Only Losers Dine At Le Cirque: The Stigma on Sex Work Customers


This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. Note: The piece doesn’t talk about my personal sex life per se, but it makes a couple of oblique passing references to it. Family members and others who don’t want to read about my sex life, use your own judgment on this one.

It was a letter to Savage Love that made me think of it. As it so often is.

Shampoo_goldThe inquisitor had a fetish for being shampooed; didn’t know how to find a female partner who would play along; and had been trying — unsuccessfully — to pay hair salons to give him the pleasure. Dan’s response (apart from “Get some social skills”) was, I thought, very sensible:

Find a sex worker.

It’s advice I think a lot of sexually dissatisfied people would benefit from. If there’s a special kind of sex that you really love and haven’t been able to find — or there isn’t, but you’re just not getting laid at the moment — paying a professional would seem, if you can afford it, to be a fairly obvious solution.

MoneyBut it’s also advice that a lot of people reject out of hand. Not only do they reject it — they’re offended at the very suggestion. “I’m not going to pay for it.” “What kind of loser has to pay for it?”

Part of it is a moral issue. Many people believe that prostitution, even among completely consenting adults, is immoral on the face of it. And part of it is an understandable emotional barrier: if what you want is not just sex but sex with someone who loves you and vice versa, then a pro isn’t going to do the trick. (Sorry for the pun.)

But for plenty of people, it seems to be simply a matter of pride. Being able to get a sex partner is proof of manliness, womanliness, coolness, evolutionary fitness, whatever. If you “have to pay for it,” it means you can’t get it on your own, which de facto makes you a loser.

Paying_for_it_2Let me use an analogy I stole from Carol Queen (conflict of interest alert: she wrote about it in my book Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients).

Does paying a restaurant to feed you a meal make you a loser? Whether you eat out every night or only do it as an occasional treat; whether you’re looking for a special meal you can’t get elsewhere or simply want the convenience of getting dinner without any hassle… does it make you a loser? A pathetic nobody who can only get fed if he pays someone to do it?

You can argue that sex is different. But food — especially providing other people with food, and the experience of cooking and/or eating together — is a powerful, complex, culturally rich experience that’s loaded with emotional implications. And yet we have no shame at all about paying for it.

ZagatCome to think of it, I could easily imagine an alternate reality in which paying for sex is an openly practiced, completely accepted part of the economy and the culture… but paying for food is considered shameful at best and immoral at worst, an illegal black market economy in which the providers, no matter how skillful they are at their craft, are defamed, marginalized criminals, and the customers are mocked into thinking there’s something sordid and pathetic about what they do.

“I’m not going to pay someone to cook for me. What kind of loser has to pay for a meal?”

If that doesn’t make sense when it comes to food, then why does it make sense when it comes to sex?

Sex_workIf you don’t want to see a sex worker, of course you shouldn’t see a sex worker. Not everyone likes going to restaurants, either. But I’ve never understood the sex-positive attitude that embraces and celebrates sex workers while still looking down on their customers. There are lots of reasons people pay for sex — they’re partial to a particular kind of sex that not many people enjoy, they’re in a place in their lives where a relationship isn’t a good idea, their dating life is in a dry spell, they enjoy a variety of partners, etc. It doesn’t make them losers. If you’ve ever paid for sex, or if you pay for sex now, there’s no reason to think that it makes you a loser. And if you’ve never paid for sex, there’s no reason to think that it’ll make you a loser if you decide to try it out.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m happily married and have never used a prostitute, but I wouldn’t judge someone harshly if they did.
    But I’m really curious about how the prostitutes themselves see their customers. I’ve always imagined them looking down on the johns as pathetic losers. I would actually be scared to go to a prostitute for fear of her thinking negatively about me – pretending I was great and she was actually enjoying it, all the while both us knowing that it was just an act.
    Am I just projecting my own insecurities or is there some truth to it?

  2. Necronomikron says

    @Blarnder:
    She might actually be flattered if you cared, but, I honestly have no idea. Prostitution is illegal here, and, while I have no problems with it, the only prostitutes that are known to me are the kind that are drugged up and looking for their next fix.
    If it were legal here, like in Nevada, I might have a different outlook and be more exposed to legal, regulated prostitution.

