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Who pays for sex, anyway? New findings offer surprises

March 26, 2013
Courtesy of SAGE Publications
and World Science staff

What types of men seek out pros­ti­tutes? Well, sta­tis­tic­ally speak­ing, it’s men probably much like you, your broth­er or your hus­band, a study has found. 

Ex­cept they’re probably not any of those peo­ple. That’s be­cause the re­search found that at least in the Un­ited States, few men go to pros­ti­tutes to beg­in with, though those that do seem to be pret­ty typ­i­cal folks. 

Only 14 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have ev­er paid for sex and 1 per­cent have done so in the past year, the study con­clud­ed. The ma­jor­ity of these men pos­sess no un­usu­al qual­i­ties that could be de­tected, ac­cord­ing to the re­search, pub­lished on­line March 22 in the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of Of­fend­er Ther­a­py and Com­par­a­tive Crim­i­nol­o­gy.

Some me­dia re­ports have ex­ag­ger­at­e the pro­por­tion of Amer­i­can men who pay for sex, the au­thors said. The new find­ings “con­tra­dict the ‘john next door’ no­tion,” said study co-author Chris­tine Mil­rod of the Uni­vers­ity of Port­land in Or­e­gon. “While it is note­wor­thy to rec­og­nize that the 1 per­cent of adult men who paid for sex in 2010 still re­sult in a large num­ber of cus­tomers, there is no cred­i­ble ev­i­dence to sup­port the idea that hir­ing sex work­ers is a com­mon or con­ven­tion­al as­pect of mas­cu­line sex­u­al be­hav­ior among men in the Un­ited States.”

Ar­rested cus­tomers of pros­ti­tutes were found to be only slightly less likely to be mar­ried, slightly more likely to be work­ing full-time, slightly more sex­u­ally lib­er­al, and slightly less likely to be white than men who have not been clients of pros­ti­tutes.

A small group of highly ac­tive cus­tomers, such as those who were nev­er ar­rested and who sought out sex work­ers list­ed on a pros­ti­tute re­view web­site, were found to dif­fer sub­stant­ially from men who don’t pay for sex. Many of these mar­ried white men earn over $120,000 an­nu­al­ly, have grad­u­ate de­grees, and are more sex­u­ally lib­er­al than any of the oth­er groups in the stu­dy, the study found. 

“The em­pha­sis on teach­ing about ‘sex ad­dic­tion’ and ‘healthy rela­t­ion­ships’ to ar­rested men” may be mis­dir­ected in light of the find­ings, Mil­rod said.


In the paper, the researchers explained they carried out their work by “com­paring a new sam­ple of act­ive cust­omers who so­licit sex on the Inter­net with an old­er sample of arrested cust­omers, a sample of cust­omers from the GSS [General Social Survey, a nationally rep­resent­a­tive survey], and a nationally repre­sent­a­tive sample of non­cus­tomers.”

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What types of men seek out prostitutes? Well, statistically speaking, it’s men probably much like you, your brother or your husband, a study has found. Except they’re probably not them. That’s because the research found that at least in the United States, few men go to prostitutes to begin with, but those that do seem to be pretty typical Americans. Only 14% of Americans have ever paid for sex and 1% have done so in the past year, the study concluded. The majority of these men possess no unusual qualities that could be detected, according to the research, published online March 22 in the journal International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. Some media reports have exaggerated the proportion of American men who pay for sex, the authors said. The new findings “contradict the ‘john next door’ notion,” said study co-author Christine Milrod of the University of Portland in Oregon. “While it is noteworthy to recognize that the 1% of adult men who paid for sex in 2010 still result in a large number of customers, there is no credible evidence to support the idea that hiring sex workers is a common or conventional aspect of masculine sexual behavior among men in the United States.” Arrested customers of prostitutes were found to be only slightly less likely to be married, slightly more likely to be working full-time, slightly more sexually liberal, and slightly less likely to be white than men who have not been clients of prostitutes. A small group of highly active customers, such as those who were never arrested and who sought out sex workers listed on a prostitute review website, were found to differ substantially from men who don’t pay for sex. A substantial portion of these married white men earn over $120,000 annually, have graduate degrees, and are more sexually liberal than any of the other groups in the study, the study found. They exhibit no mental impairment. “Privileged men, such as our wealthier sample of review website clients, are generally not marginalized or threatened due to their sexual behavior. In contrast, customers associated with street prostitution are likely to have fewer financial and social resources and it could be argued that these men are explicitly targeted by law enforcement in marginalized areas or transitional neighborhoods,” Milrod said. “The emphasis on teaching about ‘sex addiction’ and ‘healthy relationships’ to arrested men further supports the notion that customers of street prostitutes are endowed with some form of psychopathology that needs reorientation toward more accepted forms of sexual relations. The focus on treatment fails to separate paying for sex and being psychologically impaired.”