Female clients of male sex workers: managing stigma

Hilary Caldwell and John de Wit

Buying sex is both stigmatized and stigmatizing. Although engaging in sex, commercial or otherwise, is not inherently harmful, stigmatization has harmful consequences (Weitzer, 2017a; Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). Stigma arising from participation in a deeply discrediting or discreditable activity (Goffinan, 1963) manifests in labeling, stereotyping, separating, status loss, discrimination, and negative representations in public opinion, the media, and political discourse (Weitzer, 2017a; Phillips, Benoit, Hallgrimsdottir, & Vallance, 2012). Stigma also seeps into broader sociocultural structures, including social welfare policies and other determinants of health advantage and disadvantage (Phillips et al., 2012; Cama et al., 2018). Experiences of stigmatization include negative impacts on self-concept and identity formation, leading individuals to conceal their activities and to lead double lives, which may prevent them from engaging in normal social interaction (Phillips et al., 2012; Weitzer, 2017b). Nonetheless, stigma reflects societal norms, which constantly change. This chapter clarifies some social norms and the stigma associated with buying sex.

Prior to the 1950s, buying sex was an expected male pastime that has been systematically demonized by campaigners who consider female sex workers degraded, damaged goods, and exploited victims of men. According to Scott and Minichiello (2014), these exploitation narratives explain why buying sex is more stigmatizing than selling it. Though the ideas that sex work is inherently harmful and that male clients are fundamentally violent are highly contested (Abel, 2014; Minichiello, Scott, & Cox, 2017; Phipps, 2017; Sanders, 2008; Scott & Minichiello, 2014; Sullivan, 2007; Vanwesenbeeck, 2013; Weitzer, 2010), the idea that sex work equals exploitation continues to dominate the discourse.

While some research has pointed to high levels of psychological distress in sex workers as confirmation of the harms perpetrated by male clients, Vanwesenbeeck (2001) suggests that social stigma regarding the sex industry drives the negative outcomes. This chapter investigates the effects of stigmatization on the lived experiences of female clients of sex workers, exposing weaknesses in exploitation arguments and revealing additional stigmas that may affect only women.

Female clients of sex workers have only recently come to the attention of academic researchers. The previous lack of awareness and research may have reflected a perceived low number of women buying sex based on surveys in which few women reported buying sex. In recent years, however, women buyers of sex have come to the attention of popular media, increasing their visibility and raising questions about gendered understandings of the sex industry, consumerism, female sexual agency, and what it means to be a woman in a postfeminist era (West Morris, 2012).

This chapter draws on a study in which we investigated the Australian social discourse about women who buy sex. We also interviewed sex workers with female clients and women who bought sex (Caldwell, 2018). We begin by considering the positioning of women who buy sex in popular exploitation discourse about the sex industry and within narratives regarding female sexual agency and how these discourses affect women who buy sex.

Contemporary Australian discourse on women buying sex

Ideas about women buying sex in contemporary Australia come from media representations that include messages about female sexuality and the sex industry (Caldwell & de Wit, 2015). Discourse in media is considered powerful in terms of developing the public understanding of any social setting (Rose, 2001; Wadham, Pease, Atherton, & Lorentzen, 2012). The media actively produce gender and reinforce gender norms (Butler, 1999; Gill, 2007).

We used textual analysis to identify and analyze Australian discourse about women who buy sex (McKee, 2003). Specifically, we analyzed a televised commercial advertisement depicting sexual tension between a woman holidaying in Bah and a local waiter (Figure 21.1).

The highly popular advertisement prompted a good deal of social and commercial media commentary, including online audience engagement. Initially, less than 20 percent of audience members who responded online to the television commercial interpreted it as possibly portraying female sex tourism or commercial sex. Only after journalistic commentary suggested this interpretation did two-thirds of the audience participating in the online debate agree that the advertisement portrayed commercial sex. The initial lack of audience awareness to the possibility of women buying sex illustrates the general idea that society does not foreground womens sexual agency.

Two distinct and polarized discourses regarding sex work were evident in audience comments: (1) sex work is work, and women who buy it are empowered, and (2) sex work is inherently exploitative, the women who buy it are as bad as men. These discourses directly reflect the analysis of Weitzer (2009), who examined the body of sociological study with regard to sex work and who identified the two main theoretical perspectives underpinning study design.