  3. says

    Rarely has a comment on this blog given me such a perfect opportunity to plug my book, blarnder. Thanks! :-)
    Quick explanation of the book: “Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients” is an anthology I edited of writing by current and former sex workers, giving advice to sex work customers on how to treat sex workers so they like you and give you better service.
    And the whole gist of the book is that the answer to the question, “Does my sex worker really like me, or does he/she look down on me?” is, to a great extent, dependent on you — the customer.
    Sex work is like any other service industry. There are customers who the workers like and look forward to seeing; there are customers who the workers don’t like and snicker about behind their back. If you’re a good customer, the chances are good that the sex worker really will like you and enjoy your company. (If you’re not sure exactly how to be a good customer…. that’s what “Paying For It” tells you.)
    Now, it’s true that the answer to the question, “Does my sex worker really like me, or does he/she look down on me?” is also greatly dependent on the sex worker him- or herself. There are some sex workers who really don’t like their work, and who just pretend to like the customers who they’re really looking down on. But not all of them are like that — not by a long shot.
    I wish I could tell you how to tell the difference. Sex workers are good actors — it’s a professional requirement. But I do think that, if you genuinely care about the answer — enough that you make an effort to be a good customer — you’ll probably be able to tell.

  4. Eclectic says

    Like Greta said, is your waiter glad to see you? If you’re nervous, remember that you don’t have to do better than other suitors to be remembered fondly, just the other customers.
    Actually, sex work in Nevada has gone way downhill since they started being picky about it. I know a woman who used to work there on weekends, and really enjoyed the mealtime conversation; there were all sorts of educated women who liked to moonlight.
    Then Nevada started demanding fingerprints and background checks and they all left for fear of interference with their primary careers.
    (She’s also where I learned one professional trick I sincerely hope I never have to use: if you are short-staffed and the football team arrives, and you’re all fucked out with a line still outside the door, apparently packing your pussy with Vick’s vapo-rub – a process that is, if anything, even less pleasant than it sounds – for a few minutes will take down the swelling and let you get to the end of the line.)
    I wish Canada would get over its “bawdy house” regulations and let people do incall, but at least prostitution per se is quite legal.

  5. myfirstcommenthere says

    To be honest I do not really understand, why someone for whom one (and apparently one important reason) to enjoy sex is the fact that the person who you are having it with is enjoying it, cannot understand, why it is a matter of “pride” or maybe better – selfrespect – not to pay for “it”. If someone demands money to have sex with somebody else, the obvious reason for this is – compensation for the lack own joy, and regularly – poverty, adiction, coesion.
    Even in a world where truely “free” prostitution exists (and coming from a country with “regulated” prostitution, trust me, this is not where you find it), bottom line is: the sex itself is not rewarding for one of the persons involved.
    I really can see where you need to add “love” to make the rejection of this deal understandable and reasonable. The interest in and the pleasure resulting from the pleasure of your (sex)partner seems to be a perfectly sufficient reason for me.

  6. Jon Berger says

    You’re not alone in imagining the world where sex is practiced openly and eating is a shameful private act. There was a science fiction story about precisely that, probably from the 70’s or so. I read it so long ago that I don’t remember the name or the author; I just remember that the worst thing you could say to someone was “Go suck a mango!” Anyone else remember this one? I’m fairly sure I didn’t hallucinate it.

  7. says

    myfirstcommenthere, you’re acting on a common misconception — which is that sex workers never enjoy their work. That’s simply not true.
    I’ve been a sex worker (not a prostitute, but a stripper), and many of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues are current or former sex workers (including prostitutes, pro doms, pro submissives, phone sex workers, porn performer, and other strippers). And I can assure you that many of them took pleasure in their work at least some of the time. I certainly did.
    People *don’t* necessarily go into sex work out of poverty, addiction, coercion, or lack of joy. I’m not saying that never happens, but it’s very far from universal.
    There are plenty of good reasons to not visit sex workers. But the assumption that a paid sex partner won’t find the sex pleasurable and rewarding isn’t one of them.

