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Social Policy & Society 2:1, 55– 63 Printed in the United Kingdom

C 2003 Cambridge University Press DOI:10.1017/S1474746403001076

‘Sleeping with the enemy’? Some Problems with Feminist

Abolitionist Calls to Penalise those who Buy Commercial Sex
Julia O’Connell Davidson

School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham, UK


Feminists campaigning for the abolition of prostitution have long argued that it is men
who buy sex, rather than prostitute women, who should be penalised and reformed. In
recent years, the phenomenon of ‘trafficking’ in persons has provided feminist abolitionists
with a more high profile platform from which to lobby on prostitution issues, and they
have found policy makers increasingly receptive to calls to penalise men who buy sex.
This has encouraged some feminist abolitionists to forge alliances with those who would
more usually be viewed as ‘enemies’ of feminism and other progressive social movements
(police chiefs calling for more extensive police powers and tougher sentencing policy,
anti-immigration politicians calling for tighter border controls, and moral conservatives
urging a return to ‘family values’). This paper is concerned with the dangers of such
liaisons. It begins with a brief review of the findings of recent research on the demand
for commercial sexual services, then puts forward some reasons why feminist abolitionists
should be cautious about calling on the state to penalise sex buyers.

Penalize the buyers. The least discussed part of the prostitution and trafficking chain has been
the men who buy women for sexual exploitation in prostitution, pornography, sex tourism and
mail order bride marketing. We cannot shrug our shoulders and say, ‘men are like this’ . . . We
cannot tell women and girls in prostitution that they must continue to do what they do because
prostitution is inevitable. Rather, our responsibility is to make men change their behaviour by
all means available – educational, cultural, and through legislation that penalizes men for the
crime of sexual exploitation. (Raymond, 2001, 9)

Feminist groups campaigning for the abolition of prostitution typically understand male
power as domination, and assume that when men pay for sex they buy mastery of an
objectified female body. To contract out sexual use of the body thus requires women to
sever the integrity of body and self, and so carries grave psychological consequences,

The support of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Save the Children Sweden and SIDA, which
funded the pilot research discussed in this article, is gratefully acknowledged. Above all the author
wishes to thank Bridget Anderson (Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford)
who co-led the pilot study, and Patrizia Testai, LILA (Italian League Against AIDS), Catania, Italy; Jenny
Gleeson and June Saetang, GAATW (Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women), Bangkok, Thailand;
Manjima Bhattacharjya, Abha Dayal, Kalpana Viswanath and Seema Singh, Jagori, New Delhi, India; Sven-
Axel Mansson, Department of Social Work, Goteborg University, Sweden; Ellinor Platzer, Department
of Sociology, Vaxjo University, Sweden; Anders Lisborg and Morten Lisborg, Centre for Development
Research, Roskilde University, Denmark; and Dixon Wong, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of
Hong Kong, Hong Kong, who carried out the pilot research. The views expressed in this paper are not
necessarily shared by those who funded and conducted the research.

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equivalent to the consequences of rape. Indeed, in ‘radical’ feminist analyses of