Australian television advertisement promoting Balinese holidays

Figure 21.1 Australian television advertisement promoting Balinese holidays.

These theoretical perspectives either desire to oppress the sex industry due to its presumed intrinsic violence against women, or they consider the industry empowering for its workers and clients. Both of these paradigms rely on assumptions of male customers and female sex workers. Our study revealed that client stigma is gendered: Men who buy sex are seen as abusive, and women who buy sex are either victims or sluts.

The near-equal representation of commercial sex as either work or exploitation found in Australian discourse may represent a cultural shift away from exploitation narratives, which dominate in societies that have criminalized the buying and selling of sex. Australian sex industry regulation varies in each state and territory and is mostly progressive, with commercial sex either legalized or decriminalized.

Sex worker's perceptions of female-client stigma

We used thematic analysis of interview data from 17 sex workers who had been engaged by female clients. Ten of these sex workers identified as female, six as male, and one as gender non-conforming. None of the female workers described her orientation as straight, including one who described herself as gay for pay. Of the male sex workers, three said they were straight, one said he was straight for pay, one said he was gay, and one did not describe his orientation. Sex workers spoke about stigma directed toward all involved in the sex industry. Some of the female-identifying sex workers felt society treats their female clients “like us, dirty sluts,” and other sex workers thought that women who buy sex are not considered to be like other women. They thought female clients are considered odd or unacceptable anomalies, with society believing something is wrong with them. Sex workers thought these perceptions might build on skewed interpretations of male clients that assume that all clients of sex workers are “creepy and ugly and horrible” rather than regular people. Some sex workers stressed that buying sex is not necessarily an indulgence and that “women’s mental and physical health is well served by being able to access sex workers.” One sex worker went on to describe the stigma and discrimination that women living with disabilities face when attempting to buy sexual services.

Sex workers were generally keen to participate in the study because they recognized the voices of female clients being silenced through stigmatization. Some sex workers noted that society wishes to silence women who buy sex through a compulsion to control female sexuality and desire and also to maintain the status quo regarding dominant narratives of (male) clients as violent. None of the interviewed sex workers felt exploited by their work or by male customers in general, noting that the Swedish model (which aims to criminalize clients) rests on unrealistic gender moralizations. A sex worker from Victoria noted the enactment of the licensing system and legislation surrounding the sex industry in that state treats all sex workers as women and all clients as men, suggesting that the voices of female clients might disrupt this state of affairs.

Women's experiences of stigma when buying sex

We interviewed 21 women who had paid for sex. Through an interpretative phenomenological analysis, we explored their motivations and experiences. Potential interviewees contacted the researcher after responding to online advertisements placed in social media often used by sex workers and in online spaces where sex workers advertise. Some women were motivated to become involved in the study due to the aggressive campaigning in the media tor the Swedish model of regulation and the subsequent Parliamentary Inquiry in New South Wales at the time of recruitment.

Our interviewees were diverse, and they bought various types of sexual services. The women we interviewed were all female-identifying people, including one trans-identifying woman. Their ages ranged from 18 to 69, with 12 women under 45 the first time they bought sex and nine women over 45. Most Australian states are represented in the sample. Three interviewees had secondary schooling, 4 were university graduates, 11 had post-graduate qualifications, and 3 did not say their education level. Several interviewees had been buying sex for several years while in and out of various personal relationships. At the time of interview, 12 described themselves as single and 9 as partnered, some in open relationships. All 21 interviewees were Caucasian. Income levels were high for seven interviewees, medium for seven, medium to low for four, and low for three. Most of the interviewees would not have participated had they not been assured anonymity. One created a generic email address tor the occasion, and another conducted the interview in her car, which she called “the only private place in her life.”

In most interviews, experiences of stigmatization were expressed explicitly and spontaneously. In addition, specific questions asked whether women told other people about their experiences and if they would recommend buying sex to a friend. During data analysis, a relationship emerged between stigma and most other themes, demonstrating that stigma often subverts other concerns.