  8. myfirstcommenthere says

    Hi Greta Christina,
    first: thanks for you reply.
    I do not feel competent enough to speak about strippers or spanking models since I do not know enough about their situations.
    However, I know quite a bit about, so to speak, “classic” prostitution. And I would not agree that my assumption is “far from universal” there.
    In fact: Some years ago I liked to see myself as open-mindend, tolerant etc. also in that field.
    This was before my idea of “sex-work” got disturbed by reality.
    Which is:
    – Worldwide human beings are either taken or move “freely” from poorer to wealthier nations to satisfy the local market for “sexwork”. In no a single country there are enough volonteers.
    – This is even if you count all the nationals as “free”, which I certainly don`t .
    – Most prostitutes start under the age of 18. Most of them have been abused before. I do not think that at their 18th birthday there is a magical change occuring, leading staight to a happy, emancipated sexworker.
    I do not say, that it is never-ever going to happen, that an adult person is truely freely consending in prostitution. But I can say, that this is not quite common.
    As I said before: I do not live in the US, but rather in an environment in which a laisser-faire approach to prostitution is the political correct one. It took me and others some time to see, that this is not working.
    By “see” I mean talking to people with direct experience, see “the new” eastern european girl shaking in the corner while scratching her arms until it bled. While admitting that it was totally her own choice – of course.
    Fortunatly – or rather unfortunatly – my “evaluation” of the topic happend to be at the same time while associations for “sex-workers” where campaining for the “just a normal job, like any other” – approach. So I also had the luck to hear, that the association who hat coined the term “sex work” here was in fact rather on the “employers”-side and supplyed pimps whith the new addresses of ex-prostitutes who managed to run away.
    With friends like this you don`t need any enemys I think…

  9. myfirstcommenthere says

    PartII:
    Normally, I agree with the theory you have quoted here some time ago, that 90% of everything is shit and that you have to accept it, because you can`t have the other 10% without it.
    But 90% of all prostitution being “shit” means nothing else but slavery for the persons concerned. I cannot praise and – like you suggest – advertise the lucky exemptions, ignoring the vast majority.
    And after all: How could I make sure, that the person I am counselling to “find a sex worker” gets to the lucky few?
    Even if he does – if all customers would follow his good example this instance, the problem from above comes into play: nowhere in the world there are enough volunteers for the existing demand. This is exactly the reason for modern slave trade.

  10. says

    Um…
    Where exactly are you getting your “90%” figure from?
    Here’s the problem with this debate. Neither side has much in the way of good, solid research to support our side. Because sex work is so stigmatized and underground, it’s extremely difficult to get good, accurate information about what percentage of sex workers are working in abusive conditions. (It’s even hard to get accurate figures on basic demographics, like what percentage of sex workers are male, what percentage are doing street work versus brothels versus incall/ outcall, etc.)
    I do know that the study showing that most sex workers had been abused as children was extremely badly done. For one thing, it took as its sampling sex workers who were seeking help for mental health problems. Not exactly an statistically representative sampling.
    What I can say is this: The picture you paint of the sex industry being overwhelmingly abusive is completely at odds with everything I know about the sex industry in the U.S.
    I’m not saying abuses don’t happen; I’m not even saying they’re wildly rare. I’m saying that the majority of sex workers that I’ve read or spoken to got into the work consensually. They were/are okay with that choice (to varying degrees, of course).
    And they get very angry indeed at the patronizing assumption that they’re sad, helpless victims, forced by poverty or addiction or coercion into a choice that no sane person would ever make. This assumption is part of the stigma, and it doesn’t help. It makes things worse. The laws and stigmas against sex work do absolutely nothing to help the abusive conditions; they just make it harder for sex workers in abusive conditions to get out.
    This picture may be very different in different parts of the world. I’ll grant that.
    But in reply to your remark that there aren’t nearly enough people volunteering to do sex work to fill the demand, I have to say this:
    This is very much anecdotal, and I acknowledge that. But what I’ve been told, by more than one sex worker, is that, in places like London and San Francisco where the stigma on sex work has been diminishing, the number of workers in the industry has gone up dramatically. (I’ve seen this pattern myself, in the increasing number of sex worker ads in the alternative papers and online sites.) So much so that it’s becoming harder to earn a good living at it; about the only compensation of sex work being illegal and stigmatized is that fewer people go into it, so there’s less competition, keeping the prices high.
    So how do you know whether the sex worker you’re seeing is doing it voluntarily? For starters, I’d say: Go with freelancers. Stay away from brothels; they do seem to be more ripe for abuse. And it’s probably a good idea to stick with sex workers who charge a fair amount. Someone who’s charging $150 an hour or more is more likely to be okay with their work, and to have gotten into it by choice, than someone who’s charging $20 for a blowjob.