prostitution, men who buy sex often become indistinguishable from those who commit
acts of rape or incest (Barry, 1995; Jeffreys, 1997). It is small wonder that feminist
abolitionists, like Janice Raymond of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)
cited above, call for measures to penalise and reform those who buy sex. Such calls are
not new, but until recently they have largely fallen on deaf ears. Now, suddenly, it seems
that policy-makers are beginning to listen. Over the past decade, ‘John Schools’ to re-
educate men caught kerb-crawling have sprung up in the United States, Canada and the
UK (Bernstein, 2001; Weitzer, 2000; Mills, 1997). In 1998, Sweden introduced legislation
that criminalises the buying of sex (Mansson, 2002). Growing international concern about
the phenomena of trafficking in persons1 has also given feminist abolitionists a more high
profile platform from which to call for a shift in attitudes and policy responses towards
prostitution. Here too, there is increasing receptivity to the idea that those who consume
commercial sex may represent a social problem, not least because it is frequently asserted
that it is the demand for foreign and ‘exotic’ prostitutes that makes trafficking a profitable
activity (Ucarer, 1999).
This growing willingness to apply social controls to men who buy sex apparently
marks a significant shift in policy direction. It also makes for some curious ‘bedfellows’. For
instance, at the seemingly endless round of ‘anti-trafficking’ conferences that have been
held in Europe over the past five years, radical feminists have been found supporting police
chiefs’ calls for more extensive police powers and tougher sentencing policies, joining
anti-immigration politicians in calls for tighter border controls, and building alliances
with all manner of moral conservatives (Agustin, 2000). This paper is concerned with the
dangers of ‘climbing into bed’ with those who would more usually be viewed as ‘enemies’
of feminism and other progressive social movements. It begins with a brief review of the
findings of recent research on the demand for commercial sexual services, then puts
forward some reasons why feminist abolitionists should be cautious about calling on the
state to penalise sex buyers.

R e s e a rc h o n t h e d e m a n d f o r c o m m e rc i a l s e x : f o u r k e y fi n d i n g s

The recent ASEM Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women
and Children (2001) stressed the need to encourage research on ‘the demand for the
most common forms of exploitation of trafficked women and children, in particular for
commercial sex services’, and recommended a multi-country study on the ‘demand-side’
of trafficking as one of its follow-up actions. The pilot study that was conducted as a result
of this recommendation involved survey and interview research in Denmark, Sweden,
Italy, Thailand, India and Japan (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson, 2002).2 Here, I will
draw attention to four key findings that are significant in relation to feminist abolitionist
calls to ‘penalise the buyers’. First, and rather unsurprisingly, data from the pilot research
reflect significant cross-national differences in terms of the social meanings attached to
the consumption of commercial sexual services. In Thailand, for example, both the survey
and interview data indicated that buying sex can be part of a ‘rite of passage’, as well as a
ritualised means of consolidating relationships with male friends. Interviewees mentioned
boys visiting sex workers to mark the end of their schooldays and to establish their status
as adults, and noted that it is common for a senior to take new university students to sex
workers in order that they may demonstrate themselves as ‘real men’.

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More generally, the interview data from both India and Thailand suggested that
boys and young men’s initial experiences of prostitution represented a way to publicly
demonstrate membership of a particular male subgroup, and/or to claim a particular social
identity (as ‘adult’, ‘man’, or ‘not-gay’). Here, prostitute use was depicted as normal
masculine behaviour at certain stages of the life-cycle and amongst certain groups.
The normative nature of prostitute use in Thailand is well illustrated by the fact that
73 per cent of our sample, which consisted of 87 police officers and 3 soldiers, had
bought commercial sexual services at some point in their lives. In Denmark, by contrast,
interviewees were unanimous in asserting that they had never experienced social pressure
to buy sex, and in rejecting the idea that prostitute use could be viewed as a public mark
of a man’s virility or masculinity. Here, social pressures to be a real heterosexual man
vied with strong social pressures not to buy sex, turning prostitute use into an essentially
private rather than public activity.
The second point to note about the data concerns the question of who is most likely
to succumb to social pressures to buy sex. The sample of clients we surveyed cannot be
taken as representative of clients in general, or of all clients in their country of origin,
but they are nonetheless a group of 185 individuals who have experience of buying sex.
Viewed as such, one interesting finding concerns the age at which they first paid for sex.
Survey data from all countries reveals that around 78 per cent of clients had first used a
prostitute when aged 21 or below. About 18 per cent were aged 18 or below when first
introduced to prostitute use. In other words, there is demand for prostitution from those
who, according to the United Nations’ definition of a child as a person under the age of
18, are children themselves (the most extreme case was a Thai respondent who reported
having been taken to a prostitute by relatives when he was under the age of ten). Social
pressures to engage in prostitute use thus appear to be strongly focused on young men
and boys, rather than operating uniformly on men of all ages.
The third key finding relates to clients’ perceptions of, and experience with migrant
sex workers. Here, the research drew attention to the ways in which clients’ choice of
sex worker is shaped by a complex configuration of attitudes towards race, migration,
sexuality and prostitution, rather than merely expressing a wish for mastery over any
objectified female body that happens to be available. Thus, interviewees typically placed
different groups of sex workers on different rungs of a racial or ethnic hierarchy. In Delhi,
most clients imagined dark-skinned women and girls from the Nat Bedia community as
standing at the bottom of this hierarchy, followed by dark-skinned local sex workers,
then by lighter-skinned Nepali sex workers. White European sex workers were placed at
the apex of the hierarchy. Interviewees also perceived a link between the client’s social
status and the racial or ethnic identity of the sex worker whose services he consumes. For
I don’t feel proud of myself if I go with migrant sex workers. Socially it is looked down on to
be with Burmese sex workers because they work in particular types of establishment which are
lower, and friends look down on it. In this male society, the place you visit makes you look
good or not. In places where migrants work, the conditions are poor . . . Thai women work in
different establishments, such as karaoke and are more expensive. Poorer men have to go to
migrant workers because they are cheaper. (Thai government officer, public relations, single,
aged 27)
Another reason why Thai sex workers were preferred by interviewees was simply that it is
easier for Thai clients to communicate with them – ‘It’s hard to have sex without talking,

