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Response to Bindel-Farley-Golding research report published today

(X-posted at A Femanist View)

We need to focus on education, education, education and decriminalisation, when it comes to sex work.

This is the conclusion I draw from the report published yesterday by Eaves called Men Who Buy Sex” (link is .pdf of report).

It isn’t the conclusion presented in the report, or by Julie Bindel when she writes about it in the Guardian. Although Bindel is blowing her own trumpet, since she’s on the credits for the report itself. Let’s look at those credits a bit closer, shall we?

Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel and Jacqueline M. Golding

Eaves contributed funding, resources and staff time, and PRE contributed funding and staff time.

Eaves is a feminist organisation committed to working to curb demand for commercial sex acts, which increase sex trafficking and organised crime in general.

Prostitution Research & Education (PRE) is a US non-governmental non-profit organisation which has since 1995 researched and documented the harms resulting from prostitution and trafficking and explored alternatives to prostitution.

Eaves is a feminist organisation committed to working to curb demand for commercial sex acts, which increase sex trafficking and organised crime in general.

Melissa Farley of PRE and Julie Bindel of Eaves together initiated this research study. The authors acknowledge the interviewers for their valuable and extremely generous contribution of time. The 103 men were interviewed by Lynn Anderson, Helen Atkins, Julie Bindel, Daniel Briggs, Frances Brodrick, Melissa Farley, Wendy Freed, Roger Matthews and Pinaki Roy.

Catharine A. MacKinnon, who has provided wise and incisive consultation, critical feedback and generous writing assistance to Melissa Farley and Prostitution Research & Education over the years, contributed significantly to developing the questionnaires and shaping the analysis in this study, for which the authors are grateful.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say these are not unbiased researchers. Checking the list of interviewers again, Bindel and Farley themselves are among them. A quick trip through Google reveals that all the people on the list are people who have strong anti-prostitution opinions already. I’m further going to say that this may be reflected in the conclusions they draw!

before I get to the conclusions, however, I want to say a few words about the methodology and findings as reported.

The report published today was the London segment of an international project. It was based on the responses of 103 men living in London who answered newspaper adverts and were willing to talk about having paid for and received physical-contact services from a sex worker (in the report’s terms, “bought sex from women in prostitution”). The report reveals that, “the advertisements listed a phone number, guaranteed anonymity, and stated that payment of £20 would be offered to cover the cost of transportation and as a token of appreciation for their time.”

The report explains that questionnaires were used, which included “a 100-item questionnaire that asked about buyers’ attitudes toward prostitution, acceptance of rape myths (Burt, 1980), sexual behaviours and condom use, pornography use, commission of sexually coercive behaviour toward prostitute and non-prostitute partners (Koss and Oros, 1982), likelihood to rape, and demographic characteristics.” Also included was a measure of “hostile male identity based on adversarial sexual beliefs, negative masculinity and dominance as central to love relationships (Malamuth et al., 1991, Malamuth and Thornhill, 1994).”

My first concern with this research is that there is no control sample taken. No group of similar demographic to the study group, but who had NOT “bought sex from women in prostitution”, was interviewed or asked to fill out questionnaires. Therefore there is no baseline against which to compare some of the conclusions. For example, we know that across the UK, at least 30% of people believed various forms of rape myth. We don’t know what the figure is for men who live in London and match the demographic of the interviewed customers. So when Bindel, Farley et al report that “Twenty-five per cent told us that the very concept of raping a prostitute or call girl was ‘ridiculous.'” the figure means nothing about the attitudes of men who pay for sexual services. For all we know, that might be the average response for London men in general. A survey taken last year revealed that 17% of British people believed that a prostitute was totally to blame if someone raped her; a further 30% thought she was partially to blame. So Bindel’s troupe has proved nothing about sex customers being worse than the rest of society in these matters.

Secondly, there is no discussion of the selection bias in the self-selection process by which subjects were interviewed.