Two of the women who bought sex denied feeling stigmatized and described situations in which they actively avoided feeling stigmatized by using strategies such as secret keeping. The two interviewees who denied feeling stigmatized appeared to confuse stigma with shame, and most interviewees said they felt no shame tor buying sex. One interviewee spoke at length about stigma directed toward sex workers and needed specific prompting to address the stigmatization of buying sex. Weitzer (2017b) points out that individuals internalize ideas about their identity and behavior in diverse ways.

Most interviewees understood the concept of stigma and how it affected them. For example: “Well it is certainly not something that I would be comfortable being widely known, so yeah, I guess I have to acknowledge that there is a massive stigma associated to it” (Interviewee 11, woman who bought sex [WBSJ). WBS Interviewee 20 said, “There is so much stigma attached to things like this and it just isn’t like that. It is a really wonderful thing.” Our interviewees considered the possible reactions if other people found out they had bought sex. For example one WBS said, “Coming forward and saying that I am a woman and I have been with a sex worker, that is a massive, that is like an A bomb has just been dropped” (WBS Interviewee 12). Another said, “I look like, I guess your, quintessential female, and I think my colleagues would be most surprised to find out about my double life . . . and probably horrified” (WBS Interviewee 8), while another said, “My family would think what they already think of me . . . that I’m a sexual deviant. They already think some tucked up shit about me because I am a lesbian” (WBS Interviewee 21). Sanders (2017) explains that an abundance of stigma affects all actors directly connected to commercial sex, exposing a “bleak analysis of how much of society views and treats sex workers” (p. 1).

The women interviewed who bought sex were aware of social narratives regarding the victimization of female sex workers and the demonization of clients, who are generally labeled as perpetrators of violence. WBS Interviewee 11 said that she “suspects women buying sex suffer less stigma than men” due to exploitative narratives. WBS Interviewee 8 said these narratives “make sex buyers into uncaring people,” and WBS Interviewee 11 “found the current positioning of sex work as assault to be deeply offensive to everyone engaged in it and particularly to women cast as victims.” While some interviewees rejected exploitation narratives as not directed toward them, others were aware of the stigmatizing effects for all clients, and some were sympathetic to male clients, to whom they can now hypothetically relate. In short, the stigma experienced by players in the sex industry contain complex intersections between activity and gender.

Activity-based stigma

Women who bought sex described feeling stigmatized and shamed tor their sexual orientations or practice when buying any sexual service other than regular heterosexual services. WBS Interviewee 2 said,

people [male friends] would get terribly offended that you are more into it [the female dancers at the strip club] than them. Because, obviously it’s fine that you are gay but you are not supposed to be demonstratively gay in public. . . [and] you would get the phenomenon where sometimes the dancers would refuse to come near you. Because obviously, they didn’t want to catch the gay.

Regarding paying for same-sexual services, WBS Interviewee 2 said, “You are hiding away those things, then you are pretending that the sex you have purchased is heterosexual sex.” WBS Interviewee 3 felt her interest in BDSM was stigmatizing. WBS Interviewee 3 would like to work as a sex worker if not for the stigma, and she coined the phrase “Stigma steals power.” WBS Interviewee 4 said she experienced such excessive stigma around being a person who is transgender that buying sex seemed insignificant. WBS Interviewee 4 said, “There was a lot of stigma against non-operative transwomen . . . and I like to say jokingly that I like country and western music. God, I’ve faced enough prejudice as it is.”

Several women felt the stigma was more about exchanging sex for money rather than having free sex (WBS Interviewees 7, 8, 9, and 12). WBS Interviewee 9 said, “I think that’s actually the core of the stigma is that you are exchanging money.” While the cost of paying tor sex may be a barrier for some women, Interviewee 8 made an important point in saying that many women “believe in their entitlement to free sex,” effectively preventing their purchase of it. Women who bought sex felt additional concerns about paying tor sex; those concerns may not affect men who buy sex, including heteronormative notions of women owning sex that men have to earn, de Beauvoir (1997) explains, “From primitive times to our own, intercourse has always been considered a ‘service’ tor which the male thanks the woman by giving her presents or assuring her maintenance ... a woman gives herselt, man pays her and takes her” (pp. 395—6). When women pay for sex, they challenge ideas that they own sex and that they must give it. Women buying sex spoke about their choices not to pick up in a bar or club, and some said they felt pressure from society to have free sex and not pay for it.

