07/25/2011 10:42 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Does Buying Sex Make You a Criminal?

In a study of 202 men conducted in the Boston area by clinical psychologist Melissa Farley and the non-profit group Prostitution Research and Education, men who pay for sex were found to be more likely to commit a number of crimes, including violent acts against women. The study was conducted via face-to-face interviews after recruiting subjects through the local paper. Subjects were first asked to reveal whether they buy sex. Then they were paired off based on background to test whether or not their attitudes would lead to crime in the future (current criminals buying more sex would be expected and was not the point of the study).

According to Reuters:

Men who paid for sex were more likely to report having committed felonies and misdemeanors, including crimes related to violence against women and those related to substance abuse, assault and weapons.

The buyers and non-buyers agreed that the most effective deterrent to buying sex would be to be placed on a list of men described as sex offenders. Jail time was also considered an effective deterrent.

This is certainly an important question and one that bears directly on the impact of the accelerating sex trade. But 202 subjects recruited in the local paper by an activist with an ax to grind (Farley is an anti-prostitution activist) doesn't seem to be good science. The stated goal of the study was to test whether sex purchasers would commit more crimes in the future by looking at their attitudes, and yet the most damning evidence was backward looking (felons buy more sex), which doesn't prove much.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the study is the dependence on self-reporting. As reported in Newsweek yesterday, about a similar survey, men do not generally tell the truth about purchasing sex. So, finding subjects in the Boston study, via the newspaper, who claim not to buy sex would likely turn up subjects particularly sensitive to women's plight, or at least claiming to be.

I applaud both the Newsweek study and the Boston study for appropriately shining a light on the issue of the growing prevalence of the sex trade and its potential negative consequences for both men and women. But we need much more comprehensive research to come to any real conclusions.

And, or course, it would help if we all started getting honest about what is going on.

---Photo Flickr/kyz