Thirdly, the interview process does not seem unbiased. The report talks about using “a structured interview to obtain quantitative and qualitative data”, but it seems to me that the interviewer must necessarily have an effect upon the qualitative data. Observing that six out of the nine interviewers were female, and that all nine are known to have preconceived attitudes about prostitution, it is reasonable to argue that some, if not all, the men interviewed will have picked up on cues and sought to present themselves in certain ways; it is also reasonable to assume that if faced with a female interviewer, a man might conceivably feel some socialised pressure to present a different face. The report makes no mention of whether there was or wasn’t any observable effect from this in the raw data.


All that said, there are some very disturbing results to come from the report: for instance, it appears that many men seemed to be aware that the women whose services they were buying were coerced and/or trafficked. The report says:

Despite their awareness of coercion and trafficking, only five of these 103 men reported their suspicions to the police. They feared a loss of anonymity, especially fearing their families’ discovery of their use of prostitutes. One interviewee said that he did not report his suspicions because he assumed that “the authorities are involved in it as well”

Attitudes towards sex work were also appalling, again the report says:

Twenty-seven per cent of our interviewees explained that once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys. Forty-seven per cent of these London men expressed the view to a greater or lesser degree that women did not always have certain rights during prostitution.

Given that we hear words like these from men who have not (or at least, have not admitted to having) bought sexual services, the point about there being no control population is very important. My feeling is that attitudes like these are widespread across the general population (although right now I don’t have any research on the matter to hand, and it’s getting late).

This above all else is why I talk about “education, education, education” in the heading! Which leads on to the final section of my piece.


Finally, as promised, I want to talk about conclusions.

Farley, Bindel and Golding present 12 points and recommendations.

Here, I shall look at them and make my own remarks and counter-recommendations.

1. Fifty-five per cent of 103 London men who bought sex believed that a majority of people in prostitution were lured, tricked or trafficked.

Information and explanation of the newly introduced legislation on demand, which makes it an offence to purchase sex from someone who has been subjected to exploitation (Policing and Crime Act, 2009), should be part of public awareness campaigns aimed at reducing or eliminating men’s demand for prostitution. The law and the potential consequences of paying for sex need to be explained to current and potential buyers. In addition, general public awareness of men’s knowledge about trafficking and coercion in the sex industry is important.

As far as it goes, this is good.

But what bothers me is that these men are aware of sex trafficking, in some cases believed they had encountered it, and yet they aren’t giving information about it to the police. Shouldn’t we look for ways to close down the illegal traffickers directly? Shouldn’t we look for ways to make it easier for men to offer information without fear of a) public shaming and b) prosecution themselves? (After all, if it’s suspected a guy’s going to go to the police, for instance because he leaves without doing the deed, that will surely mean trouble for him and for the woman whose services he paid for, and will likely mean that by the time the cops arrive everything looks hunky-dory).

With decriminalisation, this can happen easily. With better education about the rights of women and about the social responsibility to report such crimes, then the willingness to engage in paid-for rape should decrease and the tendency to report situations where one believes it’s going on should increase.

The ideal situation is to get to a society where buying services from a sex worker is completely acceptable, but paying to rape a trafficked sex slave is completely despised.

2. Today, prostitution has moved indoors; 96% of these men used women in indoor prostitution (brothels, flats, saunas, massage parlours).

Based on these 103 London men’s reports of coercive control, pimping and trafficking, it can no longer be assumed that indoor prostitution is safer than street prostitution. On the contrary, it appears that many of the most vulnerable women are kept under control indoors, not in the street where they would be seen by the public or by police.

Local and national newspapers cannot justify selling advertising space to brothel owners and organisers of indoor prostitution. A blanket ban on advertising of this nature should be introduced.

Because, of course, women who set up a brothel together for mutual protection also need to have their advertising avenues cut off as well.

