One in 10 men has paid for sex, according to new research from the University of Bristol. Those men are, apparently, predominantly middle class, white and hold ‘high-status’ jobs. The number of men who are paying for sex (or who are admitting to paying for sex) has risen from 2% in 1990, to 4% in 2000, to 11% in the most recent Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.
So, given that 10% of men have paid for sex, that means that some of our boyfriends, husbands and male friends have done it. Which raises the question: what do you do if your other half tells you that they’ve previously paid for sex?
Sex work is a much maligned profession which in recent years has started to slowly destigmatise thanks to work from groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes. It’s no longer acceptable to judge a woman for doing sex work. But is it still okay to judge a man for being on the other end of the transaction? Or does being open minded about sex work mean that you’ve got to be as non-judgemental about the buying as you are about the selling?
There are bad men who pay for sex, we know that. When we looked into the sex work review websites where men comment on how women are aging, how their bodies are changing and the appearance of their genitals, we were horrified.
But on the other side of the coin, many sex workers will attest that there are respectful clients who pay well and seek sex work because they’re lonely, because they don’t want the complications of seeking out sex with a survillian, or who have disabilities which make finding sex without paying for it difficult. Without those good clients, sex work wouldn’t be a viable profession.
Clarissa, 34* found out that her boyfriend had slept with sex workers previous to their relationship. ‘I was shocked’ she told me. ‘I support sex work, I’ve got friends who’ve done it. But somehow the idea of him paying for sex made me see him differently. I know that in theory it’s not really different to having a few one night stands, and actually it’s less complicated than that because he wasn’t getting emotionally involved or leading anyone on. But I still felt uncomfortable about it. These days I try to pretend that it didn’t happen.’
Classia is not alone. If you peruse parenting website Mumsnet you’ll find a whole load of threads from women who are asking whether they should abandon a relationship because they’ve discovered that their partner has previously paid for sex.
A common reason for men to opt to pay for sex is that they’ve got a specific niche desire that they don’t feel they can explore with a partner. Mistress Scarlett, a retired Dominatrix explains: ‘I saw many very ‘normal’ men who were good natured, professional, polite and all round good prospects for a relationship.
‘If you want to be dominated, paying for it is simple and clean-cut. You hurt no one and you experience a sexual fantasy. Any woman who turned down a nice man because they had paid me for some fun of an evening while they were single would be missing out on a good thing. However I myself wouldn’t want a relationship with someone who had paid for sex in an unreputable establishment. It would be essential for me to know that they had paid for ethical sex.’
Perhaps Mistress Scarlett is right and it’s not about whether your partner has paid for sex, but how they did it. If they sourced a reputable agency, treated the person in question with respect and were assured that they hadn’t supported trafficking or abuse, that’s one thing. But if they went to Amsterdam on a stag-do and patronised a questionable brothel in the red light district then that’s a whole different ball game.
As ever, the best thing to do in a situation where you discover your partner has paid for sex and you feel upset about it, is to talk to them about it. Hearing the details might put your mind at rest and reassure you that he took part in a transaction with a professional during which he was respectful. Or it might suggest that he was disrespectful in his treatment of sex workers, in which case you know what you have to do.