In an academic opinion piece, feminist writer Sheila Jeffreys (2003) implied that if women buy sex, they do so chiefly to satisfy the voyeuristic desire ot men. One interviewee bought sex to satisfy her partner’s desire. WBS Interviewee 6 considered stigma to be more about how sex was purchased rather than the sex itself. She said, [1]

The individual circumstances that motivated someone to buy sex appear to be important in terms of meeting social expectations that buying sex is empowering tor women, as portrayed in some media.

Gendered stigma

Experiences of stigma are gendered. Sex workers noted that all commercial sex involvement induces stigma, that women suffer less stigma than men due to exploitation narratives, and that women who buy sex suffer more stigma than men who buy sex due to slut shaming. Attwood (2007) describes societal double standards of sexual behavior where damage to a woman’s reputation occurs through derogatory labels such as “slut,” which are used to police female submission to men. Most interviewees revealed that women who bought sex were aware of, and affected by, stigmatizing notions ot sluttiness and sex shaming that do not generally apply to men. Interviewees felt that slut shaming is grounded in ideas that “female pleasure is not regarded as important” (WBS Interviewee 5) and is “unauthentic and dirty” (WBS Interviewee 20). They also said that female sexuality “makes people deeply uncomfortable” (WBS Interviewee 17), because the “stigma is about women having sexual desire full stop” (WBS Interviewee 19).

Interviewees also believe that there is more stigma tor women with sexual dysfunction than men with sexual dysfunction (WBS Interviewee 12), and that men are perceived to have high sexual desire while women are considered to desire love (WBS Interviewee 9). For example, WBS Interviewee 7 said,

Um, so yeah, I mean it is very complex and I think there is a lot of judgment against women. Like you know, it you are seeking services then you must be a raging nympho or something or you must be broken or completely insecure. But, with men it is like just another Friday night or, whatever. So like, there is judgment and it sucks.

The mainstream media influence social constructions of expected female sexual behavior. For example, feminist writer Tankard Reist wrote a newspaper article about the rising media attention about women buying sex, noting that there is “no social construction ot men as sluts who enjoy their own degradation” (Tankard Reist, 2010). However, there is some evidence, found in the analysis ot Australian contemporary discourse, that some social commentators consider slut-shaming shameful. Paradoxically, the analysis also revealed a small number of commentators who simultaneously described male clients as perpetrators of violence and female clients as empowered. This gendered double standard reveals that although men and women who buy sex are subject to stigmatization, the source of discomfort for those commenting lies in mixed messages about female sexual agency and the conflation of sex work with male violence against women.

Stigma management

Given the disempowering nature ot receiving stigma, it is useful to examine the strategies that the stigmatized use to manage stigma. Women who bought sex described the various methods they use to reduce the impact of stigma on them. The most common themes were controlling the flow of information by either not telling people or by associating only with broad-minded people. A strong and perhaps less conscious method of controlling information was to deflect or reframe the act of buying sex into something more socially acceptable.

Goffman (1963) describes information control as a means of “passing” without stigma. Most women interviewed had kept their buying of sex a secret in an effort to avoid stigmatization. WBS Interviewee 9, who initially denied feeling stigmatized told, “everyone [emphasis added] except tor like, my parents and relatives, yeah. Like, about 10 people, I have told.” WBS Interviewee 10 denied being affected by stigma but said that she kept her buying of sex a secret from most of her friends. The remaining interviewees described feeling stigmatized, and all but two others told few people about it.

The chosen confidants were different tor different interviewees. For example, WBS Interviewee 8 wanted the people she cared most about to know:

I suppose 1 don’t find it really hard to live a double life in my work, because what I do in my personal life is my business. I would find it very hard if my friends didn’t know. And, I wouldn’t be able to maintain that type of double life. It would be too tricky.

However, WBS Interviewee 16 said she told all manner of strangers and health professionals about buying sex but not a single friend or family member.