They also have a curious definition of “safer” here. To me, safer means “less likely to be assaulted”. To Farley, Bindel and Golding it appears it refers to “safe to assume she’s doing it voluntarily”. Put it this way – a trafficked or pimped woman gets no choice about the violence that comes from being treated as a possession of the business owner; but if she’s out on the street, she’s also at risk from random muggers, rapists and serial killers – which isn’t the case if she’s indoors.

Now, I still want the traffickers and pimps shut down, but again, here there is no indication of how they expect to do that except by hurting everyone.

A better recommendation would be decriminalisation of sex work, recruit the customers as informants on suspected traffickers and pimps, and provide amnesty and right to remain for any woman found to be trafficked. That way if she does escape, she can report the traffickers without fear of a) arrest or b) deportation.

Allowing sex workers to own their own brothel businesses collectively would also mean that safe indoor environments for those who choose the work can be provided.

3. More than one-half of the interviewees confirmed they were in a relationship at the time they used women in prostitution. This contradicts the common misperception that men buy sex because they are lonely or have no partners.

The disappointment expressed by men seeking the ‘girlfriend experience’ in prostitution should be highlighted in any awareness campaign. There are men who are sold the idea that ‘buying’ a partner is possible and that prostituted women can fulfil that role.

And of course, the anti-sex work support for the Government decision to close down access to websites offering customer reviews of sex workers’ services helps this how?

Not to mention, “education, education, education”. If customers know what they can and can’t expect from a service, they are less likely to be dissatisfied with it!

4. Many of the men felt that at various times during prostitution, women had no rights at all. Attitudes normalising rape were common among this group of men who buy sex in London. Over half of the interviewees believed that men would ‘need’ to rape if they did not have access to prostituted women.

There is no evidence supporting the theory that prostitution prevents rape. Experts in rape and other forms of sexual violence must ensure that myths that prostitution prevents rape are debunked.

As mentioned already, I believe that education and decriminalisation are the keys to tackling the attitude that “at various times during prostitution, women had no rights at all.” Because if a sex worker can go to the police; if she (or he) can negotiate clearly boundaries of consent, and expect legal support if those boundaries are broken; if she is a legitimate businesswoman conducting a legal transaction, instead of someone providing a criminalised service (regardless of whether it’s the buyer or seller who’s criminalised); if she is in a position where she can choose her clients – then she can stand up for her rights. Or, if she can’t, then someone else can. Especially if she is able to work indoors, with fellow sex workers to have her back if needs be!

And if we talk openly about sex work, educate men from teenager-hood (as suggested in the next point), and talk about them as people with the same rights as everyone else, then I think we can overcome these attitudes.

We can’t overcome them by criminalising buying sex: the attitudes will still exist.

One final thing to mention about this issue: Bindel, in her Guardian piece about the research, made the following statement:

One of the most interesting findings was that many believed men would “need” to rape if they could not pay for sex on demand. One told me, “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to a prostitute instead.” Another put it like this: “A desperate man who wants sex so bad, he needs sex to be relieved. He might rape.” I concluded from this that it’s not feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and myself who are responsible for the idea that all men are potential rapists – it’s sometimes men themselves.

She’s not wrong. Sex-positive feminists and pro-sex-worker feminists have been saying that for ages. It’s the anti-feminist Patriarchy that creates this perception of men as barely-controlled beasts!

5. For 29% of the men, prostitution was their first sexual experience

The youngest interviewee was 18 years of age, confirming the need for public education programmes aimed at boys. Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) sessions should contain content to deter young men from becoming buyers.
More than 40% of the men interviewed in this study were accompanied by friends or family the first time they bought sex. Peer pressure was a significant ‘pull factor’ for many of the men interviewed for this study. Public awareness campaigns could play an important role in primary prevention of prostitution. The ambivalence about buying sex expressed by many interviewees could be highlighted in such a campaign.

