Calling “These women”: tell us about your disorders…

This morning The Guardian published an opinion piece (Sptizer’s True Folly), in which I argued that we should promote laws which differentiate between the exchange of sex for money between consenting adults and the exploitation of children and unwilling workers. Here was one of the responses, from kathyw:

Oh, please. These women (and the transgendered men you mention) don’t take home those huge fees. They give a big share – sometimes a ridiculously large share- to their pimp or madam. Often they work as whores because they don’t have qualifications to do any other kind of work – indeed, they get fired from jobs they attempt in the business world because they have disorders, psychological or physical, that prevent them from staying at any routine.

In my annoyance, I called “kathyw” “maryk” in my response. I appeal to those with cooler heads to share your thoughts with kathyw, either on this site or at The Guardian.

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This post was published on 13/03/08 in Ideology and HIV, Pisani's picks, The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by Ibster, 13/03/08, 02:23:

    I read your article and liked it. I agree with most of it and I do look forward to your book coming out. Here’s my one big problem with sex work: the disproportionate representation of women. Why are there so many more female sex workers than male?

    Is it because the gender inequalities mean that only men can afford to buy sex? Do men biologically need to have more sex and are therefore prepared to pay for it? Is gender inequality such that this is the only decent paying work many women can get?

    I don’t suppose this disparity would make much difference if the sex trade wasn’t so heavily stigmatised and considered demeaning. The psychological impact of being part of an industry so widely condemned and disparaged can’t be anything but detrimental to those involved. In a world where women are rarely valued for anything other than sex and reproduction, it feels wrong to advocate for legalising an industry that cements those notions in the psyche of the general population. At the same time, to continue to criminalise those who buy and sell sex doesn’t seem right either.

    What I am saying I suppose is that I am unsure how decriminalisation will empower women in general and in particular empower those selling sex for food, firewood, housing and protection rather than as a profession.

  2. Comment by Amanda, 13/03/08, 04:09:


    Such a beautiful article. A perfect argument made in few words. (I REALLY cannot wait to read your book!)

    I didn’t have the energy to read through all the comments, as things usually degrade the more comments there are. But in response to both kathyw and Ibster…

    As a former sex worker (and with it a future possibility), it’s insulting to assume I am incapable of anything else or am so mentally deranged that doing menial labor (or being chained to a desk) is beyond my ken.

    Granted, if I had no education and was a struggling single mom, sex work would pay much better and give me more freedom than any other job I could have. It still comes down to a choice of maximizing my efforts — where can I make the most money with the benefits I want? Most sex workers are making a choice. It may not be their first choice but it is often their best choice.

    The Internet is changing the old pimp thing. The majority of the girls online are pimpless and loving it. Most of the girls on the street do still have pimps. But then, even suburban couples have pimps. They’re called mortgages, student loans and credit card debt. Most of these people’s earnings are handed over and they live paycheck to paycheck.


    There are men in sex work. They’re gay, or maybe bisexual. Societally, women just don’t enagage the services of sex workers in large numbers. I don’t think it’s biology, I think it’s society and economics.

    That aside, working to remove destigmitization and decriminalize sex work would actually provide bigger benefits to the low-level or survival sex workers. They would have more resources to help them, as well as making it easier for them to leave. Higher-level sex workers would simply lose the fear of arrest (and maybe enjoy the benefits of destigmitization).

    Because the laws are routinely inequally applied, changing the laws to favor the sex worker improves their lives immeasurably. But if that’s not enough (and this is Elizabeth’s blog, not mine), the system of criminalization has not worked by anyone’s standard. So maybe trying another route will mean better things for sex workers.

    …Unless you’re trying to stamp out sex work completely. That is a fairy tale. Human beings won’t change that much.


  3. Comment by Willie, 13/03/08, 05:39:

    Excellent article. I particularly liked the point, seldom made, that countries that have made it illegal to sell sex, still allow people to be paid to be filmed having sex.

