“Could the oldest profession be losing its customers?” The Los Angeles Times posed that question this week on the heels of a new study showing that American men are becoming less and less likely to say that they’ve exchanged money for sex. The latest iteration of the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey found that last year, 9.1 percent of men “had ever paid for or received payment for sex.” In the 1990s, 17 percent of men said the same thing. I asked Melissa Gira Grant—the writer behind the blog postwhoreamerica.com, and the author of the forthcoming book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work—to help peek behind the numbers. Our email chat has been condensed and edited.
Slate: The study and coverage of it imply that reducing the incidence of sex work is a good thing. Is it?
Melissa Gira Grant: I'd want to know what people who say "reducing the incidence of sex work is a good thing" think sex work is, who does it, and why. Do they mean ending the disproportionate violence sex workers face from police? Ending HIV? Ending poverty? Sign me up. But you don't end any of that by eradicating sex work.
I think what too many people mean when they say they want to reduce sex work is that they don’t want to drive by a motel where they think sex work happens, or they don’t want to come across sex ads online, or they're just sick of seeing those "sex slaves next door" shows on MSNBC. They're letting how sex work makes them feel override reality, and they're missing the point. (Though I agree—those cable shows are the worst).
Slate: The L.A. Times lists a few theories on why prostitution rates might be dropping in the U.S.: (1) "looser sexual mores," meaning more people willing to have casual sex "for free"; (2) fear of HIV; (3) a drop in military service; (4) a proliferation of websites that frame sex work in semiprofessional terms, like "sugar daddy" websites, that some people may not conceive of as traditional prostitution when they are answering a survey; or that (5) men are just lying. Do any of those theories strike you as particularly plausible or implausible?
Gira Grant: I hesitate to comment on the findings of this study at all. The L.A. Times reports that the question posed to men in the study was if they had "ever paid for or received payment for sex." This lumps together male sex workers with male customers. How seriously can we consider the reported "drop" in men who answered "yes" to this question? The question doesn't tell us anything about why men might be patronizing sex workers less, because it doesn't even tell us how many men have actually patronized sex workers.
Slate: I'm also wondering what you think about a related theory about the demand for sex work: It's not simply that people today are more willing to have sex "for free," but that women today enjoy greater equality with men in education, work, and in our social lives. I'd imagine it might drive down the demand for sex work when men and women are on a more equal playing field in general. Ditto with lifting stigmas against gay men—when sex between men is normalized in our culture, the less demand there might be for a black market for buying and selling it. But I'm speculating.
Gira Grant: Let's test this with other transactional forms of relationships. Does the availability of a partner who will cook for you mean you stop going to restaurants? Does having a caring partner who listens to you complain at the end of the day mean you will fire your therapist?
I think it's a mistake—but an understandable one given our culture and attitudes around sex—to imagine that people who buy sex do so because they don't have access to sexual pleasure from anyone else, in any other way. That might be true of some people who buy sex or sexual services, but—like buying a meal or therapy—when many people buy sex, they are also purchasing the environment and circumstances and even expertise that come with that sexual experience. People buy sex to have a kind of sex that they might not otherwise have, or want to have, with their intimate partner. They may buy a kind of sexual experience as a kind of escape or retreat, as ethnographers like Elizabeth Bernstein and Katherine Frank have documented in their work.
People will always want to buy sex. If anything, fighting gender inequality has helped women engaged in sex work to have more control and power in their lives. It was street-based sex workers who saw that police were using laws against sex work to abuse and control them—and take their earnings—who kicked off the modern prostitutes' rights movement. They saw gender inequality as something that held them back, too, no matter what they did for a living.
Slate: Another narrative around modern sex work is that the Internet has created a greater freelance-semiprofessional economy for it—potentially even among some people who wouldn't otherwise seek out that work. It sounds similar to the story we hear about doing other work online, like writing. Do you think the Internet has exploded (and compromised) the market for sex work in the same way it has for writing, illustration, music, or design?
Gira Grant: The Internet has absolutely opened up sex work to a broader and more diverse group of people, who might do sex work as one of many freelance gigs they take on. Looking at cam sites and sugar daddy sites—or better yet, looking at their tumblrs where they talk shop—I see a lot of newbie models and sugar babies selling an image of, "I'm not the kind of girl who you'd ever expect to do this."
But—caution. It might be easier to find women engaged in even casual sex work, and easier to hear them talk about their work like that, but it doesn't mean necessarily that there are more of them than ever before. I'm sure the first call girl to get a telephone in her apartment so she didn't have to wait for her madam to send her customers used a line like that, too. If we really want to talk about what's exploding the market for sex work, we should look at the cost of education and health care.
It's a good thing we have all these questions, but the study on the number of "johns" (which is not a word I use, and not a word many sex workers use, either) going down can't answer them. It's only concerned with men's activities. And in asking about commercial sex as a kind of sexual activity, it can't offer answers to any of the questions people seem to really have about buying sex—the hows and whys and the what nows. For those answers, we need better research, and we need to ask sex workers.