Men who Pay Women for Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Demand for Prostitution

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Men who Pay Women for Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Demand for Prostitution

This is an abridged extract of Amy Masson’s Undergraduate Dissertation entitled: ‘Men who Pay for Sex: An Inevitable Feature of UK Society?’ In it she explores the literature and research into men’s demand for commercial sex from a radical feminist perspective. This extract provides a very brief overview of the tension between feminisms on the topic of prostitution. 

The theoretical literature on the demand for prostitution typically centres around a debate between: those who think that prostitution is a fundamentally harmful institution; and those, who think that, although areas of the sex industry are currently unsafe, prostitution is not intrinsically bad – and so with the right reforms in policy and attitudes improvements could be made to the lives of prostitutes. This ideological debate plays out within feminist discourses, as well as outside of them.

Feminist theorist Carole Pateman has asserted that ‘prostitution remains morally undesirable, no matter what reforms are made, because it is one of the most graphic examples of men’s domination of women’. She stresses that men’s demand for sex in patriarchy ‘is bound up with a historically and culturally distinctive form of masculine individuality’ (Pateman, 1983, pp561-4). This is a clear expression of the radical feminist view of prostitution: that it is a result of patriarchy. If patriarchy is removed then the nature of masculinity will fundamentally change, and men will no longer pay for sex.

In her article, Prostitution and Male Dominance, Andrea Dworkin succinctly expresses this stance, commenting that ‘male dominance’ must ‘be destroyed for the crime of prostitution to end’ (Dworkin, 1993). Some feminist pressure groups reflect the views expressed in this academic literature. Demand Change entirely rejects the notion of prostitution as legitimate work, claiming that to do so would normalise the, ‘exploitation, violence and abuse’ experienced by prostitute women. They are unequivocal in their claims that prostitution ‘is both a cause and consequence of wider systems of gender inequality’ and that the sex industry is not inevitable as ‘there is no viability to supply without demand’ (Demand Change, 2012).

Whilst these feminists clearly believe that prostitution ‘can and ought to be eradicated’ (Ericsson, 1980, p349) others fundamentally disagree. They believe that any stigmatisation or criminalisation of clients ‘deprives [prostitutes] of their livelihood without providing any viable economic alternatives’. Instead the efforts of both the state and NGOs should be diverted towards the ‘real problems [prostitutes] face of poverty, violence and criminalisation (Walker, 1999, p168). Groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes are adamant that the ‘safety of women’ must always be the priority – and stigmatising non-violent johns only pointlessly diverts attention towards ‘consensual sex rather than violent crime’ (Mitchell, 2007).

This position is founded upon a strong belief in the agency of prostitute women – in their ability to freely choose their work. This is not to deny that some women are forced into prostitution, just to stress that many enter sex work as rational adults who simply wish to support themselves and their families. Sex worker rights organisations are keen to stress the importance of the ‘lived experience’ of prostitute women and their clients – rather than others’ interpretations of their lives (O’Neill, 1997, p21). This position is at odds with the radical feminist view that all prostitution is an instance of ‘violence against women’ (Dworkin, 1993) – even if the woman and the john themselves do not perceive it this way.

Essentially then, feminists are divided. There are radical feminists who believe that prostitution is always an instance of ‘violence against women’ (Farley et al, 2008, p5). They believe the removal of the patriarchy will force a fundamental reshaping of male sexuality, meaning there will be no demand for prostitution, and therefore no supply.  In contrast, there are those so called ‘sex- positive feminists’ (O’Hara, 2011) who view prostitution as a choice made by rational female agents. They believe that non-violent johns exist, and that their custom provides prostitute women with the financial independence to support themselves. In this sense, demand for prostitution is not a negative force that needs to be removed. Instead efforts should be diverted towards removing prostitute women from poverty and promoting their safety. Prostitution is inevitable in the sense that even if alternative career options were available, sex work can be an enjoyable and fulfilling career that provides a valuable service to the men who use prostitutes.

This ‘sex-positive’ position may seem eminently reasonable. However, it is based upon a dangerous assumption about male sexuality. This is the widely held view that ‘men’s sexual impulses are just as instinctive and uncontrollable as…the need for food and water’. Therefore, men’s demand for prostitutes is seen as the inevitable result of both:  men’s need to satisfy their sexual desires and the fact that there is a ‘void between male and female levels of sexuality’ (Eespere, 2007, p9). Put simply, there will always be a demand for prostitution because men will always demand sex – and (unpaid) women will not always be willing or available to provide it.