    In reply to Amanda, I think there is a biological reason why there are fewer male prostitutes, although it’s not the only reason. There is a limit to how many erections a male can achieve in a 24 hour period. This limits the number of clients and potential earnings. The only exception might be a gay male prostitute who always took a passive role in sex.
    Also, aren’t many more male than female protitutes hidden behind the facade of ‘escorts’ rather than working the streets? So the number may be slightly larger than people realise.

  4. Comment by Ibster, 13/03/08, 05:48:


    Trying to stamp out sex work would be like trying to dry the ocean with a tea towel – a pointless waste of time. What I would be interested in, however, is trying to examine the link with gender inequality and sex work. I don’t think it’s really good enough to gloss over the gender inequality issues in sex work by saying it’s “society and economics” and leave it at that. You could very easily apply the same brush to the stigma surrounding sex work and say “it’s always been there; it’s society”.

    I think only by answering questions about how gender identity and the value of women in society interact with sex work, can we alleviate some of the problems associated with low-level/survival sex work and start to remove the stigma associated with sex work. For example, is the act of selling sex more stigmatised because it mainly involves women? In my experience gay male sex work is not as stigmatised within gay communities as it is in the wider community. Why is that?

    I suppose we don’t really need to unpack these issues, to decriminalise and destigmatise sex work, but I think more understanding would help in reaching those goals.

  5. Comment by Amanda, 13/03/08, 06:11:


    Thanks for clarifying your questions!

    Men seem compelled to seek sexual services more than women. Period. Women find other sexual outlets or pay for it in less-obvious ways. Even if everything was equal between men and women, I still think men would seek sex workers more. Of course, I have societal biases built in. Who knows what a really equal society would be like?

    I don’t consider this an inequality at all. Being female, I see it as an advantage. Even for survival sex workers, it’s a small opportunity for survival most men don’t have.

    A lot of the stigma from sex work seems to come from other women (maybe this is why it’s not so stigmatized among gays?). Even though men make the laws — by and large –there are women behind a lot of those laws. We see that today with the anti-trafficking zealots — most of whom are women.

    Why are women so anti-sex work? Many reasons have been given and I’m not sure what the real answer is. The idea of sex work deeply offends most women. Men, who are the consumers, generally aren’t so offended (not a surprise).

    In my year of being involved with sex worker activists, the feedback from women has been the most surprising and depressing. There is no sisterhood of support if you’re a woman who steps out of line. I feel very strongly that things would change in a heartbeat if all women banded together to support sex workers (of all genders).


  6. Comment by Amanda, 13/03/08, 06:16:


    I use the term “sex worker” very broadly. I’m well aware of gay escorts and they are sex workers too. So are transgendered folk, regardless of how they work. “Sex worker” doesn’t just mean street prostitute.


  7. Comment by Ibster, 13/03/08, 06:31:

    “Men seem compelled to seek sexual services more than women. Period”

    Actually, that’s probably the nub of my question, not the end of it. Why are men compelled to seek sexual services more than women? That, for me, needs to be unpacked and explored. You say that even if things were equal between men and women you still think men would seek sex workers more. Why is that? Does that not mean you think there is a biological reason for this compulsion?

    Or perhaps it’s more about the desire to possess others as sexual objects. Is this desire present in both men and women, but only satiated by men because of stigma and economics? Or is this desire driven by societal beliefs that woman are there to be sexually possessed?

    You also say that you consider it a small opportunity for survival most men don’t have. But isn’t more likely to be a small opportunity for survival that most men don’t need? Especially given the disadvantages faced by most women in most societies?

    I have to say, I am expecting anyone to know the answers to all these questions at all.

  8. Comment by Willie, 13/03/08, 07:15:

    amanda: I was actually referring to straight male prostitutes who call themselves ‘escorts’. Sorry I didn’t make that clear. That, of course, highlights one gender difference: women willing to pay for sex would be unlikely to go kerb-crawling in order to pick up street sex workers.

    I shouldn’t generalise from my own experience as a gay man, but I think there is some stigma around prostitution in the ‘gay community’ (awful phrase!).
    In particular, many gay men would not want to admit to paying for sex as this would imply desperation or their own lack of attractiveness. And it’s common for other gay men to whisper to someone “He’s rent”, as a warning not to start the process of chatting-up.