In contrast, Interviewees 13 and 15 told most people important to them, including extended family and work colleagues. In practice, however, most interviewees told very few people, reflecting their awareness that buying sex is, at this time, a stigmatized activity. WBS However, Interviewee 8 saw stigma as changing with current social norms:

I was like, really unsure whether I should tell any of my friends, you know because I didn’t know how they would all react. Because I think society has raised us all to have a bit of a taboo about it. And I think, as the new generation comes in and probably I think as society changes anyway, um, you know, it is becoming more acceptable.

In addition to secret keeping, another strategy tor managing stigma is associating with only sex industry allies. WBS Interviewee 2, who is a current sex worker, said,

I made a decision that I would not involve, I was not going to have anyone in my life that didn’t know that I was both queer and a sex worker and they, if they had a problem with any ot those things then they were to fuck off. So, that made life a lot simpler.

Deflecting and reframing

Another strategy to deflect stigma identified by Goffman (1963) is to combine the stigmatized activity with another attribute, one that has significantly less stigma attached to it, effectively reframing the activity. For example, WBS Interviewee 4, as mentioned previously, felt that the stigma associated with being a transwoman weighed heavier than stigma associated with buying sex. For most interviewees, buying sex was their most stigmatizing attribute, and they used deflection and retraining effectively. For example, WBS Interviewee 3 said, “I was being mentored as a dominant. I think it would have been very, very different tor all of the boys in my family, if I had been mentored as a submissive.” This strategy of managing stigma deflects the stigma to a group perceived to be more marginalized.

About halt ot the women interviewed cited “therapy” as their main motivation for buying sex, and very few cited sexual tension or desire as a major motivation. WBS Interviewee 12 said, “And I really looked at it as physio. You go to a physio if you have a sore back, he is going to touch your sore back to see how bad it is.” Considering a sex worker a health professional was also a strategy used by WBS Interviewee 3: “I see it as no different it I was to see a psychologist.” WBS Interviewee 5 said, “So, 1 think of him more of, like a secular mentor. And therapist.” WBS Interviewee 13 used a health professional to endorse her activity: “I always use my psychologist as something that makes it sound less dodgy. I said my psychologist supports me seeing an escort.”

Some interviewees had bought sexual services for therapeutic reasons and entertainment at different times and were able to recognize the relationship ot stigma to those different motivations. For example, WBS Interviewee 4 said,

Actually, I just remembered something. What helped me begin to shift that was that I did work with a somatic body worker about 5 years ago. Yeah, I totally forgot that, [laughing] And that helped just to begin to shift some of my internalized stigma I suppose.

In addition, WBS Interviewee 5 recalled, “I’ve talked more about the therapy than I have about the male escort. So obviously I feel some stigma about that, cause I really would only talk to my closest friends about that.”

WBS Interviewee 17 had preconceived ideas about buying sex as being only physical when she said she has

like an aversion to the phrase ‘buying sex.’ Because for me it is like something so much bigger than that. It is actually a much broader experience than the sexual act. Because I thought there is so much around the experience of being with a male sex worker that isn’t just about ... I don’t know, buying sex tor me is where you go and you have sex and then that is it. You know?

In sum: All the interviewees used controlling information, deflecting, refraining, and renaming sexual services to reduce their feelings of being negatively judged by others. But what happened when these same women wanted to share information about buying sex?

Promotion of sexual services

All women who bought sex were asked if they would recommend buying sex to a friend and how many people they told about it. By asking these questions, we sought to examine the less-conscious effects ot being stigmatized and the relationship between promotion of sexual services and secret keeping. Twelve women who had bought sex said they would unconditionally recommend it to friends, and the others said the answer might depend on the friend’s circumstances and values. Desires to recommend buying sex confirmed their sense of positive outcomes and of having had made the right decision to buy sex. WBS Interviewee 12 said,

Why is it OK tor us to go to the hairdresser and have our hair cut because we don’t want to do it at home, we are not skilled enough to do it at home, but we frown upon the situations when a woman or a man goes out and buys sex? . . . Yeah, it is a problem with the perceptions of sex that we have as a society rather than the actual act ot buying isn’t it.

SW Interviewee 2 thought it would be good to normalize women buying sex so more women might have access to sexual services. The women interviewed were stuck between a desire to promote buying sex and to protect their reputations because of the negative effects of being stigmatized. WBS Interviewee 7 said, “And it would make them feel more empowered and it would open their minds up, but I couldn’t suggest it to them because it would sink like a lead balloon. Like, they just would not cope with it.”