  11. myfirstcommenthere says

    The 90% figure was what I remembered to be the usual “shit-rate” when you were – I think – talking about porn.
    Coming to the/your point: The stigma has been taken of here. Social protection is offered.
    Again: It is not working.
    I do live in the middle of Europe. In Germany to be precise. We do have a widespread acceptance of prostitution here. Most (if I remember it right, 80%) of the prostitutes working here come from abroad. Most from eastern Europe. Prostitutes in Eastern Europe come from far Eastern Europe. You can see the same pattern (women and children being moved from poorer to (even if only relativly) wealthier countries) in Asia.
    Since I don`t want to repeat myself, I go straight to your argument against my “not enough volunteers” point: The vanishing social stigma might work in draging free-lancers in a special city within a country. It is not the “big” solution.
    A result I can see here, of the vanishing stigma on the customers is free exchange of opinions where the prostitutes are more submissive. Not talking about BDSM but about the working conditions in general. Also “natural horny russian sluts” who do “everything you want” are advertised in perfectly normal local newspapers. Of course with a little, only poorly camouflaged hint that “everything” includes “without a condom”.
    subtopic: What influence do these (well paid) adds have on the willingness of reporters to take a closer look on some establishments in the region?
    Could it be, that somewhere in this swamp there is a happy free-lancing prostitute who feels offended by my opinion?
    Yes, could be.
    Does this bring me to further foster a demand which is the ultimate cause of human-rights violations on a large scale?
    Nope.
    Maybe if I would live in the US, I would still be on your side (which was mine for a while). But having heard self appointed sex-workers representative accusing their not-so-willing eastern-european collegues to lie to the police and having seen the effects of our new law (the worst being that the police is not able to control brothels anymore – after all, it is nothing different than a restaurant, isn`t it?), and of destigmatisation of customers I just can`t. Even at the risk of sounding patronizing.
    PS: I am offline for several days after this comment. I think we pretty much summed up all pros and cons by now, but if there is more, I am afraid it has to wait a little.

  12. says

    Jon Berger
    Anyone else remember this one? I’m fairly sure I didn’t hallucinate it.
    Either we’re both hallucinating, or the story really did get published. In Penthouse? Playboy? Omni? I remember the line when little Johnny is caught shamefully gnawing on a drumstick: “Mom! Johnny’s masticating!”
    The analogy between sex work and restaurants is quite compelling. Many appear to deprecate sex work for a few specific reasons. First, mostly women are paid practitioners, an inequality where one isn’t naturally expected on inherent properties; men and women seem to have, on average, equal sex drives. Second, economic exploitation drives many women into sex work. Third, many sex workers have expressed a profound contempt for their customers (e.g http (colon slash slash) www (dot) craigslist (dot) org (slash) about (slash) best (slash) den (slash) 415707529 (dot) html). [’tis a pain you don’t allow links]
    However, all of these reasons would seem to apply equally well to food service: women are over-represented, food service workers are tremendously exploited (typically receiving low pay and no benefits; only a small fraction command superior remuneration), and anyone who’s read Orwell’s, Down and Out in Paris and London knows that customer contempt is not entirely unknown in the food service profession.

