Sex Work

3 Important Caveats About That Study Showing Prostitution Clients Are More Prone to Violence

Research from group dedicated to "eradicating prostitution" gets presented as unbiased portrayal of men who've paid for sex.



Last week, research making the media rounds declared that men who pay for sex are more sexually aggressive, pathologically masculine, and likely to commit sexual assault than other men. The headlines—"Men who pay for prostitutes are more likely to commit rape," in the Daily Mail; "Men Who Buy Sex Are More Prone to Sexual Violence" in Time—are based on a study published online August 31 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Here's how Amanda Chatel at the women's blog Bustle described it:

… men who buy sex are very different from men who do not. According to the research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the majority of men who resort to prostitutes as a means to have sex, in many cases, also have a dark past of sexual assault against women. For them, women who prostitute themselves are not women at all, but just objects. 

But like so much advocacy research (and the subsequent reporting on it), this study—led by noted anti-sex work activist Melissa Farley and funded by a group which aims to "eliminate" prostitution—comes with a host of important caveats before taking too seriously its purported conclusions.  

Skewed Sample

Study participants included 101 men who have paid for (heterosexual or homosexual) sex and 101 men who have not. They were recruited via Craigslist and print newspaper ads and paid $45 for their time. Researchers screened more than 1,200 people in order to roughly match up the final groups in terms of ages, education levels, and race/ethnicity. But there are a number of reasons why we might think twice about drawing larger conclusions from this group.

For instance, all participants live in Boston—perhaps people who reside in a dense, cold, urban area (and one known for producing a certain sort of aggressive masculinity) differ in some significant ways from U.S. men at large. The kind of people likely to be trolling newspapers and Craigslist for gigs and to be enticed to talk about their sex lives for cash may also differ in significant ways from the general male population. 

Both groups of study participants—those who had paid for sex and those who hadn't—had surprisingly healthy arrest histories, with an average of 11.66 previous arrests among the former and 4.74 among the latter. This suggests these participants might be an atypical group. 

What's more, men in the control group were not simply men who had never paid for prostitution but also men who had never received a lap dance at a strip club, not been to a strip club more than once in the past year, and not watched pornography more than once in the past week. There are many men who watch porn more than once per week or have at some point received a lap dance who have never paid for sex. Adding these extra conditions makes for a poor control group for the men who have engaged in prostitution. Statements of the "men who have paid for sex are (comparatively different somehow) from men who do not" cannot be accurately made for this study because the group of men who have never paid for sex and meet these other conditions is not the same as the general population of men who have not paid for sex. 

Sexual Assault Propensity Based on Personality Tests, Not Past

The claim that men who pay for sex are more likely to commit sexual violence is based not on their criminal pasts but on their answers to a number of personality questions and hypotheticals. For instance, the researchers found men who paid for sex scored higher on a 34-item questionnaire "about their adversarial sexual beliefs, negative masculinity, and dominance as central to love relationships" (89.8 on average, versus 79.7). Here's how study co-author Neil Malamuth, a psychology and communications professor at UCLA, put it in a press release: "Our findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men who are at risk for committing sexual aggression."

In other words, they're more likely to have a few things in common with people also hypothetically likely to be sexually aggressive. Stinging indictment, no? I don't mean to suggest it's insignificant if men who pay for sex share a lot of personality traits associated with sexual aggression or "hostile masculinity," but it's a stretch to say they're "more likely to commit rape" and not at all the same as saying they have "a dark history of violence against women." 

Apparently both sexual predators and men who have engaged in prostitution at least once 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," according to Malamuth. "Those who buy sex, on average, have less empathy for women in prostitution and view them as intrinsically different from other women." How Malamuth and company came to some these conclusions, however, is itself a bit of a stretch.  

For instance, to determine that prostitution clients show "less empathy" for the women involved, they asked all respondents to estimate how sex workers feel about their work. Researchers then compared these answers with answers from sex workers in an unrelated study. Because johns' estimations matched up less with these women's actual responses, they were deemed to have less empathy. But the study used for comparison, from 2003, consisted of responses from street-based Arizona sex workers only, and respondents were largely high-school dropouts who had suffered high rates of childhood abuse.

