SCIENCE
09/10/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2015

Why You Should Be Skeptical Of Study Saying Men Who Buy Sex Are Prone To Violence

"The researchers have no way of knowing how representative these men are of sex workers' clients."

Credit: Artfoliophoto via Getty Images

Men who pay for sex may be more inclined to sexual violence and have less empathy for women, according a study that made headlines last week. But critics say there’s reason to doubt the study’s reliability and, more importantly, that the authors miss the point when it comes to the rights and well-being of sex workers.

The Study

The study, Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex, relies on two-hour interviews with 202 men who were recruited from ads on Craigslist or in the Boston Phoenix and compensated $45 apiece. To balance the groups in regard to age, education and ethnicity, researchers selected the participants out of a group of 1,247 who initially responded to the ads. The study was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence on Aug. 31.

Half of the men in the study were classified as “sex buyers,” meaning they have, at least once, paid for sex or exchanged “something of value” for a sex act, and half were classified as “non-sex-buyers.” (More on that later.)

Both groups of men interviewed included heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual individuals, though the majority of both groups -- 89 percent of the "sex buyers" and 93 percent of the "non-sex-buyers" -- identified as heterosexual.

The study's primary conclusions were that the sex buyers were more likely to share personality traits seen in men who commit sexual violence, had “less empathy” for women who sell sex, and, on average, self-reported higher rates of “sexually aggressive” behavior.

The Criticism

The public should look at those results with a skeptical eye, critics say. The study’s lead researcher was Melissa Farley, founder and director of Prostitution Research and Education, a nonprofit with the stated goal of abolishing prostitution. The research was funded by a grant from Hunt Alternatives, a private organization with the stated goal of “combating the demand for purchased sex.”

Credit: Vince Bucci/AP Images for USA Today
Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria and co-founder of Hunt Alternatives, which funded the study.

Farley says she’s not trying to deceive anyone. "Researchers, like journalists, have a point of view," she told The Huffington Post. "The issue is transparency, not whether or not a point of view exists … I try to be transparent regarding how I have come to understand prostitution, after researching the topic for almost 20 years."

But other researchers disagree that point of view is not an issue.

"Researchers who support a particular ideological stance with respect to prostitution or the sex industry design studies to produce results that reflect this perspective," Susan Dewey, cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Wyoming, told The Huffington Post.

Dewey said Farley’s method of obtaining subjects was flawed.

"The researchers have no way of knowing how representative these men are of sex workers' clients," Dewey said. "These are men willing to self-identify in this way, which does not make them representative of anything but men willing to participate in such a study."

Many men who pay or have paid for sex, she added, "would not self-select in this way," because they simply would "have too much to lose" if their actions were discovered.

In the published paper, researchers did acknowledge this as a potential problem area of the study, noting that it’s possible "men who respond to advertisements requesting participation in research on sexual attitudes may differ in unknown ways from the general population of men."

Other critics have taken issue with the way the study defined "non-sex-buyers." "Non-sex-buyers" are not defined simply as men who have never hired someone for sex. Instead, to qualify as a "non-sex-buyer," a man must have never paid for sex, never purchased phone sex, never purchased a lap dance, and must have attended a strip club no more than one time in the past near and viewed pornography no more than once in the previous week.

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Among other qualifications, to be included in the "non-sex-buyer" group, a man must have only attended a strip club one or fewer times in the past year and never have purchased a lap dance.

Farley told HuffPost that defining the two groups this way was advantageous because it "enabled a better comparison" by eliminating "some of the ambiguities that could have occurred" if they had looked at "the entire distribution of men."

But as Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes at Reason.com, "adding these extra conditions makes for a poor control group for the men who have engaged in prostitution."

Study co-author and UCLA psychology professor Neil Malamuth speculated that if the other conditions had not been included, some of the differences between the groups would not have been as great.

But the men in the study are not the only group that some fear may not have been represented accurately — a portion of the study relies on what some suggest is a skewed sample of female sex workers.