  13. says

    I started my sex work career as a stripper 25 years ago before getting into commercial porn in 1984. I certainly came into this business freely and with deliberate intent. I was always attracted to the notion of prostitution but was too middle class to want to take the legal and safety risk of doing private work.
    As part of my job I was a feature performer for fifteen years-“Nina Hartley one week only! Three shows a night!”, where I would meet, in a year, thousands of men of all ages who would tell me very personal secrets. One of the most common was the young man who said that, since the baby came, the sex life with the wife had dwindled to nothing, or nearly so. They were quick to say they weren’t going to leave her, but didn’t know what to do about their (the men’s) needs.
    I would start off by saying that they needed to do whatever was necessary for them to keep their hearts open to their wives-to do what they could not to emotionally detach from her or the marriage. But that they also had a right to have sex.
    I would then counsel them to see a professional (and not try to “date” a dancer!), to which they would invariably reply, “I’ve never paid for it!” To which I would inevitably reply, “What would you rather do: pay for an hour with a pro, or have half the house and the kids on alternate weekends?” They had never thought of it in those terms. I’d have to explain that “amateurs,” i.e. civilians, if they fuck you, want your time, your energy, your emotion, your “love. They want YOU, which is just what you have no extra to go around. They call at work, at home and who knows what kind of havoc they’d create if they don’t get what they want. How “free” is that? I would tell them that a pro just wants your money and your courtesey. She’s never going to call, she’ll always use condoms, and doesn’t wait around the phone for you to get in touch. If all you want is to come on a pair of tits, a pro is what you need. If you want drama and chaos, start something with the woman in the next cubicle at work.
    They would all gaze at me in amazement, as they had never, not one of them, thought of it in that way. Looked at that way, the three hundred bucks or so is a lot cheaper than a bachelor apartment and a lawyer’s retainer.
    So, there’s no shame in paying a pro for sexual services. She just might be able to teach you a few things that will help you with the next civilian woman you talk to.

  14. Eclectic says

    Well said, Nina. I forget who said “I’m not paying for sex; I’m paying for them to go away afterward.” If you want sex, but don’t have room in your life for a relationship, you can hire a professional.
    There are a lot of similarities between sex work and a restaurant. What are the reasons not to cook at home? Too busy, or you want to try a variety that’s not in your repertoire? Out of town?
    But the most important is that a restaurant is glad to see you when you want to go, and you don’t need to give them a second thought when you don’t. They might inquire about your long absence, just as a reminder that you’re missed and appreciated, but will politely accept a non-committal answer.

  15. says

    My own reason for not wanting to hire a sex worker is that my sexual self-esteem was always pretty low. I could barely believe that anyone would want me enough to have sex with me at all, and I hated the idea of a mercy fuck. Now that I’m older and more experienced, I know that there are perverts in the world who want me just as I am. (Please note the irony in that previous sentence: the word “perverts” gets thrown around way too freely, and I love playing with it.) But though I agree in principle with everything that Greta Christina has said here, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to try paying for sex. If I did, I’d certainly try to be a good client/customer. I don’t think the requirements would be that different from a hookup with an “amateur,” and I’ve found that many men seem to think that having one-time sex, even for free, liberates them from any obligation to be minimally polite. On the whole, though, I’ve found it to be the other way around — that most men are pleasant, friendly, and considerate in quickies, and I’d hope they’d be the same with someone they were paying.
    Back in the 80s I met a local kid who was trying to support himself by turning tricks. His mother kicked him out on the street when she found out he was gay — ah, family love! So much better than cheap promiscuity and sex for pay. Anyway, we discussed the possibility of doing business, and when he asked, “What would you want to do?” I realized that the was the sticking point for me: what I’d want to do is intimately tied to what the other person wants. Not to the point of having no wants myself, but by negotiating common interests and tastes. So I didn’t pursue it, which may not have been a good thing since he needed the money. If, for instance, he’d been working as a house painter to earn his living, I wouldn’t have had qualms about hiring to work for me. Still, sex is not quite the same thing as house painting. Food and cooking are better analogies.
    I also met men who asked for money in cruising situations. Some of them I met again later, giving sex away for free. I suspect they were trying to distance themselves from queerness by telling themselves they were just doing it for the money. There was one guy I’d give cab fare, at his request, after we’d had sex, though after a few months he stopped asking; that is probably the closest I ever came to paying, and it reminds me what other writers about sex work have pointed out: that the line between “respectable” amateur sex and sex work is not always clear.
    On the “abuse” issue, I’d expect that kids on the streets would have been abused whether they were selling sex or not — the boy I mentioned above had certainly been abused, if not sexually, by his mother when she threw him out. I’m sure that a lot of women have been abused before they marry. Would that count morally against marriage, especially when you consider that traditionally, wives were not allowed to withhold sex, having legally “consented” when they exchanged vows? The reality of “marital rape” was controversial in the US well into the 1980s at least. Can a wife freely decide to have sex (or not) with her husband when it’s part of the deal, part of her livelihood? Given the ubiquity and prestige of marriage, I’d say such issues ought to come up whenever sex work is discussed: marriage is the primal form of sex work. (Prostitution is really renting one’s body; it’s marriage that is selling it.)