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because if you can’t talk, you lose the feeling.’ Questioned about the relative ‘merits’ of
local and migrant sex workers, Danish interviewees also stated that it is preferable to use
a worker who speaks the same language. They too placed local workers at the top of the
prostitution hierarchy, arguing that Danish sex workers offer a better service than migrant
women. Indeed, both Thai and Danish clients discussed the differences between local
and migrant prostitutes through reference to ideas about which group is best equipped
to meet their specific demands as consumers (e.g., for prostitutes who are ‘clean’, and/or
who speak their language, and/or present as caring, warm professionals). Sex workers
were also ranked according to the social relations that surround their prostitution, such
that migrants who were perceived as having been forced into prostitution (either by a
third party or by their ‘miserable social background’) were deemed by most to be less
attractive than local women who were imagined as having entered sex work voluntarily
and as enjoying better working conditions.
The fourth key finding was that clients are not a unitary group in terms of their
willingness and propensity to consume the sexual services of trafficked or otherwise
unfree prostitutes. The interview research found that those clients who were willing to
knowingly use trafficked/unfree prostitutes did not imagine sex workers as consenting
subjects within the prostitution contract. Instead, they seemed to think that in prostitution,
women/girls actually become objects or commodities, and that clients can therefore
purchase temporary powers of ownership over them. This was well illustrated by an
interview with a client who described prostitution as ‘a market where the woman is
selling herself ’ [emphasis added] and remarked:

When there is violence . . . it is mostly the prostitute’s fault. See, I am going to buy something.
If I am satisfied with what I am buying, then why should I be violent? I will be violent when
I am cheated, when I am offered a substandard service, when I am abused or ill treated . . .
Sometimes [violence] is because the prostitute wants the client to use condoms. They force it
on the client . . . He will naturally be disgruntled, and there will be altercations. (Indian bank
clerk, married, aged 54)

Another client stated:

If [the prostitute] takes money and does not perform what she is expected to, then the customer
will get angry. See, I understand that the prostitute is there in the first place because she has no
choice or is forced there. I feel bad about this especially if she is forced or sold. But the fact
is that she is in the flesh market. The rules of the market apply to her as well as to one who
has come out of her own choice . . . It may sound bad, but the fact is that she is a commodity
offering a service and she should accept that. We should all. (Indian civil servant, married,
aged 39)

