Paul, a client mentioned in my book, The Men on My Couch, a memoir about my first year conducing therapy with men, was in love with his new wife, yet he confided in me his use of escorts and massage parlors.
When men are caught patronizing sex services, women typically react with contempt. They think he's an "asshole" or "pervert" or write it off as "this is how men are.... perpetually horny." It's easy to stop the critical analysis right there, but while both of these explanations are possible, there is another to consider.
I quickly noticed a pattern amongst my male clientele: they didn't seem like assholes and many of them weren't even horny. In fact, some of them had been sexually avoidant. Many of them didn't seem entitled, powerful or exploitive either. As I dug into the psychology of their motivation for visiting such a service, I began to notice a common reason for the visit: anxiety.
Paul, like many of my clients, reported that after bouts of feeling not good enough for his wife, he developed impotence for the first time in his life. He was so freaked out by this that he went into a shame spiral and decided to call upon a therapist... and every sex service imaginable. One of the first indicators that he wasn't going just because "men want sex" was when Paul told me that he didn't find the women he paid for attractive at all; in fact, he held them in intentional disregard. In fact, that was the appeal. Why would a man want to be sexual with a woman he's not at all attracted to?
Many of my clients that patronize sex services say that they've been struggling with impotence and are caught in a similar cycle that looks like this: a strong desire to please their lover, leading to an excessive focus on performance. The resulting lack of connection to his body and the arrested breath of nervousness lead to erectile dysfunction. She then expresses disappointment. He wants to please her more, creating even more intense performance anxiety. Then the guys jump on this horrible mental merry-go-round about the ED, "What if it happens again, what will she think, what if she cheats, etc." What iffing themselves into a literal and figurative collapse.
This experience is humiliating. Many of them just stop having sex. Or they go to a safe place like the massage parlor or to porn. A place where the need to please is removed. They don't have to care what the woman thinks, they are there to exhale and receive unfettered pleasure. Their bodies finally function again and their sense of masculinity is restored. They're not seeking some animalistic, physical release, but the satisfaction of a yearning coming from deep in their being, an unbalanced, self-seeking restoration. Porn, prostitutes and massage parlor had become their salve.
Of course, some men patronize sex services for other reasons. Perhaps there are relationship issues or a lack of sex in the marriage. There is also the novelty factor or the thrill of doing something illicit. But for the men who sit on my couch, the most common reason is anxiety.
As Paul opened up, I could see how little his behavior had to do with sex. The sexual interactions with both his wife and the sex workers revealed a very important truth: women are incredibly powerful to men. In fact, women are so powerful that it's overwhelming. Men need women to survive emotionally: our approval, our support and our encouragement, all of which enables them to flourish in the world, to feel confident. All the women in Paul's life were powerful figures. He idealized his wife so much that he felt small. He devalued the sex workers so much that he felt large. And he lost all measure of himself in their wake.
It's a good thing that men are sensitive to a woman's pleasure. My aim is not just to expose their fear, or to justify betrayal, but for women to understand the rejection anxiety men go through and to move beyond the pejorative labels. The underlying need for approval is one women can identify with and hopefully have compassion for.
Transactional sex has a long history and the reasons for its patronage are nuanced and not necessarily the same across time or culture. Modern relationships have led to shifting power dynamics and gender roles that create a natural angst that is a bit hard on the libido for everyone. Many women are breadwinners. Some are less interested in commitment or children. They are more likely to demand pleasure and can and will reject men more freely. All of these shifts impact identity and sexuality. In order to deal, some men are choosing therapy over sex services, where they are learning to manage their insecurities, not on the backs of women, but through holding on to their own self-regard in the presence of an equal woman.