"Long before it's in the papers"
September 01, 2015

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Sex buyers, sexually aggressive men often the same people, study finds

Sept. 1, 2015
Courtesy of University of California - Los Angeles
and World Science staff

Men who buy sex are more likely than oth­ers to re­port hav­ing com­mit­ted rape and oth­er ag­gres­sive sex­u­al acts, and they show less em­pa­thy for pros­ti­tutes, ac­cord­ing to a stu­dy.

The re­search­ers be­hind the work say their find­ings sup­port the view that buy­ing sex is a bas­ic­ally pred­a­to­ry prac­tice that should­n’t be le­gal­ized. They’re back­ing the “Nor­dic” ap­proach to­ward pros­ti­tu­tion, which pun­ishes the buy­ers rath­er than the sel­lers.

The study of 101 men in the Bos­ton ar­ea who buy sex and 101 men who do not con­clud­ed that sex buy­ers’ per­spec­tives are si­m­i­lar to those of sex­u­ally co­er­cive men.

“Our find­ings in­di­cate that men who buy sex share cer­tain key char­ac­ter­is­tics with men who are at risk for com­mit­ting sex­u­al ag­gres­sion,” said Neil Mala­muth, co-au­thor of the stu­dy, pub­lished on­line Aug. 31 in the Jour­nal of In­ter­per­son­al Vi­o­lence.

“Both groups tend to have a pref­er­ence for im­per­son­al sex, a fear of re­jec­tion by wom­en, a his­to­ry of hav­ing com­mit­ted sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive acts and a hos­tile mas­cu­line self-identifica­t­ion. Those who buy sex, on av­er­age, have less em­pa­thy for wom­en in pros­ti­tu­tion and view them as in­trin­sic­ally dif­fer­ent from oth­er wom­en,” said Mala­muth, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­nica­t­ions stud­ies and psy­chol­o­gy at the Un­ivers­ity of Los An­ge­les Cal­i­for­nia.

Oth­er stud­ies have linked a low­er lev­el of em­pa­thy among men to sex­u­al ag­gres­sion to­ward wom­en.

It’s long been de­bat­ed wheth­er pros­ti­tu­tion is a job or sex­u­al abuse. The new find­ings tend to sup­port the lat­ter view, the au­thors said.

“We hope this re­search will lead to a re­jec­tion of the myth that sex buy­ers are simply sex­u­ally frus­trat­ed nice guys,” said Me­lis­sa Far­ley, the stu­dy’s lead au­thor and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Pros­ti­tu­tion Re­search and Educa­t­ion, a San Francisco-based non­prof­it.

Had the study found no dif­fer­ences be­tween the views of men who buy sex and those who don’t, it might have giv­en cre­dence to those who ad­vo­cate le­gal­iz­ing and reg­u­lat­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, said Far­ley.

“How­ever, giv­en the sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive at­ti­tudes and be­hav­ior found in sex buy­ers, a more pro­gres­sive le­gal pol­i­cy would be like that seen in Swe­den and Nor­way, where pros­ti­tu­tion is un­der­stood as a pred­a­to­ry crime against eco­nom­ic­ally and eth­nic­ally marginal­ized wom­en,” she said. “The Nor­dic mod­el ar­rests sex buy­ers but de­crim­i­nal­izes those in pros­ti­tu­tion and pro­vides them with ex­it ser­vices.”

One man who bought sex and was in­ter­viewed for the study com­pared the trans­ac­tion to dis­pos­ing of a cof­fee cup af­ter he had fin­ished drink­ing from it. “When you’re done, you throw it out,” he said.

Anoth­er said of wom­en in pros­ti­tu­tion, “I think a lot of times they feel de­grad­ed. I mean, the ones I know have no self-con­fi­dence, so they feel less than a per­son, and more like a com­mod­ity.”

