Most men in Australia say that they respect women. Most men in Australia say that they support gender equality – that women should have the same rights and responsibilities as men. But, you can’t respect women and pay for sex from them.
Paying a woman to have sex with you is incompatible with gender equality. It is incompatible with the principles of respect and justice.
Most men in Australia say that violence against women is unacceptable. But if men really do reject violence against women, then we also have to be critical of prostitution.
I don’t assume that every man who pays for sex with a woman treats her with cruelty or hostility. I don’t assume that most commercial sexual interactions involve violence or coercion. But it’s also clear that for many men, using prostitutes is shaped by hostile attitudies towards women, a sense of entitlment, and a callous lack of care about women’s wellbeing. I don’t assume that every woman (or man) who sells sex is deeply victimised or oppressed. But it’s also clear that violence and abuse are common in the sex industry, and that prostitution is shaped very much by wider inequalities.
Prostitution, as an institution, is about privilege. The privilege to buy access to the bodies of socially devalued groups: mostly women, but also transgender people, gay men, and others. In prostitution, other people’s bodies become commodities. Others’ bodies become objects for men’s consumption (Triviño 2016).
Prostitution is built on inequality. Prostitution reflects gender inequalities, and it maintains inequalities. The sex industry is build on men’s entitlement to women’s sexualised bodies and on women’s more limited options for economic independence (Coy et al. 2016). Prostitution is build on inequalities of gender, class, race, and sexuality.
The fundamental point for men should be that, buying sex is not a right. We should not have the right to buy access to other people’s bodies.
And buying sex is not a ‘need’, some kind of hard-wired, biological imperative that all men have. Instead, paying for sex is a choice. Men make choices about paying for sex, and those choices, of course, are shaped by wider cultural norms about what is acceptable or unacceptable.
So, we have to address demand – the demand for prostitution. We need laws and policies which criminalise and discourage the buying of sex. And beyond this, we need culture change, to shift the norms of sexism and male sexual entitlement which are at the root of prostitution. As part of this, we need new, positive visions of male sexuality. We have to challenge traditional constructions of male sexuality, based on dominance, disconnection, and entitlement, and build new, positive forms of male sexuality, based on consent, respect, justice, and mutual pleasure.
Individual men have a key role to play. First, put your own house in order. Don’t pay for sexual services: don’t have sex with sex workers, or visit strip clubs, or give your money in other ways to the sex industry. Learn about the harms of prostitution and pornography. Support feminist efforts to challenge the violence and sexism in prostitution. Pledge your support for the Nordic model, which seeks to challenge the demand for commercial sex. And, above all, make a personal commitment never to use or support any form of sexual exploitation, and to speak out against sexism, violence, and abuse.