It’s called the world’s oldest profession, and for good reason. According to British sociologist Catherine Hakim, prostitution thrives in every society of the modern world and has done so throughout recorded history. It’s not even a solely human enterprise, in that female chimpanzees have been observed exchanging sex for food.
In almost all localities in the United States, sex work is illegal, but its legal status varies widely around the world. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, it’s legal and regulated. In others, such as New Zealand, it’s decriminalized, meaning there are no laws regulating or restricting it. And in still other countries such as Thailand, it’s technically illegal but the laws aren’t enforced. Whether it’s legal or not, however, sex work is a stigmatized occupation everywhere in the world.
Sex workers are by and large women, and their customers are almost all men. To be sure, there are also male sex workers, but these also cater almost exclusively to men. Paid sex can be quite expensive, and men who seek it must often risk legal consequences, social stigma, and marital discord to pursue it. So, what kind of men pay for sex? This is the research question that Swedish psychologist Charlotte Deogan and her colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The study used data from a sample of over 6,000 Swedish men, aged 16-84, taken from a much larger survey of sexual and reproductive health conducted by the Public Health Agency of Sweden in 2017. The key question in this survey that formed the basis of this research project was: “Have you ever paid for or given other compensation for sex?”
Charlotte Deogan and her colleagues also considered other variables in the respondents’ sex life. In particular, respondents were asked to rate their level of sexual satisfaction. Those who indicated they were dissatisfied were given the opportunity to indicate their reasons. These included the lack of a sex partner, an insufficient number of sex partners, and not being able to have sex with their partner the way they’d like.
Other relevant questions looked at the participants’ online sexual activities. These included searching for a sex partner online and viewing pornography. Finally, Charlotte Deogan and her colleagues also looked at a variety of demographic traits, such as age, level of education, and income.
About 10 percent of the respondents indicated that they had paid for sex at some point in their lives. This number is similar to that obtained in other studies, although the percentage is typically somewhat higher in countries where prostitution is legal or tolerated. Deogan and colleagues point out that purchasing sex in Sweden has been illegal and rigorously prosecuted since 1999. However, it’s legal in many other European countries, and so it’s not difficult for Swedish men to go abroad on sex holidays.
Deogan and colleagues also found that older Swedish men were somewhat more likely to have paid for sex than their younger compatriots. However, it’s unclear why this is the case. It could be that older men tend to have more disposable income for purchasing sex, but it could also be the case that these older Swedes had engaged sex workers before it became illegal.
There may be other reasons as well why clients tend to be older. No doubt younger men find it easier to attract sex partners than older men do. Furthermore, younger men, even if they have disposable income, may be more sensitive to the stigma that surrounds paying for sex. The data available to Deogan and colleagues simply do not address this question, and this is clearly a topic for further research.
Deogan and colleagues also found no significant differences in income or education between men who have paid for sex and those who haven’t. In other words, men don’t engage sex workers only when they have the disposable income to do so. In fact, the researchers even noted a somewhat increased tendency to pay for sex at the lowest socioeconomic levels, suggesting that those men who may be too poor to attract a partner will save up for an occasional visit to a sex worker.
In the end, however, it was only the sex-life variables that predicted whether men had paid for sex or not. Specifically, those who reported being dissatisfied with their sex life and who had looked for or met sex partners online were five times more likely to have also paid for sex than other men in the sample. Moreover, those who frequently viewed pornography were three times more likely to have paid for sex.
These three sex-life variables (dissatisfaction, online dating, and porn use) are all likely effects of high sex drive. Individual men and women vary greatly in terms of how much sex they want. But as Catherine Hakim points out, men, on average, have higher sex drives than women at all ages, and this gap only widens with age. While young women usually have no problem attracting as many sex partners as they want, some older women have little desire for sex.
This widening gap between the sex drives of men and women leads to what Hakim calls the “male sexual deficit.” Especially as men enter into middle age, they often find themselves with a spouse who is no longer interested in sex. Those older men who can still attract younger women will do so, either by having extramarital affairs or else by divorcing and remarrying. Meanwhile, those who can’t do so may turn to sex workers instead to meet their sexual needs.
In Sweden, prostitution is viewed as a social ill based on gender inequality, and the legal strategy has been to prosecute those who purchase sex rather than those who sell it. Charlotte Deogan and her colleagues seem to agree with this view, and they maintain that their research can help set policies aimed at eradicating sex work in order to increase gender equality in Sweden.
Catherine Hakim, in contrast, argues that the male sex deficit is so great that sex work can never be completely abolished, since there will always be young women willing to make their living by meeting the needs of “generous gentlemen.” Thus, criminalizing the sex trade only makes it more dangerous for sex workers to ply their trade.
Then how do we best protect the women who engage in sex work? Jerald Mosley, a retired attorney at the California Department of Justice, conducted extensive interviews with sex workers and found that they overwhelmingly had a positive attitude toward their profession. This further suggests that legalizing or decriminalizing sex work is the best way to protect the women and men who choose to engage in this line of work.
Furthermore, the sex workers Mosley talked with confirmed what Hakim, as well as Deogan and colleagues, found in their research—that is, that men who pay for sex do so because they aren’t getting their sexual needs met in their everyday relationships.
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Deogan, C., Jacobsson, E., Mannheimer, L., & Björkenstam, C. (2020). Are men who buy sex different from men who do not? Exploring sex life characteristics based on a randomized population survey in Sweden. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01843-3
Hakim, C. (2015). The male sexual deficit: A social fact of the 21st century. International Sociology, 30, 314-335.
Mosley, J. L. (2021). Sex workers and their clients. Palgrave McMillan.