The truth about men who pay for sex

At the top of the list of things that sex workers hear all the time — along with, “But what’s your real name?” — has to be, “Wow, I bet you get so many weirdos in here. You must be really glad to see a normal guy like me.”

All it takes is a quick look at any media featuring sex workers to see where people would get the idea that most of our clients are creeps.

Films and television shows cast clients as either sinister perverts who slither around in the darkness waiting for workers to attend to them with a whip and a cane, or drug-addled millionaires looking for more Barbie-lookalikes to fill their yachts with for the weekend.

Then there’s the way sex workers are represented in the news. We’ve all seen the stock photo: a hand extended from a car window, beckoning a pair of legs toward it.

It’s not only a factually-incorrect representation of what sex work actually is — in Australia, at least, street-based work is not as common as brothel or private work — but it also feels cruelly dehumanizing to both the client and the worker. Which is beside the fact that sex work is legal in Australia, although the laws vary from state to state.

We’re a lot more than just a disembodied pair of fishnet stockings standing on the footpath somewhere, and our clients, too, are more than just a hand waving in the darkness.

Sure, not every client is perfect. Some are far from it. I could share a horror story or two about some who’ve neglected to shower before their visit, or others who completely disregard the boundaries that exist between any service worker and their clients (“You should tell me your address,” one man said, “So I can visit you at home and you can see me for free there!”).

I’ve had friends who have struggled to deal with clients who got too attached and needed brothel management or the police to intervene on their behalf. During those times I was infinitely glad to work in a state where sex work was decriminalized so the police could be contacted without the worker worrying that they were also endangering themselves.

But clients like these are, thankfully, rare.

The majority of people who visit sex workers — whether they visit strip clubs, brothels, see private workers, or simply download some good, old-fashioned porn — are as normal and average as you and me.

They have jobs, and hobbies, and families, and social lives, just like anyone else. Some are hilariously funny, and others are impressively smart. Plenty are great conversationalists, and a huge majority are respectful, caring, and kind.

So why does the myth continue to exist? Why do we think all clients of sex workers are nasty creeps? I believe it’s the heavy stigma around sex work that carries over to our clients, too: it makes sense that someone who thinks sex workers are immoral and disgusting would also feel the same about the people who pay to spend time with us. This, I think, comes from fear. If it’s difficult for some people to comprehend being a sex worker, or seeing one, it’s understandable that their first instinct would be judgment and fear.

To be fair, sex workers provide a luxury service. Although we might be important to many, we’re hardly a necessity in the same class as food, shelter, and water.

There are far more marginalized groups of people than those who are clients of sex workers, but the belief that our clients are bad people is damaging not only to our clients themselves but to the sex industry as a whole.

The Nordic Model, which aims to combat human trafficking by criminalizing the purchasing of sex instead of the selling, has frequently had harmful results for sex workers in Nordic countries.

But the belief at its core — that those who pay for consensual sexual services deserve to be treated as criminals while those who sell them need to be moved out of the industry in which they choose to work — exists because of the stigma not just against workers, but our clients as well.

I wish that anyone who looks down on the sex industry could meet some of the better clients I’ve had over my time working. The young man who spent hours assembling a romantic playlist on his iPod and gave me full-body massages to John Legend’s “All of Me.” The gentleman who casually asked me how I take my coffee, and then brought me a soy latté every time he came to visit from then on. The kind man who handed me a wad of money and encouraged me to take some time off work after a dramatic breakup with a boyfriend. And the studious and successful man who stayed back after a booking to let me ask him career advice once I found out that he worked in the field I wanted to get in to.

There was one gentleman who read some of my writing and realized that he had booked me at a brothel some years ago and got in touch to tell me that he enjoyed reading what I had written and hoped we might be able to meet again in the future.

When we were both in the same city, we did meet up — he took me out to a lovely lunch overlooking the water and we shared a glass of wine and caught up on each other’s lives. After our meal he patiently held my handbag while I freshened up in the bathroom and we walked along the sunny city streets towards his hotel.

To anyone who walked past us, we would’ve looked like nothing more than two average, everyday people. And really, isn’t that all we were?

Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker.

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