Prostitution today: punishing the punters

June 22, 2007

Craig, a 45-year-old customer services supervisor, stops at the corner of a street in a town he passes on the way home from work most Fridays. He usually texts Mandy, whom he has known for about three years, in his lunchtime break to see if she is working that evening. He generally buys oral sex for £10, with a ten-minute chat and some friendly banter added to the service as he
drops her back to the beat for her next punter.

Craig justifies his routine as “me time” — not as adulterous as an affair and more satisfying than lap dancing clubs. But he could still be arrested, and face humiliation in court and the newspapers, a hefty fine and a driving licence ban. Fifty years on from Wolfenden, the targets of moral messages sent through the criminal justice system have become men.

A nationwide anti-kerb-crawler campaign is now under way, using radio and newspaper advertisements and beer mats highlighting the penalties for buying sex. Men who cannot control themselves may get a £1,000 fine and lose their driving licence. The social punishments, through naming and shaming in the press, are also promoted as a viable and acceptable means of teaching men how to behave. In an age of gender politics and political correctness, the cheeky married man who wants a cheap thrill from oral sex on the street is an easy target. He can legitimately be constructed as a threat to all innocent women and a hazard to creating “safe” communities.

Yet the stereotype does not hold up to much assessment, or even to the Government’s own research. Most men apprehended for kerb-crawling offences do not have criminal records, are in full-time employment and are upstanding members of the community and of families. Although
in some markets sex workers experience violence, most commercial sex interactions happen without incident, condom use is high and sex workers complain more about intense policing and a lack of monitoring than about the clientele.

Men buy sex because they want more sex, different types of sex, different types of women (and men), because of opportunity, loneliness, lack of a relationship. Yet the sex industry is not always a place of fleeting, emotionless sexual liaisons. In a study I have conducted with male clients, men who regularly visit the same sex workers speak of their relationships in terms of intimacy and companionship.

Regular clients communicate with sex workers as they would in other forms of relationships, engaging in romancing and courtship, stages of familiarity and even getting to a position of “care” or “friendship” with the women they pay for services. Intimacy is not beyond the capacity of commerce.

Western societies are awash with different types of sexual commodification, born out of mass consumer capitalism and the centrality of sex in modern culture. But while gentleman’s clubs are visible in all towns and cities, and the neon lights of brothels and massage parlours shine from suburban streets, what goes on behind the velvet curtains or silver shutters is rarely considered. Morality disguises any real discussion of the fragility of human bonds, the strain marriages are under and what really is on offer in commercial sexual relationships.

The criminal justice system is no place to address all this. Existing policing and legal measures relating to public order, sexual offending and criminal coercion can adequately deal with the exploitative side of the sex industry. But putting limits on private morality with regard to the legitimate purchase and provision of consensual commercial sex is evidence of a state seeking to control sexuality rather than to preserve diversity, difference and freedom.
While homosexuality has taken a large leap forward towards acceptance in British
society since the Wolfenden report, those who sell and buy commercial
sex are forced to hide in the shadows of convoluted legislation and dangerous stereotypes
that simply reinforce “the problem of men”.

Teela Sanders is a senior lecturer in the sociology of crime in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds University. Her book Paying for Pleasure: Men who Buy Sex will
be published by Willan later this year.

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