The recent Newsweek article on The Growing Demand for Prostitution is leading to some needed and heated discussion about male sexuality. Leslie Bennetts’ piece is based on a brand-new study of men who buy sex, and the first shock is how much difficulty the researchers had finding men who didn’t pay for sex.
…buying sex is so pervasive that (the researchers) had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don’t do it. The use of pornography, phone sex, lap dances, and other services has become so widespread that the researchers were forced to loosen their definition in order to assemble a 100-person control group.
“We had big, big trouble finding nonusers,” Farley says. “We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.”*
The second shock is about men’s honesty – or lack thereof – around this issue.
In the past 24 hours I’ve gotten at least a dozen requests to address this Newsweek piece, almost all of them from women. And several asked me the same plaintive question: are men really like this? One woman wrote, “Now I’m looking at all the men I know, and wondering what it is they’re really doing – and thinking.” Another wrote, “I’m so depressed. It seems like it’s impossible to find a man who isn’t addicted to porn.”
What’s so frustrating isn’t just the percentage of men who pay for sex. It’s the percentage of men who lie about it to their wives and girlfriends, or who minimize the frequency of their porn use. “I used to have a problem with porn” is the grim equivalent of the famous “I used to have an eating disorder.” All too often, that’s wishful thinking if not outright deception. Frequently, what guys try to explain away as a past problem is instead an ongoing habit.
Because so many men are dishonest about sex, either lying directly or being “economical with the truth” about their private behavior, women are left feeling unsafe and mistrustful. Of course, not every single man uses porn or buys sex in other forms. But a great many do, as Newsweek reminds us, and they do include husbands and boyfriends, brothers and fathers, bosses and teachers, coaches and co-workers. That so many women are unsettled by that reality is as much a reflection of what they don’t know about the men in their lives as what they do.
Before we can have the important debate between those who advocate for abolition and those who push for decriminalization of sex work (a key point in the Newsweek article), we need to first get honest about what we’re doing when no one’s watching.
I’ve heard from many guys who tell me that they lie about porn (and the other kinds of sex they may buy) because, as one put it to me, “women go ballistic when you tell them the truth.” But it’s not women’s job to ratchet down their anger in order to make it safe for men to get real. We owe it to the women we love – and to ourselves – to have the courage to name what it is we’re doing and how often we’re doing it.
Whatever your beliefs about porn and prostitution, we should be able to agree that the women (and men) who do sex work deserve to be treated with human dignity rather than contempt. In the same way, wives and girlfriends deserve the truth. It’s not too much to expect, and it’s not too much to ask.
* Lots of guys say that they only look at free porn online, and they object to being lumped in with those who use cash or credit to buy access to sex. But of course, virtually all “free” porn sites are supported by advertisers who often pay based on web traffic. Each visit is monetized one way or another; anyone who thinks he isn’t contributing financially to the industry because he isn’t paying doesn’t understand the economics of the web.
photo by carabendon / Flickr