Men who Buy Sex
Long-Term Clients Who Access Commercial Sexual Services in Australia
Until the last 20 years research into the people who buy sexual services has represented less than one per cent of all sex industry research (Perkins, 1999). In recent years, publications from diverse disciplines, including health sciences, medicine, psychology, theology and sociology have added knowledge about people who buy sex, in part because of the criminalisation in some countries of buying sex. Much of this available literature has established that ‘normal’ men buy sex, and provides information about the prevalence of buying sex, motivations to buy sex, and the risks of buying sex. Some recent qualitative research reveals that buying sex can be a deeply emotional experience with accompanying positive benefits to health and well-being (Earle & Sharp, 2007; Sanders, 2008a). However, much of the research that has been conducted about people who buy sex has not directly accessed the clients themselves or has not used methods that offer a holistic understanding of their experiences.
This empirical study, conducted in Australia during 2010, exposes gaps in current knowledge about men who buy sex, their feelings about buying sex in the context of their other relationships, their feelings about sex workers and money and, the effects of stigma. It is an exploratory qualitative study that represents clients of sex workers in their own words and identifies experiences and issues that are of importance to them. Through interpretive phenomenological analysis, the research project aims to answer the question of how being a client of the sex industry affects how men feel about themselves and their sexuality. An on-line approach to recruitment and data collection ensured safety and encouraged honesty by keeping participants anonymous and was successful in recruiting 137 possible research participants. These self-selecting, volunteer participants were invited to answer a short questionnaire and write a narrative about their experiences, which was guided by asking about key areas of research interest such as: motivations, perceived risks and benefits, and stigma and discrimination.
Fifty-three narratives were examined for their suitability and for their depth in addressing the research questions; 27 of these were selected for further analysis based on the comprehensiveness of the narrative and their eligibility for the study. Men who had purchased sex about monthly for at least one year or more were eligible to participate in the study. Data achieved theoretical saturation at which point no new concepts emerged through further analysis. The final sample consisted of 27 men with an average age of 44 who had been buying sex for an average of 18 years.
Participants differed in their sexual orientations and the genders of sex workers from whom they bought sex; some men also bought sex from genders other than their identified sexual orientation would suggest. All participants discussed aspects of their relationship status as a justification for buying sex; those who were partnered described why their primary relationships did not satisfy their sexual needs, and those who were single defended their right to buy sex as conferred by their single status.
Motivations to buy sex were multifactorial for each participant, which occasionally conflicted within a single account, and mainly related to seeking sexual variety, seeking emotional intimacy, and convenience. Participants considered that the financial part of the commercial sex transaction was more important than the sex, and that emotional benefits of buying sex outweighed both physical benefits and the burdens of guilt, fear of STIs, discrimination and stigma. They demonstrate that their decisions to buy sex are complex and that men are silenced by internal and external stigma, and by not feeling empowered to disclose their status as a client of the sex industry. Participants wrote about their feelings about sex workers, describing feelings of integrity, gratitude and respect towards them. They spoke politically about the sex industry as a whole and also about other clients of sex workers. They rejected stereotypes for themselves while projecting deviant client beliefs onto imaginary others.
In addition to identified areas for further research, the findings about sex industry clients’ diversity in buying sex, their fear of STIs, and assertions of condom use, will enable health care providers to offer appropriate sexual health care and education. The stress that participants placed on finances, primary relationships and rejection of stereotypes will assist counsellors and practitioners to better understand men who buy sex and, more generally, sexuality and the human condition. The findings will contribute to dissolution of deviant stereotypes and will allow policy and law makers to consider consumer representatives in debates about the sex industry.