Such clients were not only more likely than others to tolerate or justify violence
against prostitutes, but also more likely to express a preference for younger and/or more
vulnerable prostitutes.
Other clients interviewed in each of the countries involved in the research were re-
pulsed by the idea of buying sex from prostitutes who are desperate, vulnerable or coerced
into prostitution by a third party. Their unwillingness to buy sex from unfree prostitutes
was not always or only grounded in high moral principles. Indeed, when interviewees
spoke of the immorality of forced prostitution, such comments were invariably followed

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by, or interwoven with, comments to the effect that they personally would find it
a sexual turn-off to use a worker who they could not imagine had freely chosen
prostitution, and/or that prostitutes working in the poorest conditions are less likely to
be able to provide them with the kind of service they prefer. Moreover, to insist that they
do not buy sex from unfree workers is a way in which many clients claim social status.
It establishes the fact that they themselves are not poor, uneducated, unsophisticated,
immoral and/or migrant. However, it was very clearly the case that these clients were
much less likely to pay for sex with unfree workers than were clients who imagined
prostitutes as objects of trade and/or who deliberately sought out the most vulnerable sex
workers in order to exercise greater control within the prostitute–client transaction.

Reasons to be cautious

There is an urgent need for governments to put male buyers of women and children in
prostitution on the policy and legislative agenda, taking seriously that the problem of global
sex trafficking will not be dented unless those who create the demand for prostitution are
addressed. (Raymond, 2001, 9)

The findings discussed above draw immediate attention to the limitations of any universal,
‘one size fits all’ policy response to prostitution. Criminalising the buying of sexual services
may represent a means of shoring up existing social norms against sex buying in a country
like Sweden, but calls to ‘penalise the buyer’ seem rather less realistic in settings where
prostitute use is widely socially accepted as a normal aspect of male sexual behaviour,
and particularly unworkable in settings where more than 70 per cent of male police
officers may themselves have experience of buying sex. Furthermore, since children and
members of other politically, socially and economically marginalised groups are amongst
those who provide demand for commercial sex, punitive approaches to sex buyers
may in many cases conflict with concerns for children’s rights and other social justice
But there are also other reasons to be cautious. Even if we accept the proposition
that a market in commercial sex is undesirable, the position taken by feminist abolitionist
groups such as CATW seems to gloss over the fact that questions about supply and demand
cannot be meaningfully separated in the analysis of any given market, and that markets
cannot be understood in abstraction from the broader social, economic, political and
institutional context in which they operate. As consumers, clients (like other consumers)
are guided and constrained by a complex range of economic and social factors, as well
as by personal preferences. So, for instance, the decision to buy sex is partly shaped by
cost considerations. If the price of commercial sexual services rose to one million dollars
a piece, then demand would certainly fall dramatically. In this sense, we can say that
a supply of prostitutes who are willing or forced to sell sex at affordable prices creates
demand as much as the other way about.
But simple economics are not enough to explain either supply or demand.
Consumption is often a form of display, and people buy goods and consume services as
markers of identity. Furthermore, the things we buy can provide ‘the material substance
in rituals that help to create and maintain social relationships – or put another way, goods
“fix public meanings”’ (Bauer, 2001, 5). These points are of great relevance for patterns
of consumption of commercial sex, for, as has been seen, buying sex (and within this,

