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Men who pay for sex often have partners – but it’s sex workers who pay the price for poor press coverage

October 2nd, 2006

Dr Petra

Research from Scotland released to the press today has revealed that ‘almost half of men who pay for sex have partners’. This isn’t something that comes as a surprise to people working within sexual health, but has seemed to come as a shock to the press.

Men see prostitutes for a variety of reasons – the most obvious being for sexual gratification, but men also see sex workers for company, comfort, cuddles or support. There are also those who sadly see sex workers because they wish to feel control over someone or act abusively. Some men see sex workers because it is difficult to form relationships for sex due to disability or shyness; others have a life partner who is unable to have sex due to disability or illness. For those with partners some see sex workers because they feel they do not get enough sex within their relationship, or feel it’s not appropriate to ask a wife or partner to perform certain sex acts they ask of a prostitute. Many people who see prostitutes have sex lives they and their partner enjoy. Most news coverage didn’t tackle these issues, instead focusing on the risks inherent with sex work.

It isn’t clear from this research what kinds of prostitutes the men were seeing – male or female sex workers, what age they were, or where they were located (e.g. on street or in a massage parlour). However, the media coverage automatically assumed the male punters would be seeing female prostitutes.

The press coverage highlighted an important issue of sexual health – that men who see sex workers frequently do not use condoms and thus put their partners at risk of sexually transmitted infections. However, that’s where it stopped. None of the press coverage mentioned that men who were not using condoms with sex workers weren’t just putting the health of their partners at risk; they put the sexual health of prostitutes at risk too.

Whilst it’s right to highlight problems in sexual health in the press, most of the coverage had a subtext of blaming sex workers. It implied that men go to a sex worker, get an STI and bring it home to their wife. More realistically men who don’t use condoms infect sex workers and partners equally. Sex workers are often more at risk from their clients passing on an STI than vice versa. You have to ask why no journalist seemed to make this connection – or if they did why papers didn’t bother to report it.

Often the public (and the media) assume that it’s the prostitute’s responsibility to use condoms and have regular sexual health check ups. Fine for someone who is confident, assertive and can work safely. But it’s not fine for someone who is vulnerable, needs money, isn’t able to negotiate condom use, is raped by client or member of the public, or is coerced via client or her place of work to not use condoms. Many sex workers do not always find it easy to get healthcare as they feel judged by services and may avoid them.

This research could be useful if it allows greater targeting of clients to get them to use condoms – although this will be hard since punters are notoriously difficult to work with as they fear identification and prosecution. If the research also leads to enabling more prostitutes to work safely that would be a bonus – but under our current political climate don’t hold your breath on that.

Whenever stories appear in the press that subtly (or not so subtly) blame sex workers the risks to prostitutes from the public increase. Whether that’s in terms of verbal or physical abuse, when media connections are made that prostitutes spread disease then they become targets of prejudice and hostility. It’s not responsible or accurate journalism to tell only half the story. It’s particularly bad in this case where poor coverage means sex workers aren’t just at risk of catching STIs from clients who don’t use condoms, they’re also now at risk from a public who’s been instructed to blame them for infecting the unsuspecting wives of the clients who don’t use condoms.

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