To test for the men’s levels of "empathy" for women in the sex trade, the researchers asked men to guess how women felt "during prostitution." They found that "sex buyers" were more likely to use positive words, while the "non-sex-buyers" were more likely to use negative words.

Researchers compared those results to another, unrelated study in which female sex workers were asked to describe their experiences. They found that, as a group, the non-sex-buyers’ responses matched up more closely with what the women had said, leading researchers to conclude that the sex-buyers had "less empathy."

But we don’t actually know how well the sex buyers understood the feelings of the female sex workers they had personally encountered, because researchers were not interviewing those women.

Instead, the sex worker survey that Farley et al. relied on was conducted in Phoenix in 2003, and there’s reason to believe it was not representative of sex workers as a whole. Of the 119 women surveyed, 64 percent were participating in a support group related to prostitution and an additional 25 percent were in jail.

Recruiting sex workers from correctional facilities and support groups “captures those who have the worst or most troubled sex industry experiences,” Dewey said, reflecting “researcher assumptions about the sex industry as an inherently violent and dangerous place.”

Escort and writer Maggie McNeill noted in a Washington Post piece last year that this kind of sampling bias is a common problem. “When sex workers are consulted at all, they’re recruited from jails and substance abuse programs, resulting in a sample skewed heavily towards the desperate, the disadvantaged and the marginalized,” she wrote.

Farley -- who did not conduct the 2003 sex worker survey -- did not directly address the issue of recruitment from jails and support groups. However, she did note she believes it’s a “misunderstanding” that the experiences of “high class” and “low class” sex workers are “profoundly” different. “The experience of sucking dick and being bombarded with the racist and sexist words commonly used by sex buyers -- are much the same,” she said.

Looking Forward

Farley is clear about what she wants the study to accomplish. "We hope this research will lead to a rejection of the myth that sex buyers are simply sexually frustrated nice guys," she said in a press release.

Malamuth’s take on the results was more nuanced. “It is very unlikely that every sex buyer reflects the characteristics that we have identified, but on average it is what we found,” he said. “Another way of illustrating this is that the average family size in the US is 3.19 but of course no family is actually that size.”

Farley told HuffPost that her data supports the view that prostitution is an institution of "sexual abuse" and "sexual aggression." She supports a legal approach called the "Nordic model" -- or sometimes, the "Swedish model," since it's used in both Norway and Sweden -- essentially meaning that those who purchase sex can be arrested, while individuals selling sexual services are not criminally charged.

But sex worker activists and advocates argue that when it comes to safety, focusing on whether clients are good or bad people is simply missing the point.

“If you're centreing the experience of sex work customers over sex worker rights, you probably have no opinion worth valuing,” research scientist, author and former escort Brooke Magnanti of Great Britain wrote on Twitter in reference to the study.

“Criminalizing prostitution -- not violent clients -- is the real problem,” Dewey said. Criminalization, she said, creates danger by “forcing [sex workers] to work in areas far from social supports, excluding them from legal, health or social services, and further entrenching stigma.”

Credit: Pacific Press via Getty Images
A demonstrator protests the federal raid on Rentboy.com, a male escort site.

That’s not to say sex workers never experience violence from clients. But criminalization makes them afraid to report violence to law enforcement, even when they don't fear arrest themselves, according to a recent report by Amnesty International, which has called for worldwide decriminalization of prostitution. Under Nordic law, the report says, women hesitate to report incidents like assault or robbery because doing so outs them to police, who may then start tailing them to repeatedly arrest their clients, effectively shutting off their means of livelihood.

And in the U.S., “john stings” -- operations that focus on clients -- can have horrible consequences for sex workers. Researcher and former sex worker Tara Burns described in a Ravishly article how one crackdown thinned her pool of potential clients and left her with no choice but to see a man who seemed dangerous and whom she normally would have turned away. That man, she wrote, ended up raping her.

Burns has said that if lawmakers wanted to help those who are exploited or wish to leave the sex trade, they should focus on making resources like housing, counseling and health care readily available to those who need them.

Contact the author of this article at Hilary.Hanson@huffingtonpost.com

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