    To the extent that gay men are less censorious about prostitution in a general sense, that’s probably because they are a socially-discriminated against group themselves and until very recently in this country were outside the law.

    There is, of course, the ‘sugar daddy syndrome’ where sex is not paid for as such, but drinks, cigarettes, entertainment, food, etc are a key part of the relationship. That is equally common among heterosexuals and, as has often been said, sometimes it’s called ‘marriage’.

  9. Comment by elizabeth, 13/03/08, 07:26:

    Willie: I think same “deperation” dynamic may be something of a brake on women buying sex too. Humans are one of the very few species in which women are supposed to do the attracting. Our lad-mag norms are that every guy wants it, all the time. So if you’re a girl and you have to pay for it, you must be a real loser. PLUS you’re violating the lad-mag norms, which is that “nice girls” shouldn’t want unadulterated sex. Double stigma. So in the end, you slope off home alone.

  10. Comment by siewjai, 14/03/08, 12:09:

    While I have no doubt that economic and cultural factors have play in explaining why there are more female than male sex workers and more male than female sex clients, biology plays an important role as well, maybe the most important role. As Willie points out, men are far more limited than women in the frequency with which they can have sex. Most men are also less capable than women of having sex with partners unattractive to them. (One among the exceptions is rape as weapon, but that is much more about power than about sex. Nevertheless, I am puzzled by power rather than sexual desire spurring the necessary erection.) On the other hand, part, even a good part, of what drives humans sexually, as in virtually all other mammals regardless of gender (while birds, reptiles as well as insects procreate, do they have sex?), is the biological demand that they spread their genes as widely as possible. Like other mammalian females women are out of the gene spreading game while pregnant or lactating. And, like other mammalian males men are back in game as soon after sex as they can get an erection.

    Harems and other forms of polygamy are not unusual among humans and other primates. These arrangements allow the male who is powerful relative to neighboring males to spread his genes farther than the less powerful males can. The arrangements also provide females with protection and support during the long (relative to most other species) period of gestation and nurturing of the young.

    But what has this to do with sex work in which procreation is as much as possible deliberately excluded from the sexual interchange? One of the glories—and burdens—of humans is our ability to satisfy desires symbolically. With regard to gene spreading, humans are not alone in being able to act symbolically on the biological demand that they spread their genes. At least some primate males of other species—I don’t know about females—masturbate, an activity that seems clearly symbolic since it has no biological function. Many men and women find oral sex, a biological dead end, sexually satisfying. Some women satisfy their biological procreative needs symbolically with those cuddly lapdogs they treat, if they can afford it, like virtual children. Some men satisfy their biological procreative needs by paying for sex. Women are less likely to satisfy their biological procreative needs by paying for sex because their reproductive biology demands that they not just get pregnant but also provide themselves and their young with the help they usually need during gestation and nurturing. Thus women tend to have higher standards for acceptable sex partners than men do.

    Again, I do not want to reduce sex work to biology. But I do want to insist that biology plays a very large role in the practice.

    Beat change. Some other countries, Thailand and the Netherlands, have some experience with legalized (in law or practice) prostitution. Nevada also has experience with legalization. While my impression is that legalization will have the benefits Elizabeth suggests. But would it not strengthen the case to look and see what has actually happened where sex work—female, male, and trans—has been both permitted and regulated?

  11. Comment by jimsky, 14/03/08, 12:32:

    Why do men pay for sex? Perhaps it’s because we seem to have evolved into a kind of tap you can’t turn off. Women retain the power to simply take the bucket away when it’s full. Getting back to where we started, I have recently started visiting prostitutes, and so far have encountered several larky Japanese and Korean girls, students or nurses, supplementing their income in a discreet and well-run suburban brothel, and one very independent Brazilian lady. No pimps, no trafficking, no addiction, no personality disorder. Just a highly enoyable experience, which I try to make as much fun for them as for myself.