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using particular ‘types’ of sex worker) marks identity, and can serve to ritually affirm
the client’s position on social hierarchies of age, class and race, as well as gender.
Equally, we need to recognise that the state plays a crucial role in shaping what is
bought and sold and by whom, and on what terms. For instance, national governments
are heavily implicated in the construction of the prostitution labour market through
their (often gender discriminatory) policies on immigration and asylum, employment,
economic development, welfare, education and so on (Davis, 1993). Prostitution law and
law enforcement practice often makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation
by third parties and by clients. Meanwhile, the state plays an important role in shaping
the consumption of commercial sex, not simply by permitting or tolerating certain
types of consumption, but also by endorsing, perpetuating or promoting the social
divisions and status hierarchies that are so central to clients’ choices as consumers.
In other words, to address the demand for prostitution is not simply to challenge the
individuals who consume commercial sexual services, but also to question the way in
which states – through a combination of action and inaction – construct the conditions
under which it is possible, and under which it appears desirable, for them to do so.
For this reason alone, it seems naı̈ve for feminist abolitionists to call on governments
to put buyers at the centre of the policy and legislative agenda. Can the state really
be a straightforward ally in a struggle to end the commercial sexual exploitation of
Elizabeth Bernstein’s (2001) comments on two apparently contradictory develop-
ments over the past decade with regard to the consumption of commercial sex in the
United States suggest the answer must be ‘no’. On the one hand, she observes, there
is a growing tendency to target the male clients of female street prostitutes for arrest
and ‘reform’, and a spate of social policies that constitute ‘an unprecedented attempt
to regulate male heterosexual behaviour’ (2001, 409). This much would, presumably, be
welcomed by groups such as CATW. And yet, on the other hand, there has been a massive
expansion and diversification of the sex industry:

the scope of sexual commerce has . . . grown to encompass: live sex shows; all variety of
pornographic texts, videos, and images, both in print and on line; fetish clubs; sexual
‘emporiums’ featuring lap-dancing and wall-dancing; escort agencies; telephone sex and cyber-
sex contacts; ‘drive through’ striptease venues; and organized sex tours of developing countries.
(Bernstein, 2001, 392)

Similar developments have taken place in the UK, where ‘John Schools’ and tighter
controls over men who use street prostitution have gone hand in hand with greater
acceptance of other forms of commercial sexual experience.3 Bernstein argues very
convincingly that the two sets of developments are not unrelated. In the US, men caught
kerb crawling and sent to ‘John Schools’ are advised, among other things, to ‘jack off’
to porn, or to ‘go on the internet’ rather than buy sex from street prostitutes. Behind the
apparent contradiction of ‘cracking down on johns’, but normalising other aspects of
the sex business, there is a shared set of economic and cultural interests:

Both street-level policing and cultural normalization have facilitated the rise of the post-
industrial service sector and the information economy, helping to create clean and shiny
urban spaces in which middle-class men can safely indulge in recreational commercial sexual
consumption. (Bernstein, 2001, 411)

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Since most governments already approach the ‘problem of global sex trafficking’ primarily
through reference to what they deem to be the problem of ‘illegal immigration’ (Beare,
1999; Gallagher, 2002), they are likely to be receptive to calls to control and penalise
the clients of migrant prostitutes, regardless as to whether these workers have actually
been trafficked or are simply irregular migrants working in prostitution because it offers
the only or best means of earning. Unfortunately, they are also only too likely to deport
the migrant sex workers themselves, again with little regard as to whether or not they
have been trafficked (Coomaraswamy, 1997). It is difficult to imagine any government
enthusiastically applying legal penalties to middle-class men who use ‘discrete’ forms of
prostitution such as escort agencies or high-class hostess clubs, and still harder to imagine
governments intervening in the consumption of forms of commercial sex that are more
closely linked to mainstream businesses in the print, film, leisure and tourism industries.
Another reason to question the idea that governments will prove useful allies in
any struggle to protect women from sexual exploitation concerns the fact that the civil
and human rights of females who work in prostitution in the contemporary world are
routinely, and often grossly, violated by state actors. Prostitutes variously face arbitrary
detention, deportation, forcible eviction from their dwellings, enforced health checks –
including HIV testing – forcible ‘rehabilitation’, corporal punishment, even execution; few
states offer prostitutes adequate protection from violent crime or abusive employers, and
prostitutes are often victims of crimes perpetrated by corrupt law enforcement agents,
including rape, beatings and extortion.4 Before calling on governments to place male
buyers of sexual services on their policy and legislative agendas, feminist abolitionists
would do well to insist that governments ‘clean up’ their own act as regards the abuse
and exploitation of female sex workers.
Finally, when Raymond says ‘We cannot tell women and girls in prostitution that
they must continue to do what they do because prostitution is inevitable’ (2001: 9), it
speaks volumes about the way in which feminist abolitionists imagine those who work in
the sex industry. Ignoring the fact that for years, female sex workers at the top end of the
commercial sex market have been telling groups like CATW that they wish to continue
to do what they do because they earn more from prostitution than they could from any
other form of work available to them (Nagel, 1997), Raymond conjures with an image of
all prostitutes as victims, turning to ‘us’ for assistance and being ‘told’ that we are unable
to release them. Given that some of the most abusive and violent clients rationalise and
justify their own behaviour by imagining prostitution as a ‘flesh market’ and prostitutes as
objects to be traded within that market, such representations of prostitutes as victimised
‘objects’, rather than as active – if grossly constrained – subjects within the exchange may
have unintended and hugely negative consequences for the most vulnerable sex workers
(see Doezema, 2001).


