Men who buy sex: a nasty group whose DNA should be on file (says Farley)

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

18 thoughts on “Men who buy sex: a nasty group whose DNA should be on file (says Farley)

  1. RS

    Thanks for having the intellect and insight to parse Farley’s crap social science.

    Your article here should be broadly published and disseminated. If only more people had a strong mind like yours. 🙂

    Thanks for your good work.

  2. redpesto

    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.

    They might be buying porn for starters…

    Moreover, the ideologies of the ‘control group’ regarding women could be simultaneously anti-sex work (or anti-client) and sexist regarding women. This is just another variation on the argument that (to put it crudely) ‘Real Men Get Their Pussy for Free’.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Oh well, both groups could, of course, have all sorts of complicated other opinions and behaviours we don’t know about. The comparison here is narrowly conceived, to make a campaigning point.

  3. asturiano

    Mira Laura, creo que la mayoría de las personas investigadoras y activistas que defendéis la prostitución como un trabajo no tenéis ningún derecho ni justificación para defender la prostitución desde el punto de vista de los demandantes y consumidores (varones).
    Me gustaría que alguna de vosotras que sea madre (o padre) de algún hijo (varón) en edad adolescente tuviera la mala suerte de que ese hijo (un hijo sin ningún tipo de discapacidad o tara física)se hiciera una vez alcanzada la mayoría de edad (a pesar de una esmerada educación en valores igualitarios en la que sus padres o su madre le hubiera intentado educar) cliente habitual de prostitución; a ver entonces que decíais vosotr@s, defensor@s de la prostitución como trabajo.

    Por un lado, ignoráis abundantemente los factores estructurales que llevan a algunos hombres a probar la prostitución así como también los factores que determinan que algunos de estos se conviertan en clientes que repiten esta práctica (clientes habituales).
    Tampoco habláis nunca de aquellos hombres que dejan de ser clientes de la prostitución, de sus motivos y de las causas que hacen que dejen esta práctica, seguramente porque ello no os interesa para vuestra defensa de la prostitución como una oportunidad laboral para las mujeres y ciertas minorías (transgéneros…) . Algunos hombres que son clientes también son auto-críticos, y esto sin embargo vosotras no le concedéis la importancia que tiene. Quizás los hombres que son o han sido clientes de la prostitución y hacen algo de auto-crítica deberían ser escuchados por vosotras con más interés que aquellos que son poco o nada auto-críticos y que lo que hacen, sobre todo, es justificarse continuamente en su práctica como tales, muchas veces dando argumentos absolutamente patriarcales y egoístas (androcéntricos), o pueriles, o claramente ideológicos acerca de la sexualidad.
    Lo más sangrante de todos es que no decís nada (adoptando una actitud cínica, a mi entender) cuando algunos de esos hombres que son clientes no sólo se justifican a ellos mismos como tales, sino que incluso se atreven a realizar una defensa política de la demanda masculina de prostitución (claramente ideologizada en una línea individualista-neoliberal) y de su perfecto derecho -en tanto que personas “libres”- a realizar esta práctica.

  4. Lindsay

    What is more disturbing to me is that I know an actual SEX WORKER who thinks this is a good idea.

    1. Maggie McNeill

      A lot of sex workers buy into the “trafficking” mythology as well; I’ve read many comments and emails from such women who look around for where the “anti-trafficking” fingers are pointing and fail to realize that the supposed “sex slaves” are them and their friends and associates. It rather reminds me of Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros, in which the people who haven’t turned into rhinoceroses begin to perceive themselves as ugly outsiders.

      1. Laura Agustín

        I am uncomfortable myself, on this point. I understand the desire to distinguish between the authentically autonomous and willing and the enslaved, but both of these categories are easy fantasies, the hypothetical extremes on a continuum full of ambiguous, ambivalent, fluctuating cases of people sort of willing and sort of free but also constrained by a myriad of forces.

        1. Maggie McNeill

          I totally agree; in fact, it was your writing which helped me to fully realize how artificial both the “free” and “enslaved” categories are, not just for sex workers but for all humans.

          1. Laura Agustín

            Which applies to men-who-buy versus men-who-don’t-buy, too. As redpesto said above, the non-buying could be horrible in plenty of other ways, or ambivalent, contradictory and confused. Diametric opposites – very unlikely.

  5. chenoa

    Hmmm, Thank you Laura for your candor and intelligence around these topics. What sincerely bothers me is that very little if no discussion is made of the healing side of sexwork in research work like this. This kind of ‘one team of men’ against another is really an observation of basic male behaviour when it comes to each other. Basic male instinct is to go out there and conquer, to ensure the survival of the species and the tribe. It is impossible to do that if the male does not knwo where he stands in terms of his opponent, which is all those things in nature that threaten his genetic code from becoming the dominant one. To get on a team is classic survival tactic and to destroy the other team is part of that. This is why men must watch sports and know wins games. It is imperative for them to know where they stand and then to plot their course of action. This is subconcsious male behaviour. If people who do these stupid studies and then come up with stupid ideas in order to control and punish their idea of negatively behaving men could see how they are playing into and being a part of this unconsciousness, albeit lower consciousness, they would laugh at themselves.

    There is much to be said in this realm and I look forward to an incredible time of exposure of the dynamic wonderful world of sex work.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Research in this area is so far very limited in scope if not, now, in number. Mostly they are social-science research, sociological or psychological, and follow a standard format that doesn’t allow for anything remotely visionary. There are other kinds of writing that do talk about the issues you bring up, but this post of mine addresses a specific piece of recent research likely to be cited in the near future. The research here wants to make a particular narrow point. Alas.

      1. asturiano

        En castellano, y editado en España, te recomiendo que leas el estudio sociológico de Rafael López Insausti y David Baringo (2006) que lleva por título:

        “Nadie va de putas: el hombre y la prostitución femenina.”

        Contiene algunas aportes interesantes y novedosos.

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