Women who buy sex

Challenging popular prejudices

Guest blogger: Dr Sarah Kingston

Women who pay for sexual services are often disregarded, as it is believed that only men buy sex. For instance, previous research that has studied the experiences of people who live or work in areas known for sex work in the UK identified that the general public make gendered assumptions about who clients of prostitution are; assuming clients to be male and sex workers female. These gender-based assumptions have a global currency and, are evident in research from the United States, India, New Zealand and Germany for example.

In addition, prostitution laws and the political debates that have surrounded their implementation, have also assumed that clients are exclusively male. Recent concerns over sex trafficking and the exploitation of women involved in prostitution have, amongst other changes in the UK, led to the introduction of a new strict liability offence of paying for sex from a person coerced or forced (s.14 of The Policing and Crime Act 2009.  My previous research has identified the gender bias of government reviews and consultations on prostitution policy and law.

Political biases can also be seen in international political discussions that are increasingly seeking to criminalise the purchase of sex in the name of ‘gender equality’, and follow ‘Swedish Model’. Recent legislative changes internationally have been informed by feminist arguments that prostitution is ‘violence against women’ as female sex workers are claimed to be sexually objectified by male clients. Much debate both publically and politically does not take the complex and diverse nature of the sex industry into account and is ‘gender blind’. For example, recent UK and international concerns around sex trafficking have led to an increased focus on ‘Tackling Demand’, identifying clients as ‘a man’ The End Demand Campaign which is lobbying for the UK government to criminalise the purchase of sex, identifies demand as ‘male’, while female clients are disregarded.

This is not to say that women do not buy sex, as research has documented female clients. Research into female sex buyers has predominantly focused upon relationships between North American and European female tourists, who go to underdeveloped countries for a holiday and have sexual relations with local males. Studies of relationships between female tourists and local males have been conducted in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Caribbean, Costa Rica, Indonesia and Greece. The extensive documentation of female sex tourism  evidences the degree to which women also buy sex and questions the assertions made that conveys the ‘prostitute user’ as ‘a man’. Similarly, statistics that identify the extent to which men buy sex must take into account the number of men buying sex from other men or transgendered individuals. Furthermore, given that the sex industry is an under-researched and hidden area, statistics must be considered with caution and are merely a representation of a much broader picture.

Although previous research has documented how female sex buyers travel to destinations such as the Caribbean, Europe and Asia to purchase sex, there has been little empirical work on women who buy sex in the UK, despite recent research on male clients. The Women Who Buy Sex (WWBS) project sought to address a gap in the literature and consider the place of women who buy sex in existing policy debates that have increasingly sought to criminalise the purchase of sex in the UK and internationally. The WWBS project sought to explore motivations and characteristics of women who purchase sex, who and where they buy sex from and to explore how physical and sexual safety are negotiated. Thus far we have interviewed 38 sex workers/escorts who sell sexual services to women and 12 women who have either paid for or are seeking to pay for sexual services. This research will culminate in a book with Routledge entitled Women who buy sex: Intimacy, Companionship & Pleasure, scheduled for publication in 2018. Within the book we will explore the motivations and reasons why women choose to purchase sexual services, the types of services they pay for, the ways in which female clients and sex workers arrange to meet and the etiquette of meetings, the similarities and differences between male and female clients, the sexual health and safety practices women employ, as well as the relevance of women’s experiences of purchasing sex on policy and feminism.

It is apparent from this research and previous research that women are consumers of sexual services. Thus, political debates across the world that assume that clients are only male ignore the complexity of the sex industry. For women involved in the WWBS project criminalisation did not seem to be an immediate concern, arguably as they are ‘under the radar’ because of the ‘gendered lens’ by which the sex industry is viewed. However, no one in the study supported criminalisation; believing it to have negative impacts on clients and sex workers.

In addition, recognition of women’s involvement as consumers clearly undermines the assertion that prostitution is ‘violence against women’. Findings from the WWBS project did not find instances of violence whether physical or psychological. Female clients instead identified experiences of intimacy, companionship and pleasure. For some, it also elicited feelings of empowerment and control. Thus, greater recognition needs to be made in these debates to female clients and also couples who purchase sex as part of their relationship. Ignoring the experiences of what is commonly assumed to be a minority group because more men are believed to buy sex than women, would not be supported in many other areas of public and political debate, so why overlook the experiences of women who purchase sexual services? Arguably, their accounts would challenge popular prejudices against the sex industry and thus overlooking their experiences benefits individuals and groups opposed to sex work.

For further information about the project please see womenwhobuysex.org or follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Womenbuysex  or Twitter @womenwhobuysex

About the Author

Dr Sarah Kingston
Law School, Lancaster University, UK

Dr Kingston’s research interests focus on sex work/prostitution policy/law, sex worker/client/community experiences. Her research has focused on community attitudes towards prostitution/sex work. This research also considered the impact, both positive and negative, that prostitution can have on residential and business “communities”. Her previous work has also included exploring the police’s use of S14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 – the strict liability offence of paying for sex from someone subject to force or coercion.She has also written about and has an interest in prostitution policy.

Male escorting and women




Useful References

Cabezas, A. L. (2004). Between love and money: Sex, tourism, and citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29(4), 987-1015.

Hardy, K., Kingston, S., & Sanders, T. (2010). (Eds.), New Sociologies of Sex Work. Surrey: Ashgate.

Herold, E., Garcia, R., & DeMoya, T. (2001). Female tourists and beach boys: Romance or Sex Tourism? Annals of Tourism Research, 28(4), 978-997.

Kingston, S., & Thomas, T. (2014). The Police, Sex Work, and Section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 53(3), 255-269.

Sánchez-Taylor, J. (2001). Dollars are a girl’s best friend? Female tourists’ sexual behaviour in the Caribbean. Sociology, 35(3), 749-764.

Scoular, J., & Carline, A. (2014). A critical account of a ‘creeping neo-abolitionism’: Regulating prostitution in England and Wales. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 14(5), 608-626.