Whether or not we accept the idea that prostitution should be regarded as a form of labour
like any other, the fact is that vast numbers of people do currently work in prostitution.
Even where governments aim to reduce these numbers by providing realistic economic
alternatives for women and girls, this is necessarily a long-term objective. In the meantime,
it is vital to consider harm-reduction measures to protect those most vulnerable within
the sex industry. In many contexts, one such measure would be to encourage clients

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to recognise prostitutes as workers with rights, including the right to refuse requests for
services they do not wish to provide; to freely retract from contracts with clients; to be
protected from abusive and slavery-like employment practices, and so on. Campaigns to
destigmatise prostitution and recognise it as a form of work may thus, in some settings,
represent a vital part of protecting women within prostitution, and it is not at all clear that
this objective is compatible with calls for the universal penalisation of clients.
Furthermore, if policy-makers around the world are concerned to reduce overall levels
of demand for prostitution, there is a need for extensive and long-term educational work to
bring about a fundamental re-visioning of sexuality, age, gender relations and prostitution.
Such campaigns would need to target children and young people in particular, and
could only be effective if they challenged attitudes towards gender and sexuality that are
currently widely socially endorsed. This would almost certainly bring policy-makers into
conflict with some of those who have been courted as allies by feminist abolitionists,
namely morally conservative lobby groups.
Finally, if the phenomenon of trafficking is at least partly related to demand for
cheap and vulnerable sex workers, on the one hand, and the social construction of
particular groups of migrant women/girls as the natural and ideal category of person
to provide cheap sex (as our pilot research suggests), on the other, then there is a link
between trafficking and broader social attitudes towards race/ethnicity and/or migrant
communities. This implies that combating the problem of global sex trafficking requires
us to combat the general social devaluation of migrants and to ensure their social, political
and economic inclusion. Here again, those who have recently been courted by feminist
abolitions (anti-immigration politicians and law enforcers) are unlikely to prove trusty
allies. In short, feminist abolitionists would be well advised to be more selective about
who they welcome as ‘bedfellows’ in the political struggle against sexual exploitation.

1 In the most general of terms, ‘trafficking’ is understood to involve the transportation of persons
by means of coercion or deception into exploitative or slavery-like conditions in prostitution or other
economic sectors.
2 The pilot study was co-ordinated by the author and Bridget Anderson, and also explored the
demand for migrant domestic workers in Sweden, Italy, India and Thailand.
3 Thus, John Gray, the founder of Spearmint Rhino (the world’s biggest chain of table dancing clubs)
which has launched six clubs in Britain and plans to open 100 more can remark, ‘You could rip out
75 per cent of our turnover and we’d still be profitable’ (Doward, 2002).
4 The scale and severity of the human rights violations perpetrated against female prostitutes in the
contemporary world was recognised in the 1992 general recommendation made by the Convention for
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to include prostitutes among
those who needed to be offered equal protection under the law (Kempadoo and Ghuma, 1999: 293; see
also Alexander, 1997).

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