WBS Interviewee 18 said, “If I met [a good sex worker] I would give his business cards to all my friends.” Interviewee 1 “highly recommends it” and went on to say, “Some [people] get offended and it is like . . . yeah, go home and make your own coffee then and don’t buy one in a shop either.” Other, conditional recommendations to friends were “It would depend on the circumstances. But I would not, not recommend it” (Interviewee 6), “If I think someone was not coping then yes” (Interviewee 10), and “If I had that sort of relationship with a friend” (Interviewee 11).

WBS Interviewee 9 said:

I was so excited when I saw the ad about this, about your survey. I thought, Yes, this is totally about time that we women start like actually start challenging this and publishing the findings and like. I just wish that every woman who ever gets themselves in a situation where they feel like they didn’t do something tor their own sexual satisfaction, I just wish all of them would have the confidence to do it. And something that I am realizing from having lots of just general casual sex at the moment is look, it’s all in our heads. We create all of these self-doubt sort of things ourselves. And you can take charge of it. Once you take charge of it it is, then you will feel so liberated. Whether it is paying for it or just having casual sex, when you actually take charge and you know what you want, it is amazing.

In sum: The interviewees had clear desires to promote sexual services while wanting to preserve their status by secret keeping, demonstrating cognitive dissonance as a consequence of stigma.

Implications of stigma

For our interviewees, the negative implications of stigmatization were clear. For example, Interviewee 17 said, “The risk of being publicly shamed is like, really scary.” Goftman (1963) explains that keeping secrets about stigmatized activities results in anxiety and insecurity because a person cannot know tor sure who “knows” and who does not know. WBS Interviewee 2 described “existing in a permanent state of tension.” WBS Interviewee 3 felt that other people knowing about her buying sex could affect her possible career choices, and WBS Interviewee 19 worried that her former partner might attempt to discredit her in family court if he found out, threatening her custody of their children. WBS Interviewee 20 said, “I guess my main worry would be, would be like the school community like, where your kids go to school. I don’t really want to be, you know, I don’t want to be someone’s gossip."

Stigmatization is an effective means of social control and may well be the reason why buying sex is not a common pastime. WBS Interviewee 5 said, “It is stigma that prevents women buying sex and missing the therapeutic benefits.” It might well be that some people who are otherwise motivated to buy sex do not do so because they fear the response from others. WBS Interviewee 5 also said,

If the stigma of sex work were to alleviate a bit, I think you find quite a large emerging market in sex services that were therapeutic for women. And yeah, when I see people that are coming into tantra communities, yeah, there is a lot of women that we are talking about, seeking that.

WBS Interviewee 7 also considered the social taboo against buying sex a major deterrent.

While stigmatization may limit people’s access to buying sex, it may also influence their ability to access other services. The CRSH Stigma Indicators project (Cama et al., 2018) found that capacity to access to other health services due to stigma is associated with mental health issues and social isolation and can prevent people from using health care.

Individual motivation to control personal information seems paramount to feeling safe, but it has a negative effect in terms ot silencing sex workers’ clients who wish to advocate for a broader understanding ot the sex industry. WBS Interviewee 17 said,

And, that, you know, that is only pushing me and my story deeper underground. Like a, because I feel really frightened, that you know, I see myself as a really strong feminist and there are other women out there who are going to shame me around this. And that is too frightening for me then, and it becomes a harder thing for me to talk about.

WBS Interviewee 15 tried to tell her story on Twitter; she felt her experience was dismissed because it did not fit the prevailing narrative ot an exploitative male client and a female sex worker:

And that is what I wanted to bring up because they were talking about criminalization and abolition. And, that is why I brought it up because my experiences do count if you are talking about criminalizing it. I get very frustrated that they conflate sexual abuse and certainly childhood sexual abuse with sex work because there is no relation and I have been in both situations. I mean, I am obviously not a worker myself, but I found it quite disturbing that people can’t see the difference between somebody wanting to do sex work and between someone who has been trafficked or abused when it is not their choice. . . . When I had written on twitter, one person claimed that I was being exploited. That female sex workers and female clients are being exploited . . . they just want to try to make all women into victims. . . . And it is frustrating that people, you know, these people won’t acknowledge that “Yes, that did happen to me but I cannot make the choice to see a sex worker,” you know, now I can make the choice to go out to a bar and pick someone up, which is certainly less safe.

