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1 in 5 British men pay for sex? No. No they don’t.

March 4th, 2009

Dr Petra

You may have seen in the media yesterday that 1:5 men pay for sex.

But is this true? Are 20% of British men paying for sex? Results from a survey of 2000 men revealed 1:5 men purchase sex and of those men 1:3 do so ‘regularly’. 50% of respondents said they didn’t consider seeing a prostitute as ‘cheating’, while 1:20 women said they had seen a male prostitute.

Let’s take a look at this data a bit more closely. The most accurate data we have on men purchasing sex comes from the UK’s Natsal study (conducted in 2000). While this research measured an increase over the previous decade of men admitting to purchasing sex, results indicated about 4% of men were seeing sex workers.

4% is a lot less than 20% don’t you think?

But there are more problems than just the overinflated data here.

The survey apparently measured ‘paying for sex’ – but what does that mean? We know from existing research on prostitution that punters see sex workers for a variety of reasons and request numerous services. That may be intercourse (which most people would define as ‘sex’).

But it can also include oral sex, hand jobs, dirty talk, showing bits of the body to the punter, anal stimulation of a punter or anal sex with a punter, allowing the punter to touch the sex worker, massaging the punter, cuddles and conversation. Many of these occur together and are negotiated as part of a package – for example some sex workers will charge extra to give a hand job while topless, and more still to let a punter touch their breasts.

Where you see a sex worker will in some ways affect what services you are interested in and what experiences you get. An encounter with a street prostitute will differ from someone working in a flat or parlour, and from someone who is a high class hooker.

The survey hasn’t accounted for any of this by asking about ‘sex’ as we’ve no idea what the people responding thought sex was, or what they paid for. If you paid a prostitute for a hand job then you’d probably agree you’d pay for sex, but that’s arguably not the same as paying for intercourse or paying for a ‘girlfriend experience’.

The assumption within this study is also that men who pay for sex do so with female sex workers, but no measure of the gender of the sex worker was taken. Men can pay for sex with female, male or trans sex workers – but it isn’t clear here who they were talking about.

No measure was taken of when someone saw the sex worker, why they visited a prostitute, and in what context. Moreover it wasn’t clear if the people reporting seeing a prostitute were single or in a relationship at the time. This ways explain the 50% not seeing paying for sex as cheating, since if you’re single when you see a sex worker you wouldn’t see it as being unfaithful. If respondents were single at the time of completing the survey they would also not see it as cheating as they would be responding in relation to their current status.

Finally 1:20 women were supposed to have paid for sex, yet the survey was apparently based on 2000 men – so who were the women in this study – how many were there? Were they part of the 2000 sample?

We have no idea. We also have no idea how people were recruited to the study, how the study was completed (online, over the phone etc) and how it was introduced to participants.

Of course, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that’s because it wasn’t a proper study of purchasing sex, but was in fact a PR ‘survey’ to promote the DVD launch of the Secret Diary of a Call Girl .

So why am I bothering to blog about it? Well, it’s pretty simple. Journalists writing about sex stories use google as their main resource (sadly). So if they’re commissioned to write a piece about men who pay for sex they’ll run a quick google search and will undoubtedly find this 1:5 men figure. It means this inaccurate figure that’s not based on any scientific research will be used to stack up stories and mislead us on the prevalence of men purchasing sex, without telling us anything about why they buy sex and who from.

So if you are a journalist, remember the 1:5 figure is rubbish, just used to promote a product. If you want to be more accurate use the 4% figure from the Natsal study (see above).

I can’t for the life of me work out why this is a good example of PR. Secret Diary of a Call Girl is a series predominantly aimed at women. Women who might enjoy the fantasy of being a high class call girl like Belle, but who probably wouldn’t relish the thought that their partner could be in the 20% who pay for sex. I can only see this alienating the very audience they want to attract.

As an excellent antidote to this nonsense, and an example of how reporting on prostitution should be done listen to these two radio programmes aired this week on women who paid for sex. The first, from BBC Five Live and featured academics Dr Nicola Smith and Raymond Tallis joined by male escort Andrew Rosetta. The second, from Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour featured a discussion between psychologist Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon and a second appearance from Andrew Rosetta around the moral aspects of escorting and includes a frank account from a woman who paid for sex.

Thank goodness that sometimes the media can come up with some decent coverage. If only those messages stayed in the public domain rather than these more sensational figures.

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