This is the first direct mention of deterring men from buying sex workers’ services (in point 1 the mention was “reducing or eliminating men’s demand”). It is taken as read by Farley, Bindel & Golding that it is a good thing to deter men from seeking sex workers’ services, and to reduce or eliminate demand. This is not justified elsewhere in the piece, but it seems to be assumed that because men (who buy sex services) are pigs, we should get rid of sex work.

I agree that PSHE lessons should deal with sex work, but the objective should be to teach about what it is and what it is not. It should aim to tackle rape myths, and myths about sex and sex work.

6. Legalisation and prostitution tolerance zones encouraged men to buy sex. Several men explained that once having visited areas where prostitution is legal or promoted, they returned to UK with a renewed dedication to buying sex even if that practice is illegal.

The new UK legislation needs to be enforced extra-territorially. Almost half of the men had paid for sex in other countries, mostly in legalised regimes such as the Netherlands.

This is a bizarre recommendation to follow from the summary point! How, exactly, is a UK court to establish whether a woman working in Holland, Thailand, India, Germany or the USA (the top 5 destinations according to the report, for sex tourism) is or is not trafficked or coerced? It’s impossible to apply the law extra-territorially. What’s more, it’s ludicrous to do so. If the objective is to protect the rights of women, then it is for the laws in those countries to determine how best they will do so. If British men are tried under British law for these actions, it does nothing to protect the women either here or overseas.

A wiser recommendation would be to seek to create an environment in this country where trafficking and coerced prostitution are easier to detect and to prevent; as discussed already, to my mind this required education, education, education and decriminalisation.

7. Many men stated that pornography informed their decisions to request specific acts with women in prostitution and also with non-prostituting sex partners. Other interviewees stated that pornography use led to their paying for sex.

Further research into the connections between pornography and prostitution, particularly in relation to attitudes towards women and sexual violence, needs to be conducted in the UK.

Or perhaps we might say it makes sense that a person who will pay to experience sex directly will also pay to experience it vicariously through pornography and masturbation?

8. One-fifth of the men had paid for sex while serving in the Armed Forces.

UK policy and deterrents like those adopted by the United Nations during the Balkan crisis are advisable.

I think a part of this comes down to the concept that “what happens on manoeuvres stays on manoeuvres”.

Farley’s study on Nevada prostitution was cited during the report to refute suggestions that prostitution reduces rates of rape. I might suggest that the similar saying, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” could be responsible for the higher rates in that state than elsewhere in the USA.

The basis of “what happens in x stays in x” is that there are places or circumstances or activities where the normal social boundaries or rules do not apply. These cultural “free-for-all” zones are very hard to counter, but they do need to be countered.

However, in this particular instance (buying sex services while in the armed forces) the key factor to note is that it happens because elsewhere in society there is a stigma against it, but certain circumstances (and peer pressure) in the armed forces make it seem okay.

9. In England, Scotland and the U.S., men agreed that being placed on a sex offender register would most effectively deter them from buying sex. They also agreed that other deterrents such as prison time or public exposure would be effective.

The least effective deterrent, according to interviewees in Scotland, the U.S. and London would be an educational programme without the threat of prison. An educational programme for sex buyers would be well advised to operate in conjunction with the Criminal Justice System and never as a substitute for criminal sanctions.
More than three-quarters of interviewees acknowledged that greater criminal penalties would deter them from paying for sex, and yet only 6% had ever been arrested for soliciting prostitution. New and existing legislation needs to be vigorously implemented. A public awareness campaign to accompany enforcement of laws against buying sex might be modelled on the 2006 anti-smoking campaign.

Again the assumption that deterring men from buying the services of sex workers is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

It is worth noting that up to 15% of those interviewed were undeterred by the thought of these things. It is also worth noting that, because of the self-selecting nature of the interviews, those most likely to be undeterred may not have been present. The experience of sex workers in Sweden where the deterrence policy is in place already has been that the men who are undeterred are the most violent, most dangerous men. It puts sex workers at greater risk.

