What Are Men Really Paying for When They Pay for Sex?
New research explores the emotional labor involved in sex work.
Posted Jun 25, 2020
Far too often we talk about sex as simply a physical act. A way to scratch an itch, "get off," or release some building sexual tension.
But, of course, sex can be so much more than that. In the context of a consensual partnership, sex can be a way to experience closeness and connection, a way to express love and affection, a way to tap into a more sensual and playful side of ourselves, and perhaps even a way to escape the demands and stresses of life for a few moments.
But what about when sex is being paid for? Is paid sex simply a physical act? Or are those who pay for sex getting something more out of the sexual experience?
In a new study just published in The Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Huysamen at the University of Cape Town interviewed 43 cisgender men living in South Africa who had paid for sex. Participants were between 22 and 67 years old. Just over half identified as White, 13 identified as Indian, three identified as Black, and one participant identified as "Coloured." Interviews took place in one of three modalities: face-to-face, video calls, and instant messaging. The interviews included a number of open-ended questions about participants' stories and experiences of paying for sex.
Losing One’s Virginity
Approximately one quarter of men in this study indicated that the first time they paid for sex was also their first sexual encounter. In that sense they were paying for sex as a means of losing their virginity.
These men tended to describe being a virgin as something negative or embarrassing. Whether they were in their late teens or early twenties, these men said they felt they were too old to be a virgin and wished to rid themselves of the title.
These men typically described feeling shy and nervous when talking to or approaching women "in real life." They said paid sex offered them a space where they could overcome their insecurities and low self-esteem and sidestep their awkwardness in approaching women, while still being able to lose their virginity.
Some men in this study described feeling immense pressure when dating, in which the first sexual encounter felt like a performance that could either make things more serious or end a relationship altogether.
These men described the fear that if a woman did not want to see him again after having sex, it was interpreted as being a result of a poor sexual performance on his end. In that sense, sex in the early stages of a relationship was riddled with the potential for rejection.
In contrast, paid sex allowed for a shared understanding of what was (and was not) going to follow sex. Both the man paying for sex and the sex worker understood the nature of the transaction and there were no misunderstandings about there being a potential future together.
There continues to be a dominant discourse about men needing to be sexually skilled and the ones who provide sexual pleasure. In the context of paid sex, however, men in this study described that these pressures decreased.
When having sex with a sex worker, men said they did not worry about being sexually inexperienced. They said they felt less compelled to put on a performance than they might feel with a woman they were dating or hooking up with.
Further, men not only described not feeling pressure to be sexually skilled with a sex worker, they indicated that the sex worker was expected to have sexual skills. Some men indicated that through paid sex they actually could learn new sexual skills that they might use with other women in other circumstances.
The author of the study notes that this dynamic suggests a different power dynamic than we traditionally hear about. That is, in this case, men are describing themselves as being less dominant and learning skills from a mature or experienced teacher.
Navigating Sexual Difficulties
Paid sex was also described as giving some men a non-threatening context where they felt safe to engage in sex despite their sexual concerns, including the fear of being unable to have an erection.
That is, men indicated that they felt more comfortable asking for specific needs to be met in order to have or maintain their erections without the feelings of vulnerability they might otherwise experience (or fear experiencing) with a partner.
The descriptions of having one's own sexual needs being met was complex, with some men sounding vulnerable or self-conscious about their sexual needs while others described privileging their own pleasure, sometimes to the point degrading or dominating the sex worker in the process.
Beyond simply a physical act, the men in this study indicated that paying for sex included paying for a place to manage their anxieties and vulnerabilities, address sexual problems, and avoid rejection they might otherwise face in the dating world.
The findings further expand our ideas of what it is that men are really buying when they pay for sex and suggests we may underestimate the amount of emotional labor that goes into sex work.
Huysamen, M. (2020). "There's a massive pressure to please her:" On the discursive production of men's desire to pay for sex. The Journal of Sex Research, 57, 5, 639-649. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2019.1645806