  16. says

    What Duncan said about marriage!
    Your restaurant analogy is interesting but it misses the point. Attractive and/or socially-adept people can get their needs met without having to pay hundreds of dollars or risk ending up on a sex-offender registry for being “johns”.
    The worst thing about sex work, and this is due in large part to its illegality, is that like the fast-food or coffee bar industries, it’s based upon rapid turnover. You have to get off *fast*. Who can function under that kind of pressure? Only those who can afford to drop the big bucks get to take it slow and easy. One sex worker, writing on Craigslist, criticized her customers as people who were “masturbating inside [her]”. Not exactly the happiest situation for either party.

  17. says

    Interesting comments about marriage… just read that to my wife and she says, “what, why do I never get to take advantage of having bought you??”
    In reply to the first commenter: i don’t think pseudo-statistics are really relevant here.
    Yes, some sex workers have been abused and forced into the job. I don’t think anyone here is trying to deny that, but I really don’t think that that is what is being discussed here.
    If Greta is recommending for people to go see a sex worker, I very much doubt that she would recommend seeing a sex worker who has been coerced into working, abused while at it and so on.
    Believe it or not, there are sex workers around who enjoy their work and others who see it as just another job that either pays better than most or has other perks that make it worthwhile. Sex workers who want to be working, are quite happily working, and who (as was mentioned) would probably very much resent your irrelevant information.
    I am a prostitute, who got into sex work after turning 18. I have never been abused and I most certainly did not get into sex work due to being desperate. And I don’t live in the US either.
    Of course, none of this is to say that I don’t give a shit about sex workers who are not as privileged as I am. I know they exist, I do not think is acceptable, but I don’t think it is relevant to this discussion.

  18. AgreeToDisagree says

    Very late to join the discussion, but here goes and pls people, do continue this discussion. It is much more open minded here than in a nation where Islam is the official religion and you are a non-Muslim. The laws tend to force their ‘good intent’ on all and sundry and the only access to adult services is from illegal sources.
    This puts severe psychological strain on the younger population and individuals who do not prefer to ‘play games’ with pimps, yet would like to have an open and legally protected environment for the purchase of such services.
    For what it’s worth, some of us want to be on the right side of the law at all times, but the only way to access what are ordinary adult services under such medieval legal systems is ALWAYS illegal by some moral law written hundreds of years ago for adherents which so many are not and shouldn’t come under.
    Some in such countries boycott sex altogether, others go abroad if they can afford it. This is an abuse of human rights of the consumer of adult services and leads to trafficking and bribery and other forms of corruption, sexually frustrated citizens, as well as wives/husbands with inflated opinions of themselves by the monopoly on sex afforded them by government, even while marriage of up to 4 wives is perfectly legal.
    Laws imposed in this manner make no sense at all and to rehabilitate several score Parliamentarians so set in their ways while at the same time being nepotistic and corrupt and abusive to citizens in general, I really hope the UN or NAM puts it foot down and makes some common sense contributions to implementation of holistic laws on adult industries or red light districts. This ‘either underground’ or ‘nothing at all’ approach is not working at all and is just another profit centre to the corrupted factions of the police, like the prohibition on alchohol.

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