Are men who pay for sex normal, or just weird?

Paying for sex has long been characterized as an inevitable behavior among men, but newly published research suggests it's far less common than recent media attention would suggest. This raises interesting questions relating to sexuality and deviance in men who do solicit prostitutes. Are these men "normal"? Is there anything that sets them apart from the rest of the population, other than their tendency to pay for sex?

In 2011, Newsweek published a feature titled "The John Next Door." Citing controversial research by anti-prostitution and anti-pornography activist Melissa Farley, the article focuses largely on the assertion that your friends, loved ones, neighbors and colleagues are paying for sex everywhere all the time. "Men of all ages, races, religions, and backgrounds do it," the piece begins. "Rich men do it, and poor men do it." The shocking bit isn't just that sex for money is pervasive, it's that the customer is the everyman. Hence the "John Next Door."

As critics of the article have pointed out, much of its impact hinges on some rather nebulous claims. Take this doozy, for example (emphasis added):

...Surprisingly little is known about the age-old practice of buying sex, long assumed to be inevitable. No one even knows what proportion of the male population does it; estimates range from 16 percent to 80 percent.

You don't need a firm grasp of statistical methods to recognize the issue with those figures, or the implications of tying them to claims that one's friends and neighbors are soliciting prostitutes on the regular. As psychologist Martin Monto and psychotherapist Christine Milrod explain in a study published in the latest Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, comprehensive studies of male solicitation habits are sorely lacking, and those that do exist share significant flaws in experimental design. Alfred Kinsey, for example, concluded in 1948 that roughly 69% of men had visited a prostitute at least once in their lifetimes, but as Monto and Milrod point out:

...the 12,000 cases from which Kinsey et al. drew their conclusions were gathered entirely through convenience sampling of colleagues and friends, and from places such as fraternities, attendees at sexuality lectures, and men in gay bars. Despite its large size, the sample is far from representative. Later research by Benjamin and Masters (1964) used Kinsey et al.’s numbers as well as their own nonrepresentative data to estimate that almost 80% of American men had visited prostitutes during their lifetime.

In their newly published study, Monto and Milrod adressed the issue of nonrepresentative data by relying on the nationally representative General Social Survey (GSS), and conclude that "prostitution seeking is relatively uncommon." Fourteen percent of men are estimated to have paid for sex in their lives, the researchers report, and just 1% of them have done so in the last year. But these figures highlight something of a sociological catch-22. Write Monto and Milrod:

...much of the scholarly work on customers of prostitutes can be seen as taking either an “every man perspective” or a “peculiar man perspective.” In the former, prostitution is seen as a common, perhaps even inevitable, behavior among men... [while] the “peculiar man perspective”... has depicted customers as deviants with mental or moral deficiencies that have led to their behavior.

Are men who pay for sex normal, or just weird?

The researchers tested the peculiar man perspective by comparing men who actively solicit sex on the internet (dubbed "hobbyists") with an older sample of arrested customers, a selection of customers from the GSS, and a nationally representative sample of non-customers.

Monto and Milrod found little compelling evidence that men who are arrested for soliciting prostitutes possess obvious peculiarities that set them apart from the other men. Arrested customers, for example, were only found to be slightly less likely to be married, slightly more likely to be employed full-time, and slightly less likely to be white than non-customers. They were also found to be a tad more sexually liberal, though the researchers note that "differences were very small on the item regarding attitudes toward homosexuality." All that being said, some glaring differences did emerge.

Of the "hobbyists" surveyed – i.e. those men who had never been arrested, and sought out sex workers listed on a prostitute review website – a significant number of them were found to share a number of qualities. Monto and Milrod run us through the numbers:

Hobbyists were older and more likely than all other groups to be 50 to 59 years of age. They were more likely to be White (84.9%), more likely to report having completed an undergraduate (37.9%) or postgraduate degree (41.2%), and reported having significantly higher salaries than all other groups. While only about 20% of the other men reported salaries of US$60,000 or above, more than 80% of the hobbyists did, with 43.1% reporting annual salaries above US$120,000. Hobbyists were more likely to be married (62.4%), more sexually liberal, and reported having far more partners than all other groups.

In brief: un-arrested "hobbyists" tended to be married, well-educated, wealthy and white. If these men are WEIRD, these findings suggest they are only so in the acronymic sense, insofar as they are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. (Democratic here referring to the form of government, not the party affiliation.)

Are men who pay for sex normal, or just weird?

This observation, Monto and Milrod point out, supports a thought-provoking, if uncomfortable, conclusion. "Privileged men, such as our wealthier sample of review website clients, are generally not marginalized or threatened due to their sexual behavior," the researchers explain. "In contrast, customers associated with street prostitution are likely to have fewer financial and social resources." It has been argued that men from the latter camp are explicitly targeted by law enforcement in marginalized areas or transitional neighborhoods. Monto fleshes this idea out in a statement:

The emphasis on teaching about 'sex addiction' and 'healthy relationships' to arrested men further supports the notion that customers of street prostitutes are endowed with some form of psychopathology that needs reorientation toward more accepted forms of sexual relations. The focus on treatment fails to separate paying for sex and being psychologically impaired.

That's a glaring oversight with broad socioeconomic implications, considering that there are, in fact, profound differences between the categories of men who solicit prostitutes – most of which, this evidence suggests, have little to do with psychological impairment, or sexual deviance.

This study doubles as a really fantastic literature review, and covers more information relating to prostitution, solicitation and psychopathy than can possibly be covered here, including some of the most recent research in a growing body of literature that explores whether prostitution-seeking is a "conventional aspect" of male sexual behavior, how prostitution does or does not reinforce the dominant sociological status of men, and to what extent sexuality is, in fact, what Foucault called "the psychiatrization of perverse pleasure." The article is available free of charge for a limited time – we encourage you to check it out.

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