Sure, there may be many sex workers like them, but there are many who are not, and it would be a mistake to take this one cohort as The Voice of Prostitution. Yet that's what Farley does, and then awards prostitution clients sociopathy points for not echoing the sad refrains of this cohort. Maybe these men have actually been with sex workers who enjoy their jobs; maybe they've mostly been with women who are ambivalent about the work but fake it damn well because they're skilled professionals; maybe the men have deluded themselves into seeing enjoyment where there is none. Who knows? But it hardly seems fair to judge their empathy levels by how closely they mimic answers from a group they didn't even know they were talking about. 

Sex buyers were significantly more likely than other respondents to say they would commit rape if they could get away with it , but the numbers are still relatively low (15 percent versus 2 percent). The authors also claim that men who pay for sex show higher levels of criminality in general. Among the group of johns, 22 percent had a felony conviction (compared with 8 percent of non-clients) and 23 percent had a misdemeanor (compared to 10 percent). Lead author Farley also noted that men who pay for sex were more likely to commit crimes in most categories, including crimes against women, than men who do not.

Yet most of the crimes they'd committed were non-violent offenses related to drugs, disorderly conduct, drunk driving, etc. ("selling balloons without a permit" and fare evasion on a train also make an appearance). In the group of sex buyers, 20 total arrests—among an unspecified number of individuals—were related to assault of any kind or crimes "typically associated with violence against women." No details are provided about the assault charges, but those counted as violence against women include public urination and impersonating a police officer. 

Research With an Agenda

In addition to being a psychologist, Melissa Farley has a long history of publishing research that casts prostitution in a negative light, frequently speaks about prostitution's perceived ills, and has run an anti-prostitution advocacy group in San Francisco (Prostitution Research and Education) for the better part of the past two decades. Its goal is "to abolish the institution of prostitution."

The research was funded by a group with a mission to eliminate "men's assumption of the right to prostitution" in order to "eliminate the institution of prostitution." In presenting the research at a conference, study authors thanked famous anti-pornography activist Catherine MacKinnon for her "invaluable" and "critical feedback regarding the summary and interpretation of these findings." 

In promoting this study, Farley casually calls strip clubs hubs of child sex trafficking and says things like, "We hope this research will lead to a rejection of the myth that sex buyers are simply sexually frustrated nice guys."

Farley designed a study biased toward making men who pay for sex look bad and then, in promoting her findings, actually comments how the results could have given credence to prostitution decriminalization, if only… "However, given the significant levels of sexually aggressive attitudes and behavior found in sex buyers," she added, "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." 

NEXT: The Rise of the Culture of Victimhood Explained

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  1. Men don’t pay prostitutes for sex. They pay them to leave. Most guys could bed some chick at the bar, but she’s going to want to stay the night and talk and stuff. But who wants that?

    1. People who aren’t “pathologically masculine”?

        1. I’ll answer any question I feel like, thank-you.

            1. It was also a rhetorical answer.

  2. What California, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Jersey All Have in Common…..03520.html

    Ok, it’s time to play gun nut quiz. And here’s the gun nut question today: What do the following states — California, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey — have in common? And the answer is — actually they have two things in common. Each state contains at least one city with a murder rate at least four times the national average — Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Newark; and each state is home to a Republican Presidential candidate: Fiorina, Carson, Kasich, Walker, Christie.

    So it’s the opinions of nearby GOP presidential candidates driving murder rates in solidly, historically, pro-control Democrat run cities. Who knew?

    1. Yeah, it’s the presidential candidates, not the fact that the cities where the crimes occur have been run exclusively by Democrats for decades. Most of these places also have pretty restrictive gun laws.

    2. And most of those cities, under one-party rule for decades, are decaying shitholes.

    3. This is…completely insane. This isn’t even a tangential connection, it’s two completely unrelated factors that need a third to connect them.

    4. Wow, that guy’s a dick. Or a Fudd.

      Comments are surprisingly reasonable.

    5. That is Salon-esque.

    6. Oh man, I am laughing so hard right now. California’s woes are due to a Republican presidential candidate who has never held elected office rather than the Democrat controlled assembly or the Democrat controlled cities of Oakland and LA. Alright.

      I’m surprised they didn’t throw New Orleans in there too because of Bobby Jindal while also avoiding the point that the city itself is overwhelmingly run by Democrats. Two of those states are basically Democratic fiefdoms while the other three are swing states that go back and forth, so of course HuffPo blames it wholly on Republicans.

      1. Also, all five of them are in states that voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Of course, that has nothing to do with why they’re violent, but we can both play the nonsensical guilt by association game.

        1. Well at least there’s an actual correlation with that. Whereas the connection the author makes here between the GOP’s 2016 candidate’s state of residence and the murder rates of select cities in that same state going back a decade or so, has no conceivable correlation. But that never stops a prog from making the argument.