This argument from biological inevitability relies not only on men demanding sex, but upon a contingent of women always being available to supply sex – due not to their genuine willingness, but out of economic necessity. If this contingent of women was not available for whatever reason, the argument from biological inevitability implies that men would turn to rape – as sex is not just a desire – but a biologically driven need. From this, the argument for biological inevitability can be taken to be saying that prostitution reduces the instance of rape. This is a worrying thought and one that suggests that male sexuality is fundamentally predatory, out of the control of individual men, and unconcerned with the genuine willingness of female sexual partners.

This denial of male agency in relation to sexuality is dangerous as it works, for example, to perpetuate the idea that women who dress in certain ways are ‘asking for it’ (McMahon, 2007, p364). It also supports the notion that, without prostitutes, men would obtain sex through ‘subterfuge or force’. Importantly, there is absolutely no evidence to back up the ‘catharsis theory’ – that prostitution reduces instances of rape. In fact, ‘rape statistics from the U.S. raise the possibility that there may even be a positive association between legal prostitution in Nevada and higher rape rates in the state’ (Farley et al, 2008, p23).

Essentially then, I believe that ‘sex-positive’ feminism makes dangerous and patronising assumptions about male sexuality – assumptions I unequivocally reject. There are problems with Radical Feminism too – radical feminist views often lacking in nuance, with their insistence that the client is always ‘expressing a pure hatred for the female body’ (Dworkin, 1997, p145) and the prostitute never truly willing (Weitzer, 2010, p21) leaving no room for a discussion of the lived reality of some agents in the sex industry.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to admit that the sex industry encompasses a ‘multiplicity of different experiences’ (Monto, 2004, p184) – positive and negative – whilst still arguing that, overall, it is an avoidable force for bad in society and therefore something that we can and should look to eliminate.

Article by Amy Masson. Edited by Lily Parr. 




Demand Change (2012) Prostitution: The Facts [online]. Available at:  [accessed on: 12/04/2012].

Dworkin, A. (1993) ‘Prostitution and Male Supremacy’ in Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, Vol.1, (issue 1).

Dworkin, A. (1997) Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women. New York: Free Press.

Eespere, K. (2007) The Hidden Side of Prostitution: Sex Buyers Speak. Report for the Ministry of Social Affairs of the Republic of Estonia.

Ericsson, L.O. (1980) ‘Charges Against Prostitution: An Attempt at a Philosophical Assessment’ in Ethics, Vol. 90, (No. 3), pp335-366

Farley, M., Macleod, J., Anderson, L. and Golding, J. M. (2008) Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland: A Research Report Based on Interviews with 110 Men Who Bought Women in Prostitution. Glasgow: Women’s Support Project.

McMahon, S. (2007) ‘Understanding Community Specific Rape Myths: Exploring Student Athlete Culture’ in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, Vol. 22, (No. 4), pp357-370

Mitchell, C. (2007) ‘Safety is the Priority for Sex Workers’ in The Guardian (letters section), 24th January. Available at:  [accessed on:12/04/2012].

Monto, M. (2004) ‘Female Prostitution, Customers and Violence’ in Violence Against Women. Vol.10 (No.2), pp160-188.

O’Hara, J. (2011) ‘Sex Positive Feminism’, from Red Pepper [online] available at: [accessed on: 12/04/2012]

O’Neill, M. (1997) ‘Prostitute Women Now’ in Rethinking Prostitution: Purchasing Sex in the 1990s (eds. Scrambler, A. and Scrambler, G.) London: Routledge.

Pateman, C. (1983) ‘Defending Prostitution: Charges Against Ericsson’, in Ethics, Vol. 93, (No.3), pp561-565

Walker, S. (1999) ‘The John School: A Diversion from What is Needed’, in Some Mother’s Daughter: the Hidden Movement of Prostitute Women Against Violence (ed. Lopez-Jones, N.) California: Crossroads pp.165-168

Weitzer, R. (2010) ‘The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy’ in Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Vol. 7, (No. 1, pp15-29/