Monday, March 5, 2012

What Do Men Want When They Pay For Sex?

Toulouse Lautrec, Reine de Joie, via Wikimedia Commons here.

What do men want when they pay for sex?  I thought I sort of knew the answer to this question, and I thought it was something like this:  men want the experience of having sex, with the ability to have some control over what their partners are like, without the difficulties of attracting other people, and without the difficulties of being nice to those other people during the times they're not actually having sex.  This answer would apply in the same way to hetero- and same-sex paid sex. 

But there are men out there who aren't interested in paying for sex at all.  I mean, there are men who say that the whole point of having sex with a person instead of masturbating is to experience the desire or somehow the general subjectivity of the other person.  Without those, there's pretty much no point to sex over masturbation.  And of course, the experience of another's genuine desire or subjectivity is, in a way, just what you have some trouble obtaining if you're paying for sex, because presumably showing certain patterns of desire or feeling is part of what the person you're paying is being paid to do. 

From this point of view, and for men like this, it does seem that seeking out a sex worker would make less sense than, say, attentive masturbating with really high quality pornography.  I mean, you can recreate many of the relevant physical sensations  -- can't you? -- and even in the best circumstances setting up an appointment with a sex worker is going to cost time and money.

But of course there are plenty of men who do seek out sex workers.  What makes it worth it for them?  I mean, masturbation technologies ... haven't they gotten pretty good?  If you can replicate the physical sensations pretty well by masturbating, and if you're not in it for the desire and subjectivity of the other person, what are you in it for?

Maybe the answer is something like this:  there's some kind of vagueness and haziness in "desire" and "subjectivity," and there's some kind of mental state between credulity and skepticism that allows the fiction of mutual desire or interest or whatever subjectivity you're interested in to be maintained in the moment.  So you pay to have sex, and the sex worker is genuinely in the moment in some way, and is acting in some other way, but because of the nature of the interaction, it's possible for the client to be momentarily pleasantly deceived that there is mutual desire or interest or whatever subjectivity you're hoping to have in your sex partner.   

That is, I believe, a kind of answer that makes sex work seem, on the face of it, like it could be an OK thing -- assuming, of course, that sex workers are all in control of their activities and being treated with respect and all that.  It's also roughly consistent with my original answer.  We might call it the "pleasant fiction" answer. 

But my thinking on this subject was cast into some doubt by reading Chester Brown's excellent recent graphic novel, Paying For It, which is about Brown's years of having sex with sex workers after his relationship ends and he decides an actual girlfriend is too much trouble.

Part of what surprised and even distressed me was how fussy Brown gets about the physical appearance of the women he has sex with.  I mean, in the beginning he's nervous and grateful when things go well, but as time goes on he becomes more and more attentive to the physical attractiveness-dollar ratio, along predictable dimensions.

That's his right, I guess.  But it felt so ... ungenerous somehow.  Maybe this is the girly-girl in me coming out, but I think to myself, Hey, this person is having sex with you; sure you're paying her, but she's giving you this very intimate thing.  Can't you be a little nicer, or warmer, or more grateful about that, Mister Critical?  It's true that Brown is respectful and kind.  But that doesn't quite make him warm or generous. 

There's also a grim moment in which a sex worker does something particularly erotic, and instead of thinking, "Wow, Sexy," Brown just thinks about how she's just doing that so he'll have his orgasm faster and get out of there.  He feels manipulated and annoyed, and he responds by acting like a grouch.  It surprised me to see that sort of gesture take on such an opposite valence from what it usually has. 

Both of these things, it seems to me, kind of challenge the "pleasant fiction" interpretation.  Because they both highlight the differences rather than the similarities between sex with the sex worker and sex with some person you happened to like who happened to like you. 

They're both the approach of the consumer, not the lover.

But that makes my original question seem somewhat more puzzling.  If a guy's not in it for the experience, in some sense, even for a few minutes, of playing the lover -- and of course I don't mean "lover" as in the sense of "in love," but just in the sense of having sex out of desire and attraction -- then what is he in it for?

I found myself wondering what Chester Brown was getting out of these visits that he couldn't get more cheaply and easily from a few toys and a good broadband connection. 

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