    7. That whole essay is unintelligible. I’m trying to discern an argument but it eludes me.

    8. …And Fiorina has held no office in California. She was trying to represent it in the Senate, so she wouldn’t even be making domestic policy. Carson has also held no office, right?

      Hawaii and Chicago are bastions of corruption. And guess which presidential candidate spent called both places home?

    9. But what about cities in Florida, New York, Texas and Virginia? Each of those states have two Republican presidential candidates! Shouldn’t the effect be doubled?


  3. So better that there are prostitutes available for this type – rather than having them out there raping instead?

    1. And to have prostitution be legal so if such men rape prostitutes, they won’t be afraid to get help.

      1. Right.

        Even if the study’s contention is true, that simply means that the prostitutes have less protection than they would in a legalized environment.

        Only a true idiot would think that they can truly abolish prostitution through a ban.

  4. Is it rape if you have sex and don’t pay the prostitute? Asking for a friend…

    1. Not if she photo-swaps or uses 10 year old pics.

    2. Worse, it’s welching on a contract.

      1. Isn’t that originally spelled welshing … and as such, an ethnic slur?

        1. They’re just happy I’m not talking about their habitual ovine sexuality.

      2. Welching on a contract is morally wrong.

        Welching on a wager made under conditions of complete inebriation in which the party making the wager clearly did not have the ability to provide informed consent is a noble and appropriate welch.

    3. I have a friend who does stand up at the comedy store every saturday. He has a pretty off color joke about that.

    4. No, but it is rape when her pimp catches up to you and fucks you in the ass.

      1. But will he then pay me a fair wage for the forcible use of my anal cavity? I can feel an eminent domain analogy approaching…

  5. the majority of men who resort to prostitutes as a means to have sex, in many cases, also have a dark past of sexual assault against women.

    That is one terrible sentence. Does it say anything at all?

    1. Well, what definition of sexual assault are we using today?

      Speaking to women above your station without affirmative consent?

      Looking at women who don’t want you to notice that they spent a crapton of money on attractive clothing?

      1. They paid money to make themselves feel sexy, not to give you something to eyerape, shitlord. There’s a difference.

  6. Why is it so hard for people to accept that you can’t make crime disappear, you can only punish crimes after they occur?

    1. I don’t know. I’ve often wondered that myself.

    2. By virtue of the reason that Something Must Be Done, and passing unreasonable or illiberal laws is Something, and therefore it Must Be Done.

    3. By virtue of the reason that Something Must Be Done, and passing unreasonable or illiberal laws is Something, and therefore it Must Be Done.

  7. What the ever loving fuck does “pathologically masculine” mean?

    1. If you have to ask…

    2. Doesn’t meet the radical feminist criteria of a sensitive male who admits his male privilege and hates the Patriarchy.

    3. PUA assholes, maybe?

      1. But why would they need to go to a prostitute since they can get any woman they want anytime just by insulting them.

    4. Bull-dyke.

    5. For some reason I just keep picture Luca Brazi practicing his speech for The Godfather:

      “I hope their first child is a MASCULINE child…”

    6. Not tucking it back on request?

    7. *whips it out*

      Now see here…

  8. Who sponsors a study matters.

    1. Only if the methodology is flawed.

      1. I dunno. From my limited understanding of the replication crisis in psychology, it sure looks like the ideology of the researcher influences responses.

      2. Presumed.

  9. all participants live in Boston

    I have never laughed more in my life.

    1. Yeah, I stopped reading at that.

      1. That was hilarious:)

      2. Hey, I’d forgotten about this series. Thanks!

  10. “What’s more, men in the control group were not simply men who had never paid for prostitution but also men who had never received a lap dance at a strip club, not been to a strip club more than once in the past year, and not watched pornography more than once in the past week.”

    I think they spelled “women” wrong.

    1. I would actually qualify for the control group.

      1. I almost do.

        Well, if two out of four counts as almost.

      2. I believe I qualify.

        *checks browser history*

    2. The porn part really limits the pool, I would think. Besides that, I’d qualify. Except I don’t live in Boston.

    3. I think calling men who aren’t into strippers and porn “women” might count as pathological masculinity.

      1. I actually can’t stand strip clubs anymore but apparently wrongly assumed that most men had likely gotten one lapdance in their lives and certainly had watched porn more than once in a week. Oh. Just realized I also fucked up reading that last qualification. Not “a” week but “last” week.