  12. Comment by anirud, 14/03/08, 07:27:

    An excellent article. I come from a country where prostitution is indeed illegal, but there is no dearth of sex workers. In any case, all the prisons emptied of criminals and put together cannot accomodate even ten per cent of them and the ladies would far outnumber the police force. Yet, there was a time, when it was permitted by law and the ladies of the profession were the best educated in all subjects including science and arts, very well paid and highly regarded.

    They could choose customers and they often exercised the right.

    This could lead to problems at times – captured in Mrcchakatika (the Clay Cart), a Sanskrit drama where a courtesan falls in love with an impoverished merchant in preference to a powerful politician. Thankfully, the politician didn’t have the power to proscribe the trade altogether. For synopsis see – http://www.enotes.com/little-clay-cart-salem/little-clay-cart and for a short exercpt of the movie adopted from the play – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tkrp59zYF4.

    When would these people realise that in order to control human being’s interest in sex and its desire to get it, one must first stop the biological pleasures involved in the act of reproduction? I fear that this task will be a little more difficult than adopting safe practices and even inventing a vaccine for aids.

  13. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 14/03/08, 12:05:

    “As Willie points out, men are far more limited than women in the frequency with which they can have sex.” Siewjai (and Willie, and others perhaps) are conflating “have sex” with “have penile-penetrative sex (possibly resulting in male ejaculation)”, that being the only kind of sexual act (as far as my imagination stretches) in which men are “far more limited than women in the frequency with which they can” indulge in it.

    One gathers from what one reads in both the popular and the scholarly press that many women find less sexual satisfaction, and have less sexual interest, in being penetrated (wherever) by a man’s penis than they have in any number of other forms of sexual activity (some — whether with or without a male participant — not involving penetration, with any body part or alternative, at all).

    One also gathers — contrary (I have read: for instance, in an excellent commentary by Marina Hyde in the _Guardian_, “Porn is screwing up young men’s expectations of sex”, published on 22 December 2007) to the impression one might gather from much contemporary pornography — that many, if not most, women have very little interest indeed in male ejaculation _per se_ as part of a satisfactory sexual experience.

    I welcome correction from those with more experience in the field.

  14. Comment by Willie, 14/03/08, 01:31:

    elizabeth: I’m no expert but my impression is that few young women would pay for sex. Articles on the sex industry suggest that the patrons of discreet escort services tend to be older women, either busy and affluent career women in their thirties or older, affluent, divorced or single women. Also, some older women seem to travel to the West Indies or third world countries in a form of female ‘sex tourism’.

    Lee: I have always argued against the obsession (both straight and gay) with penetrative sex, though you weren’t to know that. It has always been the focus of disapproval of homosexuality although in reality many gay men don’t practice it because they don’t like it, or they practice it with some partners and not others. Even so, there are many gay men who take the view that anything else is not ‘real sex’ because gay men are just as subject to the ‘conventional wisdom’ on sexual matters in the prevailing culture as anyone else.

    It’s true that a male does not need an erection if he is either the passive partner or simply the one doing the stimulating. However, I’d suggest that even where no penetrative sex is involved, most people want evidence that their partner is also sexually aroused and may see it as a failure on their part if he is not. If I’m right, then the mechanics of male sexual arousal does limit the number of partners a male can satisfy, regardless of the actual sex act involved.

    The article by Marina Hyde, which I read at the time, made some very salient points about the influence of pornography on male expectations. As you might expect, my knowledge of straight pornography is limited, but it’s reported that young men today increasingly demand anal sex from girls because it features so much in pornography. They may also expect women to usually wear stilettos in bed! All of which suggests to me that educators need to accept that young people now have ready access to explicit pornography, to discuss frankly the issues it raises about sexual practices and expectations and make clear the distinction between fantasy and reality. The chances of that happening in Britain are, of course, remote.

  15. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 14/03/08, 01:58:

    Willie: You write, “However, I’d suggest that even where no penetrative sex is involved, most people want evidence that their partner is also sexually aroused and may see it as a failure on their part if he is not.”

