A few months ago, Newsweek published a story with Melissa Farley’s dire comments about men who buy sex as the cause of prostitution and violence towards sex workers. The research paper behind that story is more scientific and less irresponsible than her previous work, thank goodness. I don’t believe there is some absolute real scientific vision we can bring to social research, but there are better and worse attempts, and this one is better. For one thing, it used the usually omitted mechanism of the control group, here comparing men who buy sex (her pathologised group) with men who don’t buy sex (belonging to the same demographic).
Farley does not like the oft-heard notion that such large numbers of men buy sex at some point in their life it becomes almost normal, since that might justify fatalistically accepting commercial sex as a timeless aspect of life impossible to eradicate. The research here concludes that men who buy sex are different from men who don’t, associated, for one thing, with other criminal activities. This leads Farley to recommend treating them more like criminals – specifically, like sex offenders. In Creating Monsters I warned that, the way things are going in the End Demand movement, clients could be conceptualised as a new category of sex offender, to be placed on the infamous registers that make living a conventional life nearly impossible for many. It turns out a few US states had already started thinking this way, and so had Farley.
She claims that non-sex-buying men are better men, based on their responses to her questions. But there is something not right in her logic, in how the supposed control group is conceived, so that she makes a point of relating what the non-buyers (the control) think about the buyers.
We asked both groups of men what words they would use to describe sex buyers. All (100%) of the sex buyers described themselves in terms of dominance (player, stud, powerful). There were differences in the descriptors they used, with more non-sex buyers labeling buyers as losers, unethical, or desperate. Fewer non-sex buyers labeled buyers as normal or as studs/players/powerful than did sex buyers (Table 12).
I am not sure why the opinions of one group of men about the other should have any bearing on the research, by the way, but, if it does, then the research needs to be balanced and tell us what the buyers said about the non-buyers. Right? I mean, maybe the buyers would say the non-buyers are losers or scaredy-cats. But the idea of control groups is not to ask one to comment on the other, and it seems to me that this asymmetry will have influenced how people responded and what the results appear to show. She doesn’t supply her questionnaire, so checking isn’t possible.
Another problem with interview technology is that the non-buyers might say nicer things about women, but we don’t know how they actually behave. Just as saying ugly things about women is disagreeable but does not in itself prove that those speaking are going to do anything bad.
Farley, however, aims to promote the idea that there is a particular type of man who buys sex, a sexist-pig type. So if we are dealing with a small, nasty group, it should be easier to wipe out prostitution. The trouble is this very view began to be debunked not so long ago in papers like The Sex Exploiter, which suggest instead that men buy sex opportunistically: not necessarily seeking out underage sex partners, for example, but rather not bothering to investigate their age. This means anyone can become a sex buyer, the way anyone can become a sex seller, given the right circumstances. And, by the way, not pathologising prostitutes as a special group (innately prone to vice) is considered everywhere an advance in our understanding of human behaviour, so why would we not do the same for clients?
In addition to placing clients on sex-offender lists, the report recommends mandatory DNA testing:
Given the criminal history of sex buyers documented in this research, one would anticipate that other criminal activity including sexual violence might occur in the future. Obtaining DNA samples from arrested johns may be useful to consider matches with evidence obtained in past and future crimes. DNA samples would be predicted to serve as a deterrent to buying sex since most people who commit crimes do not want their DNA taken.
They might do something bad later as justification for taking their DNA? Is this kind of policing really part of a utopic plan for equality of the sexes? Her Table 20. List of Esteemed Supporters for Taking DNA Samples From Arrested Sex Buyers does not help. Here we have the now well-known alliance of some feminists with Law and Order, or Discipline and Punishment, if you will.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist