Tag Archives: commercial sex

Money can’t buy you love

We’ve all been there.

You know – when you fancy a bit of rough and tumble, but there’s no-one to rough and tumble with?


And I would walk five hundred miles

You can compare it to that late night Ben+Jerrys craving, which drives you out of the house in your pyjamas and flipflops to the corner shop.

(Good luck with that in France – you’ll have to just wait for the boulangerie to open, and make do with a 6am croissant instead.)

Much the same with sex, right?

If Tinder isn’t coming up with the goods, you can head to your local brothel, “massage” parlour (technically speaking, it is a bit of you that needs massaging) or darkened urban woods, and pay someone some money to er, satisfy those needs.

Prostitution: the oldest profession in the world.

Sex sells, after all – miserably, as we have already discussed, in the form of transactional relationships, or human trafficking.

But surely, without coercion, cash-for-cuddles is not A Bad Thing?

Well, you tell me.

Firstly, who’s “bad”? (apart from Michael Jackson, c. 1987). And what is bad? Morally bad? Is there difference between selling your body and, say, sitting behind a checkout all day every day? (I can tell you from experience: the latter is also tough love. Especially with customers who present you with two hundred coupons when it comes to paying).

We all have to earn money somehow, and it’s usually done by providing something that someone else is willing to pay for. Is trading sex any different, any more subservient, to scanning other people’s shopping for hours on end?

And bad for whom? Bad for the prostitutes themselves? Not if recent protests in France are anything to go by, with hundreds of sex workers demonstrating in April against a new law penalising clients (a 1,500euro fine, raised to 3,750 euros for reoffenders: that’s an expensive orgasm).


If you’re happy and you know it

Presumably the clients don’t see anything wrong with it, either. 343 men (including some French household names) even signed an open petition, Touche Pas A Ma Pute (“Leave My Whore Alone”) rejecting the government’s meddling in affairs of the heart, ahem, other love muscle. 

So, then. Sex: supply and demand, just like any other traded good?

Of course not.

Because you don’t buy sex like you do your tub of chocolate-chip-cookie dough (I think on most nights I’d prefer the latter, anyway).

The hand-wringing (?ho) that accompanies prostitution comes down to morality and human rights, not economics. Generally, we approve of sex if it is voluntary, pleasurable to both parties, and legally conducted (granted, the last condition often depends on religious or moral norms; sex between two men is still a crime in many countries; adultery in Saudia Arabia carries a death sentence in some cases).

So the idea that women (70-80% of sex workers are female) engage in sexual intercourse with men they would never normally want near them, were it not for the money, has us at best clearing our throats and at worst enraged.

Lieux de plaisir

Credits: “Lieux de plaisir” from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

And even while it is understandable that sex workers would oppose any new law which would puts their livelihoods at risk, it is hard to believe that anyone would willingly aspire to sell sex as a livelihood in the first place.   Spot the false quote:

I love my job! I love having to have sex with lots of different men every day, men I’d never otherwise sleep with. Perks include being at constant risk of violence, rape, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Ever since I was little, this is all I ever wanted to do. Dreams can come true!

Put it this way. If prostitution is such a cheerfully chosen route, then why are sex workers mostly migrants or from poorer backgrounds? For example, of the estimated 30-40,000 prostitutes in France, 80% are from Eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.

Coercion is not then just a question of being forced by someone else. It is also being forced into choosing prostitution over destitution: which doesn’t feel like much of a choice to me.  If you lack money, employment, skills, a visa, have a family to feed, or even just yourself to feed: are you still freely choosing to become a sex worker?


Capture d’écran 2016-04-28 à 22.36.14

Source: Soroptimist

It is for this reason the new French law provides funding and support (e.g. temporary visas for migrants) to help sex workers leave prostitution. Although the amount of funding has been criticised as largely insufficient (“sticking plasters” in the words of French Senator Esther Benbassa), the aim is laudable, and follows similar moves elsewhere. France is the 5th EU country to legislation in this way, taking Sweden as its example, where similar laws passed in 1999 are said to have halved street prostitution.

Penalising clients or prostitutes is one response to prostitution; the others are  legalisation … or simply pretending it’s not happening. Regulation has the advantage of offering social protection to those officially recognised as sex workers (e.g. pensions, healthcare) or removing illicit conditions which trap sex workers in a life of invisibility and dependency.


Bargain prices, up against the wall

Governments who opt for the second approach (*crosses street whistling*) may do so because sex is seen as a private (non-state) matter, or too much of a moral conundrum to tackle, or perhaps because the act of buying sex itself is tolerated as a boys-will-be-boys fact of life (on which more anon).

But whichever the preferred response, none receives universal support. The legislation in France was passed after two and half years of vivid parliamentary debate, and many MPs abstained in the final vote.  Feminists themselves are divided: selling sex is about the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body, versus, well, the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body.

I still don’t know what to think, myself. I instinctively abhor the idea that anyone, for any reason, feels obliged to endure the intimacy (and, frankly, discomfort) of unwanted sex. Even if you are paid, so what; is that anything less than monetized rape?

And yet how can we not respect those who say they can and will continue, since there will always be clients willing to pay?


alright, but only if this turns out to be a Hollywood fairytale, ok?

Why is that, actually?

It is simply that Men Have Needs (akin or greater to the Ben+Jerrys cravings) that cannot be self-served or simply contained? Needs different from women, who seem to be able to make it through the night without going curb-crawling?

I wonder what would happen if we started to question that assumption, if we approached prostitution as an indulgence, rather than an inevitability.  Would men think twice about paying for sex, if there were a bigger reaction against doing so? Would society think twice about tolerating those “needs” so comprehensively? Would there be a longer-term change in demand (and therefore supply)?

Who knows. The focus of the debate is elsewhere for now: on whether or not – and how – commercial sex, and sex workers, should be regulated.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for philosophical ponderings about why it has to happen in the first place: the bottom line is that money can, and will, buy you love.

Or at least, that BJ.

(Ben+Jerrys, of course.  What did you think I meant?)







images-2imagesWho hasn’t, in a kareoke/
school disco/shower-singing moment, enjoyed a rousing rendition of Summer Nights?

Unanimous show of hands: I thought as much.

Ah, Grease. I have faith that in real life, Olivia Newton John would not have based her summer lovin’ on how generous Travolta was on their first date (how much dough did he spend?) nor whether he picked her up in his 1948 Ford Deluxe (like does he have a car?).

But if she had: what would have been wrong with that? Who doesn’t like being wooed with dinner in a romantic restaurant, or being whisked away for that weekend in Venice?

(If anyone is offering…)

So, no; nothing wrong with gestures and gifts that are genuine tokens of affection, I agree.

It’s rather when they are downpayment on an unspoken obligation that we’ve gone from courting to transactional sex.

Transactional sex is not prostitution (a profession, for want of a better word, that I do not intend to cover here). It is not, as my mother would probably deduce, popping down to Morrisons for her Daily Mail and snapping up that gigolo, reduced to clear in the corner rack; rather it is the idea of physical relationships which are encouraged or maintained by gifts of material goods (with or without affection).

images-3The great majority of these relationships are cross-generational: formed by an older (richer) man and younger (poorer) woman, known respectively as sugar daddies (serious Freudian issues for whoever came up with that) and sugar babies (does this make anyone else think of Bassetts Jelly Babies, or is it me who needs the psychoanalysis?).

The sugar daddy (at least 5 years older, but usually 10 or more) provides money, services or goods in exchange for the young woman’s, ahem, attentions.

How exactly that comes to pass and what the consequences are; well, that varies depending on where you are in the world.

Consider for example the explosion of western websites facilitating, more ahem, “mutually beneficial relationships” between the young-and-beautiful and the rich-and-old (why oh why did Seeking Arrangement not exist before I got saddled with my student loan…?)


I’m sure he could use you, too

But sugar daddies are not a new phenomenon. They are long-familiar in parts of the world where young women lack opportunity for their own economic autonomy.  For example in sub-Saharan Africa (where one study estimates between 12-25% of young women’s partners are 10 or more years their senior) a sugar daddy might be key to help with food, clothes, school fees, etc.

On the surface, don’t these generous benefactors look rather harmless? If women are signing up to Seeking Arrangement or similar in their hundreds (intelligent women: top 2013 UK enrolment rates were for Cambridge University undergraduates…) isn’t it because they get exactly what they want out of it?

And isn’t it better to have your tuition fees paid, rather than being a (beauty) school dropout? Isn’t that, after all, what those MDG/SDG thingies call for – you know, getting more girls into education?

Indeed: only there is no such thing as a free gift from a sugar daddy, and the hidden price tag of transactional sex only undermines – and reverses – women’s empowerment.

Take, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. Sugar daddy relationships are partly to blame for much higher HIV infection in teenage girls than their male peers (estimates vary between 3x to 5x greater):



This is because a) older men have higher HIV prevalence than teenage boys; and b) the girls (given age/dependency/naïvety) are either unable or unwilling to negotiate condom use:

Women engaged in transactional sex often abdicate decision-making power over sexual activities, such as condom use, making them more vulnerable to HIV infection.  Research has also found that transactions of greater value have been associated with non-use of condoms. (Source: Baba-Djara et al, 2013:13)

Even without ending up HIV positive, cross-generational relationships often lead to pregnancy, and then to the young woman either dropping out of school; risking rejection from her family/community if the sugar daddy does not marry her; or undergoing (often illegal and therefore dangerous) abortion.

Not so much sugar, as arsenic?

For our Seeking Arrangement babies dallying with rich businessmen, perhaps tears on their pillow are more likely than STDs and/or pregnancy. But even without life-threatening consequences, signing yourself away to someone you would never have chosen if they couldn’t pay for you is, frankly, a depressing return to the era where women were a commodity like any other, whose value was based on their looks or what they provided in bed.


all major credit cards accepted

Well: so what? shrug some of the women involved. In a tell-it-like-it-is piece done this summer by GQ, the sugar babies interviewed did not see themselves as victims: rather as wielding the power to make foolish men pay out for their company.

And even in developing countries, girls may proactively look for a sugar daddy for non-essential reasons: a easy way to get good grades (“moyennes/notes sexuellement transmises“), a mobile phone, tickets to events or travel, hair appointments, smart clothes.

For these women, perhaps there is an element of choice.

But what about the others, who go unwillingly into these kind of relationships, out of the “push” factor of basic poverty?

Patterns of gender equality frequently limit young women’s economic options, which makes transactional sex one of the few options available to them.  Girls themselves may seek out such relationships, or be pressured into doing so by parents who want them to bring resources into the household (Bantebya et al, 2014: iv)

(Puts my paper round into perspective, at least).

For these girls, cross-generational relationships are at best a gamble, and at worst a tragedy.

So where to start?

Well, with knowledge. Pilot “sugar daddy awareness” training in Africa (providing better understanding of increased risks of HIV infection with older men) has been shown to deter teenage girls from these relationships.

But, as Pascaline Dupas points out, traditional strategies of risk avoidance (abstinence before marriage) still dominate information on risk reduction (choosing your sexual partner carefully).  So even if we know that sex will happen before marriage, even if we know it’s better to educate young people about risks rather than telling them not to go to bed (before they’re legally wed); taboos over young people and sexual activity mean that information is not getting through.

Beyond the question of helping young girls make informed choices, however, is a much more urgent need to avoid women wanting – or more importantly, needing – to accept sugar daddy support in the first place. This is about tackling poverty (removing the “push”) but also about deconstructing images of girls as sexual objects, increasing girls’ autonomy and self-worth (dissolving the “pull”); and of course, tackling the sugar daddies themselves, such as better enforcement of laws protecting, say, underage girls from sexual exploitation.

Okay. I feel a lactose intolerance coming on.

Back to Grease, then, to finish.  What do you reckon – would Sandy still have ditched the demure shoulder-draped cardigans for a skin-tight catsuit if someone had told her that Danny should just accept her for who she was? And would Danny have been so hopelessly devoted in the first place, without so much to feast his eyes on?

Who knows.  But my point is: it should be about the One You Want, and not the One You Need. Even if in some cases, they do go together….