The Link Between Attitudes to Sex Work and Gender Equality
Are men who pay for sex and use porn sexist? Quite the opposite.
Posted May 30, 2020
Contemporary opposition to sex work, such as prostitution and pornography, is based on the belief that sex work is incompatible with gender equality because it is not only degrading to women, but plays a role in maintaining structural inequality in society. These arguments are often rooted in radical feminist theorizing that prostitution reinforces cultural ideals based on dominance and control of women and that pornography encourages men to accept abusive attitudes to women and/or women to accept sexual subjugation by men. However, these negative claims about sex work are contradicted by the fact that modern sexually liberal societies in which pornography circulates freely also happen to be the most progressive in terms of women’s rights, while sexually restrictive societies in which prostitution and pornography are harshly suppressed also tend to be those in which women have the fewest legal protections and are most likely to be subjected to institutionalized violence (McNair, 2014). It is also worth pointing out that, despite assertions that access to pornography leads men to rape and abuse women, increased availability of access to pornography in Western countries has been associated with reductions in rates of sexual offending (McNair, 2014). In addition, recent research suggests that men who use the services of prostitutes (Brents et al., 2020) and who use pornography (Kohut et al., 2016) are actually more likely to support gender equality than other men, contrary to feminist theorising that these things promote negative attitudes towards women’s rights.
To examine what men who pay for sex think about women’s rights, Brents et al. (2020) used data from the 2014 General Social Survey, a large-scale survey of American adults 18 years and older that is conducted on a regular basis. The survey included questions about respondents’ attitudes on gender equality for women’s roles in the home, work, and politics, as well as about how often respondents had paid for or attempted to make arrangements to pay for sex. The results showed that men who had paid for sex were more likely to support gender equality in the home, work, and politics compared to men from the general population.
A similar study (Kohut et al., 2016) on pornography use also examined data from the General Social Survey in 2011, which included questions about respondents' attitudes toward women holding positions of political power, women working outside the home, abortion, and the traditional family. Additionally, respondents were asked if they self-identified as feminist and whether they had viewed an X-rated film in the preceding year. Furthermore, both male and female respondents were considered, and their attitudes compared. Respondents who had used pornography had more positive attitudes toward women in power, and less negative attitudes toward women in the workplace and toward abortion than respondents who had not. Pornography users of both sexes had more positive attitudes toward women in power than non-users, although more so if they were women. Regarding attitudes to the traditional family, there were no differences between pornography users and non-users. Interestingly, those who identified as feminists were no more or less likely to use pornography.
Hence, despite radical feminist claims that sex work upholds “hegemonic masculinity” by legitimizing “men’s dominance over women” and “devaluing women or women’s roles” (Brents et al., 2020), it would seem that men who pay for sex, and both men and women who use pornography, are actually more likely to have progressive views that uphold gender equality. One might ask why this is the case. A reasonably obvious explanation might be that sexual liberalism is associated with political liberalism in a broad sense—that is, belief in the importance of personal freedom goes hand-in-hand with respect for both sexual freedom and support for women’s rights. Conversely, those who would restrict sexual freedom may also be more likely to restrict human rights more generally, including women’s rights. McNair (2014) pointed out that societies in which women are disadvantaged in a wide range of respects (e.g., human rights, political rights, workforce participation, and economic independence) are also those in which they are most likely to be sexually assaulted, and in which pornography and sexual expression generally are tightly restricted, usually on religious grounds. McNair is careful to point out that this does not necessarily mean that increasing access to pornography will somehow improve the status of women; instead, he suggests that access to pornography is a feature of a more sexually open society that respects the rights of women.
Beyond an explanation based on liberalism, evolutionary psychology may also have some insights worth considering about why some people prefer sexually liberal politics while others have more restrictive preferences, and how this might be related to gender equality. In a previous post on the relationship between attitudes toward drugs and sexual promiscuity, I discussed a theory that people’s views on a range of social issues may be influenced by their own preferred reproductive strategies (Kurzban et al., 2010). Specifically, people who prefer a strategy involving long-term commitment to a single partner will tend to support more sexually restrictive social policies, as they may perceive sexual permissiveness as a threat to their lifestyle. Additionally, such people are more likely to be conventionally religious, as traditional religions tend to promote monogamy and discourage promiscuity. On the other hand, those who prefer a more promiscuous lifestyle will tend to support policies that facilitate sexual opportunities. A previous study (Wright et al., 2013) using four decades of data from the General Social Survey (1973 to 2010) showed consistently that women who consumed pornography tended to have more sexually permissive attitudes, had more recent sexual partners, and were more likely to have engaged in extramarital sex and paid sex. Additionally, studies in many other countries have found that pornography consumption is associated with sexually permissive attitudes (Wright et al., 2013). This would suggest that people who enjoy pornography are also more likely to prefer a promiscuous reproductive strategy. Based on the theory that people support policies that favour their own preferred reproductive strategies, it may be the case that people intuitively understand that a society with high levels of gender equality, in which women have freedom to choose their preferred lifestyle, is also likely to be one with a sexually permissive culture. Hence, men who pay for sex and people who enjoy pornography might be more inclined to support gender equality because it is more compatible with their preferred sexual strategies. Conversely, those who oppose sex work might do so because of their own preference for monogamy, and therefore may be more willing to deny women their rights. If this is the case, it might go some way to explaining why anti-pornography crusades often seem to involve an otherwise puzzling alliance between radical feminism and conservative politics (Hamblin, 2016).
Brents, B. G., Yamashita, T., Spivak, A. L., Venger, O., Parreira, C., & Lanti, A. (2020). Are Men Who Pay for Sex Sexist? Masculinity and Client Attitudes Toward Gender Role Equality in Different Prostitution Markets: Men and Masculinities. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X20901561
Hamblin, J. (2016, April 14). How One State Declared Pornography a “Public-Health Crisis.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/04/a-crisis-of-education/478206/
Kohut, T., Baer, J. L., & Watts, B. (2016). Is Pornography Really about “Making Hate to Women”? Pornography Users Hold More Gender Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2015.1023427
Kurzban, R., Dukes, A., & Weeden, J. (2010). Sex, drugs and moral goals: Reproductive strategies and views about recreational drugs. Proceedings. Biological Sciences, 277(1699), 3501–3508. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.0608
McNair, B. (2014). Rethinking the effects paradigm in porn studies. Porn Studies, 1(1–2), 161–171. https://doi.org/10.1080/23268743.2013.870306
Wright, P. J., Bae, S., & Funk, M. (2013). United States Women and Pornography Through Four Decades: Exposure, Attitudes, Behaviors, Individual Differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1131–1144. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-013-0116-y