        1. I don’t think I’ve ever received a lap dance at a strip club. I mean, I had a very awkward lap dance at a friend’s bachelor party in a vacation rental in Tahoe, and I had a surreal conversation with two Thai guys having sex at a club called “Hot Male” in Bangkok, but never a lap dance in a club.

          1. One time some friends brought me to a strip club and bought me a lap dance for my birthday. Man that was awkward having some strange woman sit on my lap and pretend to like me. I guess I don’t objectify women enough.

  11. Where does this leave the customers of Rentboy?

  12. One could also interpret this as suggesting that the men most likely to rape are resorting to prostitutes and, hence, raping less than they otherwise would.

    Maybe these guys are somewhat self-aware and choose to frequent prostitutes rather than actually rape women.

    Or maybe the guys who have trouble getting sex for other reasons, tend to both develop more rapey sexual fantasies, and also be more likely to hire prostitutes.

    Either way, I’m not exactly sure what sort of point they are trying to make. It’s like saying we should ban football because people who watch football are more likely to be criminals.

    1. Well, Hazel, we should absolutely ban football in that case.

        1. Yeah, that’s a smart thing to put on your car. I guess if you want insurance money and have no deductible it would be ok.

          1. Or have an urge to be jumped by a gang of inbred rednecks who named their dogs after American truck manufacturers.

      1. That queer European crap, right?

  13. “sexually aggressive, pathologically masculine, and likely to commit sexual assault”

    I thought that was all men? I’m confused now.

  14. Skewed Sample

    Study participants included 101 men who have paid for (heterosexual or homosexual) sex and 101 men who have not

    LOL Let’s see how these 202 poeple might be a “skewed sample.”

  15. Isn’t there an obvious flaw with this study which is that prostitution is illegal therefore it may be true that the people who take advantage of prostitution self-select for people who are already willing to break the law?

    I personally think it’s very likely that the average john is more prone to sexual violence than the average person. That’s just not an argument in favor of banning prostitution since we should want prostitution to take place in the light of day even more if there’s the potential for sex crimes. Why would you want to force prostitutes to hide their profession when there’s a chance that this could result in them having unsafe sex with dangerous men?

    1. The more people that get hurt means you have more opportunities to wag you finger at someone, and feel self righteous.

    2. “Isn’t there an obvious flaw with this study which is that prostitution is illegal therefore it may be true that the people who take advantage of prostitution self-select for people who are already willing to break the law?”

      Exactly this.

      1. It also self-selects for people who use your lower-rent type prostitutes, the ones far more likely to get caught.

  16. In other news, a recent study showed that people who get paid to be interviewed are more likely to say what the interviewee wants them to say, than people who are interviewed without being paid for it…

  17. The research was funded by a group with a mission to eliminate “men’s assumption of the right to prostitution” in order to “eliminate the institution of prostitution.”

    This implies that a woman does not have the right to self ownership in a voluntary economic exchange.

  18. What was the point of this survey?

    Suppose I could prove positively that men who have been in prison are more likely to commit a rape. Would you advocate closing all the prisons?

    Suppose I could prove positively that men who have been in the hospital are more likely to die in the next year. Would you advocate closing all the hospitals?

    Even ignoring the grievous and amateurish factual problems with this survey, interpreting it to mean prostitution should therefore be discouraged is almost a parody of confusing cause and correlation.

  19. Since prostitution is illegal it stands to reason it would attract customers who are willing to break the law. But, what if prostitution was legal? Then it would attract more law abiding citizens. Prostitution is a voluntary contract between two individuals and the State should not be involved. Of course, the more laws on the books the more jobs for the government enforcers and the American Bar Association members. Women don’t want prostitution to be legal because there would be an increase in the supply of sex available to the free market. Supply and demand would set the price. Some fat ugly woman might be offering sex at below market rates. A beautiful bored woman could make good money. The free market works. Now if I could just find a real free market somewhere in the world.

    1. Prostitution is legal in Brazil. Not much else is. Oh, it’s illegal for politicians to twirl their purses for bribes.

  20. fellation does not imply causation

  21. What about people who pay for groceries? Doesn’t that very act make them likely shoplifters?

  22. noted anti-sex work activist Melissa Farley

    I think you mis-spelled “hateful puritan harpy”.

  23. The study author lost me at “pathologically masculine.” That is a very sexist term. I wonder how the same author would react if some women were labeled as “pathologically feminine?”

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