I sincerely doubt that very many sex workers ever get used to the really dumb, clueless pronouncements that outsiders make about sex work. And I don’t mean the intentional falsehoods spread by prohibitionists like Melissa Farley, either; no, I mean the statements made by people who aren’t intentionally trying to mislead others, but who also can’t be bothered to consult actual escorts to find out if their ideas come anywhere within hailing distance of reality. Every once in a while one of these astonishingly erroneous notions gets picked up by a major media outlet and then repeated over and over again, inducing in those who know better a powerful desire either to bang their heads against their desks or to strangle the person who has just repeated it for the umpteenth time that week, or both.
The most recent example appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 2nd. Fewer men are paying for sex, the headline announced, and though the lede already questioned the veracity of that conclusion it didn’t stop others from repeating it as an established fact. The culprit here is the General Social Survey, a sociological study conducted regularly for the past 41 years and eagerly mined by sociologists who can’t afford surveys of their own. However, the GSS has one huge, massive flaw that was mentioned by my psychology professors way back in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, yet seems not to trouble those who rely upon it so heavily these days: it is conducted in person, face to face with the respondents. And that means that on sensitive topics carrying criminal penalties or heavy social stigma, the results are less than solid; negative opinions of its dependability on such matters range from “unreliable” to “useless”. The fact of the matter is that human beings want to look good to authority figures (like sociologists in white lab coats) even when they don’t know them from Adam, so they tend to deviate from strict veracity toward whatever answer they think the interviewer wants to hear.
Because of this, the GSS’s claims about the fraction of men who have ever paid for sex have always been absurdly low, more closely resembling the fraction of the male population who hire sex workers occasionally (say, while on business trips) than those who had ever tried it even once. To get an idea how far off the claimed numbers are, let’s look at a typical figure for the last few surveys, 13%. Now, just for giggles, let’s pretend that this is the fraction of men who admit to paying for sex once a year rather than once in their lives. According to the National Taskforce on Prostitution, roughly 1% of American women have sold sex as a job for at least part of their lives; my own calculations (based on comprehensive figures from New Zealand) indicate that less than a third of that number are doing it at any given time. So if 1/3 of 1% of women are sex workers, but only 13% of men buy sex annually, that would mean we all average 39 appointments a year…less than one per week. I’ll give you a minute to catch your breath and wipe the coffee off of your computer screen before I remind you that what the GSS actually claims is far worse; that’s supposed to be the number who have done it at least once in their lives, not once a year, which would mean we should all be averaging, say, ten appointments per year or less. I think we can all agree that this is, in the words of the late, great Douglas Adams, a load of dingo’s kidneys.
Now, it’s true that we have specialized knowledge; maybe the average person spreading these dopey claims around doesn’t realize that there are as many sex workers as there are. Unfortunately, that still isn’t an excuse. Even a person who knows absolutely zilch about sex work should still be able to recognize the claims about the incredible shrinking client base as pure science fiction. That Los Angeles Times story reports that the new GSS claims only 9% of men have ever paid for sex, despite claiming last year that 13% had. For that to be true, over ¼ of all men who had ever paid for sex at any time in their lives would have to have dropped dead in the past year; I kind of think we would have noticed.
The sharp drop is very much like the one which appeared in Swedish surveys after client criminalization; it wasn’t that 41% of the men who had ever paid for sex had suddenly died or moved out of Sweden, but rather that 41% fewer were willing to tell the truth because of aversion to stigma and the fear of criminal penalties. But of the academics interviewed for the story, only Ronald Weitzer got that; since the other named interviewees, Melissa Farley and Michael Shively (who comes up with bogus research for Swanee Hunt) are prohibitionists whose livelihoods depend on “demand for prostitution” being a “huge and growing problem”, they could hardly be expected to tell the truth about the reason for the apparent decline even while they were denying its existence.
As is usual with such stupidities, however, the most head-desky moment came not in the original story, but in one of its later iterations. And I’m very sorry to say that this one appeared in Reason, a magazine I respect precisely because it is not generally known for running off half-cocked to draw large conclusions from flimsy evidence. But everyone has an off-day, I suppose, and Zenon Evans’ article concluding that “Men Aren't Paying For Sex Anymore Because the Internet Makes Free Sex Easy” certainly qualifies (especially since he seems to be implying that sex workers going out of business would be a good thing).
I think what made this particularly annoying for me is that I’m in Twitter-and-email correspondence with several of the magazine’s contributors, who would certainly have given Evans my name had he asked; the problem, of course, is that he didn’t think he had to. Had he been writing on any other subject he would probably have consulted an authority before writing his article, but when it comes to sex work, all too many writers never even consider contacting a real expert. And most of those who do think of it seem to be laboring under the bizarre misapprehension that those committed to something’s destruction are the ones most qualified to make informed statements about it, which is a bit like asking MADD or the Ladies’ Gospel Temperance Union for an opinion on wine-tasting.