Why Men Buy Sex

Manjima Bhattacharjya (for Times of India) on the forces that send men to brothels…

It was the summer of 2001 and even though it was barely 8 am, the Rajasthan sun already had us breaking out in sweat. That day our team from JAGORI, a Delhi-based women’s group, was visiting sex work stations along the national highway as part of a study. At our first host’s home, a freshly bathed Hindu priest with bodhi and starched dhoti rode past us on a sputtering Bajaj. “Some puja?” we asked. Not quite, said our hosts, chuckling, just the first client of the day.

That incident taught us two things. One, that sometimes we are so busy staring at sex workers to see what they look like that we forget about those without whom there wouldn’t be business—the clients. And two, when it comes to clients, you will always be surprised.

Men across the world buy sex not only because they can, thanks to the power imbalance between men and women but for a host of other unremarkable reasons: wanting to avoid emotional involvement, lack of sex or not enough sex in marriages, wanting to experience power, variety or certain kinds of sexual experiences, shyness, thrills, loneliness or old age. These men are usually ordinary citizens leading ordinary lives. Not convicts, drug dealers or sexual deviants.

At least that’s what an international study in 2002 (published by International Organization for Migration and Save the Children Sweden) on the demand for sex work and domestic work found. Of the 400 men surveyed from five countries including India, over 185 men had experienced buying sex. They cut across class, age and occupation, were mostly married or in a long term relationship, with no criminal record.

The study also found that men from different countries justified their prostitute-use on the basis of gender relations and ideas of masculinity that existed in their own social context. In Scandinavia,
for instance, where relations between men and women are more equal, men felt their wives or partners had every right to refuse sex and this had to be respected. In such instances going to a sex worker was like a `safety valve’ that lessened the strain on their modern relationships.

In Denmark, clients stated that it was a private matter, one that they would not share with friends, fearing being called `a loser’ who wasn’t man enough to get women without paying. On the contrary, in Thailand, you were only `man enough’ if you had visited a sex worker. Going to a prostitute was often a rite of passage to mark the onset of manhood, with young boys at the end of their schoolgoing years being taken to brothels by their peers.

The JAGORI team that did the Indian leg of the study found that in India, going to a sex worker had its own special place because of the strict sexual segregation in Indian society and the silence and taboos around sexuality. It was a tolerated practice, especially for young men who saw it as the only possible way of getting close to women without upsetting social norms.

For middle aged men within marriages where sex was limited to procreation, lack of communication on sexuality with partners was often cited as the reason for visiting sex workers. Most Indian
clients also had their first experience of buying sex with friends, but associated `manhood’ primarily with their role as protectors and providers.

They displayed an abysmal lack of knowledge on sexual health issues, prompting the study to observe that what India needed urgently was `not more punitive measures to clamp down on sex workers or clients but a sex education programme’.

Indian clients had highly moral positions on women, but did not think it incongruous or immoral for themselves to be buying sex. In their view, prostitution, done by `bad women’ (promiscuous women or those who were more Western) acted as another kind of safety valve where men could get rid of their excess sexuality, thus preventing them from attacking `good women’ (chaste traditional wives and daughters). Ironically, most didn’t want to be reminded of the commercial part of the transaction, wanting to see it as something of a romantic adventure.

Recent legislative amendments in India have proposed that clients be criminalised. The experience of countries like Sweden has shown that criminalising clients does not serve any purpose. It only pushes business underground, take safer clients off the market, put more power in the hands of corrupt police at lower levels and force women in prostitution to enter dangerous deals.

So far, clients have more or less been invisible, being allowed to slink in and out of red light areas, or pick up women in the anonymity of their darkened car windows. Part of what they pay for,
always, is discretion.

It might be a while, therefore, before thousands of clients (24,000 clients every day is the estimate in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light area) who will be directly affected by the law come out on the
streets to show us that they are our neighbours, brothers, lovers, friends, shopkeepers or party leaders, who might have double standards but aren’t necessarily worthy of being targeted as criminals.

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