Nice, isn’t it?

        By the same logic, I could look at the comment above. If someone is selling shoes at a shoe store, then s/he is selling consumer products. Computers are also consumer products, so they fit into the same category as the shoes. The person selling shoes could then rightfully claim that s/he had never seen anyone buy a computer. Though it may happen, as an overwhelming rule, customers were buying shoes, not computers.

        This is of course a pretty ludicrous example, because there is sufficient data that proves that anyone that can afford it avoids walking barefoot on most occasions and owns a computer, for example to buy shoes online. Most people with money spend it on the things they need, regardless of gender.

        What’s not ludicrous, however, is to employ tactics to silence the voices of others, especially of those that are already marginalised by the societies they live in, by the stigma attached to what they do, or by the ruthlessness of law enforcement officers. To try and take away their voice and agency in addition, surely takes a special person.

        *Feminism & Prostitution: Categories (Quoted from 0:30-1:30)

  10. I shall not enter into yet another exchange with Ms Marr. If the readers of this blog wish to know more about my ongoing research project and Ms Marr’s attempts to discredit it, please go to

    “In the Lion’s Den: An Evening among Abolitionists”

    For Ms Marr’s views and those of Melissa Farley’s organisation ‘Prostitution Research and Education’, please go to

    I am genuinely interested to discuss prostitution/sex work and issues related to sex workers’ rights with people who have differing views about the matter. I shall not, however, spend more time to react to Ms Marr’s libellous remarks, and only do so here to give you the chance to hear both sides of the story.


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