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."