A recent article in the Financial Times, which caused an outcry online, contained a statistic that I’m personally very familiar with – one in ten men say they have paid for sex. As a sex worker myself, I hardly bat an eyelid at this figure, having heard it trotted out over a decade ago by Harriet Harman, the minister for women at the time, who used the data as grist for her argument to abolish the sex trade and her campaign to close down organised workplaces in the industry such as strip clubs (where I have been working since 2006).
The one in ten figure only tells us how many of the men surveyed were willing to tell the truth when interviewed – the real number could be higher still. (What strikes me as well is that no one on Twitter is talking about research from the same era by the University of Leeds that found that one in four lap dancers had a degree.)
What does give me cause for concern, however, is the moral panic that inevitably follows such statistics, and the levels of disgust regularly felt by those with greater privilege towards those who pay for sex, and pity for those who sell it. I’m no apologist for abusive men who manipulate women in dire straits. But I draw the same conclusion as I always do – that by the time a sex worker has become vulnerable to violence and coercion they have already been failed at every level, from housing to education, healthcare to childcare.
A graph in the FT article shows that the number of new profiles on a website where escorts advertise to clients quadrupled in 2022 compared with pre-pandemic levels. (Even after the 2009 crash there was not such a large spike in numbers.) This tells us the number of women joining or returning to sex work in response to the current financial crisis has risen rapidly, and focusing on the problems within a largely criminalised industry and the deplorable conditions that many sex workers are in does absolutely nothing to address the economic and material constraints that drive them into sex work. Put starkly, women who are being exploited in the sex industry are women who’ve been offered no real protection from vulnerability or sustainable resources to work with, and have been let down at a societal level. Those of us within the intersectional feminist movement call this structural violence.
What worries me further is that if we only look at the harms, we ignore the possibilities of harm reduction. We don’t see the ways sex workers stay safe and reduce their own vulnerability. The sex-worker led organisation National Ugly Mugs (NUM) is creating an accessible database of dangerous punters, allowing sex workers to screen clients and recognise red flags. This is the sort of harm reduction that local and national authorities seem incapable of managing, with the approach to policing sex work varying wildly from county to county.
By focusing on the harms, we also misrepresent men entirely. Assuming one in ten men are abusing their economic and social capital by paying for sex does nothing to address the reasons why we still have a culture that continues to place more money in the hands of men than it does women. We aren’t thinking about why we are raising boys better than girls to become financially independent and better placed to enter the workforce, becoming primary breadwinners? If we cannot create substantial legislation that amounts to levelling the playing field between genders, we can expect the number of men with the excess capital to pay for sex to continue to rise.