A further problem with silencing is the inaccurate generalizations that are made in influential spaces. WBS Interviewee 17 complained that clients of sex workers are talked about with “no authority” and neglected during public inquiries. The interviewees in this study were adversely affected by exploitation narratives, and their experiences caused them to question the truthfulness of negative sex industry narratives. However, their inability to be heard as bona fide clients permits a one-sided political debate that seeks to criminalize them. Some women who bought sex were concerned about being considered criminals should Swedish models of regulation be adopted in Australia.

Stories of stigma inform

Details of these women’s stories, generously and anonymously given, inform us about female sexual behavior and sex industry involvement in ways that are usually unmentionable. The motivations for most of the women to participate in our study about buying sex was to collectively have a voice in sex industry debate with a view to reducing stigma. Stigma placed on the commercialization ot sexual acts is challenged by women’s stories of achieving therapeutic outcomes when buying sex. In addition, stigma that is based on male entitlement to women’s bodies is challenged when women buy sexual services from all genders. Slut shaming is another type of stigma experienced by women who buy sex. Ultimately, stigma about buying sex results in negative outcomes tor individuals leading double lives and silences their ability to lead efforts toward positive changes for broader society'.

Future directions and stigma reduction

The stigmatization of sex industry clients results in limited access to services, threats to relationships and mental well-being, and inappropriate representation with serious political and legal ramifications. The project of stigma reduction through the normalization of the sex industry, as described by Sanders (2017), is an enormous task in which legal reform is essential. The decriminalization of sex work is a first and crucial harm-reduction technique. Unfortunately, decriminalization does not erase stigma (Weitzer, 2017b; Abel, 2014), but it may reduce some fear about accessing sexual services and increase acceptability and citizens’ rights.

An important stigma reduction measure would consider buying sex an option tor all genders. Women’s sexual desire and capacity to buy sex are not only overlooked in contemporary Australian discourse but also denied, indeed sanitized, in academic discourse, as exemplified by papers positioning female sex tourism as romance tourism, a phenomenon separate from male sex tourism (Pruitt & LaFont, 1995; Taylor, 2006; Tornqvist, 2012). Men and women buy sex for similar reasons and in similar fashions, and they experience similar outcomes (Sanders, 2008; Vanwesenbeeck, 2001; Caldwell, 2012; Caldwell & de Wit, 2016). While female clients of sex workers may escape some stigma experienced by male clients, female clients also suffer from being considered inconsequential. Particular stigma experienced by men buying sex from men may be different again. By encouraging broader thinking about the sex industry, thinking about men and women as buyers of sex disrupts ideas of all clients as being engaged in exploitation narratives and all women as either victims or sluts.

Brents and Sanders (2010) note that representations of the sex industry have moved toward a subtle shift in the perceived respectability of middle-class consumers and workers. Brents and Sanders also point to the adult industry’s marketing to women as evidence of mainstreaming or normalizing the sex industry. The media’s power to mainstream the sex industry was demonstrated when more than halt of the women interviewed in our study said they bought sex after reading a positive media article about other women buying sex.

More research is needed regarding women who buy sex. We need to enable and encourage women to disclose to researchers when they buy sex, we need to assist women to identify as sex buyers without denial and deflection, and we need to reject political attempts to make them invisible.

Currently, sex workers who assert the benefits of their services are often discounted as unrepresentative or as aggressive marketers. Meanwhile, women who buy sex risk slut shaming, stigma and being reduced to anomalies. Female client voices are vital in challenging gendered narrative about female sexuality and increasing understanding of the sex industry. Sex industry stigma steals power.


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Trans men in sex work

  • [1] don’t think it’s about paying for sex, I think that it was about him instigating it and notme. Had it been me, chatting around saying, ‘Right, I’ve got an itch, no one is scratching it, I am just going to call an agency,’ and that would have been fine. Submitting to thewishes of a partner who wanted it is more, it’s more humiliating, demeaning, I don’t know.It puts it in a different box.
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