    My reading suggests that the single most common sexual act purchased by (American) men from sex workers (male or female) is fellation (by the sex worker, of the purchaser), and I find it easy to assume (always subject to empirical confirmation — but with plenty of anecdotal confirmatory evidence gathered from public, non-pornographic, sources) that, were there a large market in which (American) women were purchasing sexual activity from sex workers (male or female), a great many of the purchased sex acts would be cunnilingus (by the sex worker, on the purchaser). In such case, I would guess (still imagining, and still subject to empirical confirmation or refutation) that “evidence that their partner is also sexually aroused” could be provided histrionically (as one gathers it often is in the present market, and indeed outside the marketplace) without need of erection (in the case of a male sex worker), much less ejaculation.

  16. Comment by Willie, 14/03/08, 02:39:

    Lee: I’ve no evidence to dissent from what you say but I would be interested to see the evidence that many women prefer cunnilingus to penetration. Not that the two are mutually exclusive. I’m outside my comfort zone here but don’t many heterosexual liaisons include both?

    I do concede that my comments were based on the dodgy premise that most people are interested in their partner sharing their sexual pleasure. That would be even less likely in situations where the sex is being paid for.
    Even here we must be wary of generalising. I refer you to the comment of Jimsky above who uses prostitutes and says he tries to make it as enjoyable for them as for himself.

  17. Comment by elizabeth, 14/03/08, 05:48:

    Gentlemen, gentlemen!

    As siewjai points out, and the point is developed in the subsequent discussion, humans have an amazing ability for mixing fact with fanatsy. Willie,your premise is dodgy only inasmuch as it seems so concrete. We may or may not care about partners sharing sexual pleasure, but our own pleasure certainly rests on at least the illusion that we are giving pleasure. This is why ejaculation is so important to women.

    We’re constantly told sex is about orgasms. In fact, I was taken to task by one of the readers of a draft of my book for equating the two. Whether that reflects my experience or our shared cultural conditioning is neither here nor there. The fact is that both partners in many sexual transactions feel they have to deliver on satisfaction. If your partner doesn’t have an orgasm, you’ve failed. In the complex back-and-forth psychology of sex, women often fake it so that men feel better — paradoxically this sometimes allows the men to perform better, so a girl’s later orgasms may not be faked. For men, we equate orgasm with ejaculation. If a girl can’t deliver up on that for a man, then she can count herself a rotten lay. And if she’s fretting that she’s a rotten lay, she probably becomes one.

    Re young women buying sex: who said anything about young women? (oh, I see I used “girl”, as I tend to). Young women don’t buy because they don’t need to. That’s exactly why it is so difficult for older women to buy sex. It means accepting that your desire is greater than your pulling power. Blerch.

  18. Comment by KerinchiGuy, 15/03/08, 12:12:

    just wish to draw your and your readers’ attention to these prostituiton facts on this design observer blog post.
    just sharing.

  19. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 15/03/08, 01:27:

    Elizabeth: “We may or may not care about partners sharing sexual pleasure, but our own pleasure certainly rests on at least the illusion that we are giving pleasure.”

    Or, as William Blake put it a couple of hundred years back,

    What is it men in women do require?
    The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
    What is it women do in men require?
    The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

    And, having gone to the book to make sure I had it right (amazingly, I could only find one source for that quatrain through Google), what else do I find on the very same page?


    Abstinence sows sand all over
    The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
    But Desire Gratified
    Plants fruits of life and beauty there.

    and then

    In a wife I would desire
    What in whores is always found–
    The lineaments of Gratified desire.

    Blake the Blogger. Who knew?

  20. Comment by Willie, 15/03/08, 07:08:

    elizabeth: thanks for your comments from a woman’s perspective.
    To be honest, I was fumbling in the dark and trying to make sense of a complex subject and do so without generalising or being categorical, but not always succeeding.

  21. Comment by elizabeth, 15/03/08, 08:18:

    Lee: that Blake, eh? Zeitgeist before his Zeit.

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