10. Of 103 London men who had bought sex, two-thirds said that being issued an ASBO would be a deterrent.

Currently in London, ASBOs are routinely issued to women in street prostitution but rarely to men apprehended as kerb crawlers. Such measures need to be used against buyers.

See above, re: decriminalisation and also see my response to point 9.

11. Sixty-five per cent of interviewees believed that ‘most men pay for sex.’

General public education and awareness campaigns are essential in challenging men’s demand for prostitution. An approach to public education about prostitution would be to emphasise the marginalised status of men who buy sex rather than viewing their activity as part of the mainstream.

Because, of course, the stigma is working so great to protect women right now, isn’t it? In fact, the stigma was the biggest reason why men didn’t alert the police when they were aware of trafficked women forced into sex:

Despite their awareness of coercion and trafficking, only five of these 103 men reported their suspicions to the police. They feared a loss of anonymity, especially fearing their families’ discovery of their use of prostitutes.

Again, deterrence is seen as the worthy aim, and is actually placed above determining what might help the women currently involved in sex work (whether voluntarily or by coercion/trafficking).

Final point: with the current Patriarchal perceptions of dating and marriage, it is arguable that most men do indeed pay for sex, just not by going to a sex worker.

12. Most men (71%) said they felt ambivalence about paying for sex. They often felt guilt or shame about buying sex while at the same time continuing to use prostituted women, hiding those behaviours.

The men avoided emotional involvement with women in prostitution while at the same time seeking the appearance of a relationship. Lacking accurate empathy with the objects of their sexual purchase, the men were usually unable to determine what the women actually thought or felt, including the women’s lack of genuine sexual interest. Men’s ambivalence about prostitution might serve as a point of entry to educational programmes that promote sustained deterrence from buying sex.

Ending stigma could do a lot to solve the issues mentioned here; that comes down to education again. End the guilt, and quite likely you also end some of the violent relationships that the main report highlighted.

The evidence for “lack of empathy” is rather misleading. Here’s what the report actually showed:

Taking a report of descriptions given by escort agency and street sex workers in Arizona of how they actually feel while with a client, they compared that with how the London customers described their service providers’ feelings. Not surprisingly, street sex workers in Arizona were generally not happy while performing services for clients. But I would bet that those Arizona sex workers were busy trying to convince their clients that they were happy, because that’s good saleswomanship. If sex work is how you pay for your meals and roof over your head, you want to be sure the guy comes back for more!

Richard Feynman in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” describes being commissioned to draw a picture for display in a massage parlour. He drew a picture that showed the massage girl’s face with an expression of resignation on her face. Guess what? The massage parlour girls told him that, although they felt like the drawing looked, it wasn’t good business to show it in the drawing!

So, the men don’t “lack empathy” with the women. They are being sold a product, and part of that product is an image of a happy partner. It is not surprising that this is what they take away.

Finally, on “avoided emotional involvement”, my point is this: do you seek emotional involvement with your plumber, or with the waiting staff at a restaurant? A sex worker is a service provider, and while some may offer an illusion of emotional involvement (i.e. the “girlfriend experience”) for most customers and most providers, it’s not a part of the deal and isn’t supposed to be. in fact, one or two sex worker blogs I’ve read have described that it is creepy and even stalker-like if a client starts to develop emotional attachment.


My conclusion is that Farley, Bindel and Golding are invested in Patriachal norms and with their recommendations seek to cement in place certain Patriarchal notions about women and sexuality, although they claim the opposite. Instead of engaging with the real issues, their recommendations would keep prostitution as a marginalised, dangerous occupation where the workers have no legal protections (because if they seek it, they cannot do business).

My recommendations of education, education, education and decriminalisation would seek to destroy the stigmas that surround sex work and provide full legal protection in a preventative as well as reactive capacity so that sex workers can enjoy the same protections as every other woman.


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This entry was posted on 16 January, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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