Mala­muth said the study con­firmed the pre­dic­tive abil­ity of ma­ny of the risk fac­tors for sex­u­al ag­gres­sion he has stud­ied for the past 35 years. His Con­flu­ence Mod­el char­ac­terizes men who are at high­er risk for com­mit­ting sex­u­al ag­gres­sion. It em­pha­sizes sev­er­al key risk fac­tors, in­clud­ing an­ti­so­cial be­hav­ior, a pref­er­ence for im­per­son­al sex, treat­ing sex more as a sport than as part of an in­ti­mate rela­t­ion­ship, and “hos­tile mas­culin­ity,” which in­cludes traits such as a nar­cis­sis­tic per­sonal­ity, hos­til­ity to­ward wom­en and a de­sire to have pow­er over wom­en.

The men in the study were described as rel­a­tively knowl­edge­a­ble about co­er­cion and sex traf­fick­ing, and about ma­ny of the rea­sons that wom­en en­tered pros­ti­tu­tion.

The re­search­ers screened more than 1,200 men to reach two groups of men who were si­m­i­lar in age, eth­ni­city and socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. The men were assurred an­o­nym­ity and each was in­ter­viewed for about two hours. The study was funded by Hunt Al­ter­na­tives, a pri­vate founda­t­ion.


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Men who buy sex are more likely than others to report having committed rape and other aggressive sexual acts, and they show less empathy for prostitutes, according to a study. The researchers behind the work say their findings support the view that buying sex is a basically predatory practice that shouldn’t be legalized. They’re backing the “Nordic” approach toward prostitution, which punishes the buyers rather than the sellers. The study of 101 men in the Boston area who buy sex and 101 men who do not concluded that sex buyers’ perspectives are similar to those of sexually coercive men. “Our findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men who are at risk for committing sexual aggression,” said Neil Malamuth, co-author of the study, published online Aug. 31 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. “Both groups tend to have a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification. Those who buy sex, on average, have less empathy for women in prostitution and view them as intrinsically different from other women,” said Malamuth, a professor of communications studies and psychology at the University of Los Angeles California. Other studies have linked a lower level of empathy among men to sexual aggression toward women. It’s long been debated whether prostitution is a job or sexual abuse. The new findings tend to support the latter view, the authors said. “We hope this research will lead to a rejection of the myth that sex buyers are simply sexually frustrated nice guys,” said Melissa Farley, the study’s lead author and executive director of Prostitution Research and Education, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Had the study found no differences between the views of men who buy sex and those who don’t, it might have given credence to those who advocate legalizing and regulating prostitution, said Farley. “However, given the significant levels of sexually aggressive attitudes and behavior found in sex buyers, a more progressive legal policy would be like that seen in Sweden and Norway, where prostitution is understood as a predatory crime against economically and ethnically marginalized women,” she said. “The Nordic model arrests sex buyers but decriminalizes those in prostitution and provides them with exit services.” One man who bought sex and was interviewed for the study compared the transaction to disposing of a coffee cup after he had finished drinking from it. “When you’re done, you throw it out,” he said. Another said of women in prostitution, “I think a lot of times they feel degraded. I mean, the ones I know have no self-confidence, so they feel less than a person, and more like a commodity.” Malamuth said the study confirmed the predictive ability of many of the risk factors for sexual aggression he has studied for the past 35 years. His Confluence Model characterizes men who are at higher risk for committing sexual aggression. It emphasizes several key risk factors, including antisocial behavior, a preference for impersonal sex, treating sex more as a sport than as part of an intimate relationship, and “hostile masculinity,” which includes traits such as a narcissistic personality, hostility toward women and a desire to have power over women. The men in the study were relatively knowledgeable about coercion and sex trafficking, and about many of the reasons that women entered prostitution. The researchers screened more than 1,200 men to reach two groups of men who were similar in age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The men were guaranteed anonymity and each was interviewed for about two hours. The study was funded by Hunt Alternatives, a private foundation.