Does It Matter If Prostitution Clients are More Aggressive?

A few weeks ago people were talking about a new study by Melissa Farley that purports to find correlations in men between the purchase of sexual services and aggression towards women.

Sex buyers were more likely than men who did not buy sex to report sexual aggression and likelihood to rape. Men who bought sex scored higher on measures of impersonal sex and hostile masculinity and had less empathy for prostituted women, viewing them as intrinsically different from other women. When compared with non-sex-buyers, these findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men at risk for committing sexual aggression […]

(Speaking of lack of empathy and treating sex workers as intrinsically different from other women, the phrase “prostituted women” implicitly robs sex workers of their agency, making it easier for anti-prostitution activists to ignore the voices of sex workers. That sort of language is a longstanding complaint from sex work activists. You’d think “facultied women” like Farley would know that by now.)

I really didn’t feel like reading the whole study, and fortunately I didn’t have to, because Elizabeth Nolan Brown has read it and she has a few concerns which are worth reading if you’re wondering about the accuracy of the study. Having said that, I’m not so sure that accuracy matters, because even if the study holds up, I don’t see how you can get from the results of this study to a policy of prohibiting sex work. If sex work clients are disproportionately dangerous, then wouldn’t it make more sense to decriminalize prostitution so that sex workers don’t have to work in secret and can safely ask for help when they need it?

I broke down and read some of the study, and it turns out Farley and company explain their thinking this way (internal citations omitted):

Researchers of prostitution have been largely polarized into two camps based on whether they understand prostitution to be primarily sexual labor or primarily sexual abuse.


Is a sex buyer’s use of a woman in prostitution motivated by the same dynamics that lead a person with resources to seek a service provider to clean their house or shine their shoes, or is the use of a woman in prostitution more akin to the dynamics seen in perpetrators of sexual violence? […] If buyers of sex, compared to those who do not buy sex, score higher on attitudes and behaviors of sexual aggression, given that prostitution is also a sexual practice, that result would empirically suggest that, for the consumer population, prostitution is a practice that is consistent with those attitudes and behaviors, making it more similar to a practice of sexual aggression than to the purchase of other services.


The question of whether prostitution is more like a job or whether it is more like abuse/sexual aggression is an important question on a societal level as well because it leads to very different policies. If prostitution is understood primarily as labor, then it needs to be legalized and regulated (as in the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia). If prostitution is understood primarily as abuse/sexual aggression, it needs to be abolished (as in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland).

That approach struck me as so wrong-headed that I had to stop writing this post because I couldn’t figure out how to explain why it bothers me. (And it’s not just because I’m shocked to read that prostitution has been successfully abolished in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland — which must be really shocking to Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic prostitutes.) It’s just absurd to try to determine if a relationship is exploitative by looking at aggregate statistics about psychology and attitude.

I mean, prostitution is often conflated with sex trafficking, a form of slavery, but would it make sense to judge whether slavery in America was bad for the slaves by profiling slave owners to see if they had sadistic tendencies?

Let me expand on that example. Not every black person living in the South was a slave. For a variety of reasons, about half of all free blacks — a couple of hundred thousand people — chose to live and work in the American South right up until the Civil War. In particular, some types of plantations had slaves working as skilled craftsmen. If they were freed, they often stayed in the area for economic reasons: They had developed skills that were valuable to plantation owners, so it made economic sense to stay with the plantations. These free craftsmen often worked side-by-side with slaves.

Now suppose an abolitionist version of Melissa Farley had discovered free black carpenters working on plantations in the South. It’s not hard to imagine her concluding that since plantation owners are known to use slave carpenters, which is clearly exploitation, the free carpenters must also be victims of exploitation by the plantation owners. Therefore, she would conclude, the best way to protect free blacks from exploitation is to outlaw carpentry on plantations.

The free black carpenters might try to explain that they were working on the plantations by their own choice, but it’s easy to imagine someone like Farley dismissing these claims for the same reasons people like her dismiss the claims of sex workers: She’d say they’d spent so much time as slaves that they’re suffering from “false consciousness.” Or since some of them used to supervise other slaves on the plantation, she’d accuse them of being part of the “slave driver lobby.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, but we could even imagine some sort of abolitionist NGOs that “rescue” free blacks and transport them to the North, even though the North wasn’t necessarily better than the South for free black people, especially since leaving the South meant abandoning their community and quitting lucrative jobs for less desirable work in the North.

In this historic setting, it’s pretty clear that “rescuing” free blacks would be a mistake. Our imaginary abolitionists claiming to rescue free blacks from plantation owners are in fact the ones ignoring the choices of free black workers. They would be the ones denying blacks their freedom.

The moral and ethical aspects of specific actions should not be confused with the general moral and ethical tendencies of the individuals who perform them. Enslaving black people is about as racist and white supremacist as you can get, but the plantation owner’s enslavement of some black people doesn’t mean that every black person found working on a plantation is the moral equivalent of a slave. A bad person doing good things doesn’t make the good things bad.

Similarly, asking whether clients of prostitutes have good attitudes toward women is missing the point. Prostitution is labor if the women get paid and choose to do it of their own free will, it’s abuse if the women get abused, and if the women are forced into it, it’s rape and human trafficking. We don’t need to do social surveys to get this right. What we need to do is make sure that sex workers are free to choose, and then we need to trust that they will make the best choices about who they accept as clients.

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