What drives someone to pay for sex? Is it lust? Loneliness? Sexual addiction? A need for control? A search for power? Here is one man’s explanation:
Listening to this man fills me with sadness. I am sad for the single moms and students who, according to him, constitute the majority of those he buys sex from. It’s likely that most of them see prostitution as the only viable option to make ends meet. Some, unbeknownst to him, may be trafficking victims, as they can be difficult to identify even by the most well-meaning customer.
But I am also sad for this man. While I fully support criminalizing the buying of sexual services due to the system of exploitation it fosters, and while I firmly believe that sex customers should be held accountable for the vulnerability they knowingly (or unknowingly) exploit, I also see a need to have a much bigger conversation about love, intimacy, and human worth. Here is a quote from the video that highlights the importance of this:
If intimacy is what some of these men are seeking, we need to examine what real intimacy actually looks like.
Intimacy is about being known, being vulnerable, being wanted. It’s finding a place of belonging and peeling off the masks we wear for the rest of the world. It’s about companionship, acceptance, unconditional love. For these reasons, it is possible to have intimacy without sex. The physical component is like the candle on a birthday cake – it’s the spark that is part of a much bigger celebration. These are things money can’t buy.
The sex purchaser in this video explains that for him it’s not actually about the sexual release as much as it is about lying in bed with someone. But fake intimacy runs the risk of decreased self-esteem and self-worth. Cognitively the person is aware of the exchange (money paid) and that the intimacy is not mutual. It increases dissatisfaction, requiring an increased level of involvement.
Not only is fake intimacy harmful to the person buying sex, but I’ve also heard women who have left the sex industry say how much it drained them to have customers dump their emotional baggage on them. Can you imagine being a single mom, prostituting yourself to feed your kids and wondering how you are going to make ends meet, having to then spend your emotional energy comforting some guy who paid money have sex with you? Or being a trafficking victim who doesn’t even see that money, having to pretend you adore being this guy’s “girlfriend”?
A few years ago I met with a researcher who had studied the habits and and motivations of sex buyers. She had asked the men to describe how they felt when they sought out a person for sex, and most of them used words like thrilling, excited, on the hunt. When she then asked them how they felt after they’d bought sex, they used words like sad, disappointed, lonely, depressed.
While making our documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking, Jay and I interviewed Nate, an ex-john who had spent over $300,000 on porn and prostitution. Since dealing with his sexual addiction, he has developed a community of real relationships that has brought joy, intimacy, and love into his life. But, as he told us, it required sacrificing his pride and being vulnerable with people.
Prostitution is anchored in anonymity and strips people of their humanity. Those who sell sex are seen as objects and those who buy it are seen as animals who can’t control their sexual urges. If we are to foster real intimacy, we must help each other to see our humanity, dignity, and worth. For this reason, we must stop calling sex purchasers “sick perverts” and dismissing them as “disgusting pigs” (terms I’ve heard quote often). It’s not helpful or beneficial to anyone. So what should our approach be instead?
We should invite those who are lonely and starving for intimacy into vibrant, healthy relationships that they don’t need to pay for. We must strive to become “safe” people who are open and vulnerable with each other so that others feel they have the “permission” to be open and vulnerable with us.
While from a legal perspective it is important we criminalize the purchase of sex, relying on the law alone to decrease demand is too simplistic. Preventing people from seeking out false intimacy is more likely to happen from fostering healthy community and authentic relationships than from demonizing and isolating them. Let’s invite people into our lives and take care of each other. Intimacy is so much more than instant sexual gratification.