Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand

This groundbreaking new research report is the largest study to date to uncover the sex-buying habits of 8,000 US men.

Demand Abolition

Why We Did This Research

Much of the research on prostitution and sex trafficking in the US focuses on the “supply” side of the market: prostituted and trafficked persons, the great majority of whom are women and girls. While it’s critically important to understand supply-side realities and effective approaches to victim services, the other half of the market—the “demand” side, defined almost entirely by the actions of men—has been woefully understudied by comparison.

This report fills those gaps in our understanding of demand in the illegal US sex trade, including why some men buy sex and what can be done to reduce this exploitative behavior in the short and long terms.

Major Findings

Most men have never paid for sex. In fact, only 6.2% of respondents have bought sex within the past 12 months.

“High-frequency” buyers purchase so often that their actions account for a disproportionately large share of the illegal sex trade. About 25% of active buyers report purchasing weekly or monthly, and their activity accounts for nearly 75% of market transactions. 

High-frequency buyers are more likely to have started at a young age and with the help or encouragement of others in their social networks. These people are far more likely than others to have had their first paid sex experience initiated by “a friend, colleague, group of friends, or family member,” typically by the time they turned 21. 

Demographic traits are poor predictors of sex buying. Race and sexual orientation have almost no profiling power. 

Currently active high-frequency buyers are much more likely than other men to make $100,000 or more annually. Buyers are found across the income distribution with this important exception.

One in five men who have never bought before “could envision buying sex in the future if the circumstances were right.” The report delves deeper into what these circumstances are, and how they reinforce the experiences and beliefs associated with sex-buying behavior.

On average, US sex buyers spend more than $100 per transaction. A very small number of survey respondents reported spending thousands of dollars on their most recent “transaction.” Based on the recorded spend data and computed annual transactions for different groups of buyers (excluding, for statistical purposes, the aforementioned extreme spenders), this survey estimates the annual size of the US commercial sex market at $5.7 billion.

Buyers visit a range of venues and use a similarly diverse number of information channels to purchase sex. Prominent methods include visiting “massage” brothels—known to law enforcement as Illicit Massage Businesses (IMBs), arranging “dates” online, visiting “adult establishments,” and going to well-known “tracks” for street prostitution. No single location dominates, though high-frequency buyers list IMBs as a frequented venue.

Certain ideologies distinguish sex buyers from other men; they share many attitudes and beliefs about sex and relationships. Active ones are more tolerant of cheating on a significant other and differ markedly from non-buyers on measures of impulse control.

Active buyers are more likely to say that prostitution is a “mostly victimless” crime and are less likely to say that prostitution is a crime “where someone is harmed.” They are also more likely to say that prostituted persons “enjoy the act of prostitution” and “choose it as a profession.”

Buyers and non-buyers hold strikingly different views on masculinity and sex buying. Non-buyers are much more likely than active ones to say that purchasing someone for sex involves treating females as objects, and that those actions exploit others. Active buyers are very likely to say they are “just guys being guys” or “taking care of their needs.”

Many men who have bought sex in the past wish to stop. About one-third of active buyers “strongly agree” that they do not want to do it again, a sentiment shared by most former buyers.

Active buyers value their personal safety, sexual health, and freedom from arrest above most other priorities. They are generally unconcerned about breaking the law but preoccupied by the need to avoid getting caught. Active and former buyers are much more likely than non-buyers to say police “should not arrest anyone” involved in prostitution. The strongest bloc of male support for legalizing the US sex trade comes from buyers themselves.

Only about 6% of men who purchase sex illegally report ever having been arrested for it. When buyers do perceive that risk, it can lead them to alter their activities. High-frequency buyers are more sensitive than low-frequency buyers to police presence and are more likely to react by shifting to a different location and diminishing their behavior. About one-quarter of buyers “strongly agree” that “the risk of arrest is so high I might stop.”

Perceiving a risk of arrest has a diminishing effect on sex buying. Two factors increase this perception: (1) a buyer’s own arrest history, and (2) the extent to which he shifts his purchasing activities in response to police presence.

The main driver of sex buying, “normalized beliefs” about the commercial sex trade, combines interrelated ideas: prostituted women enjoy the act, it is mostly a victimless crime, buyers are merely taking care of their needs, and they are just “guys being guys.”

What Can Policymakers Do About It?

  • Policing and prosecution: Move law enforcement’s finite resources away from arresting and adjudicating prostituted persons and towards arresting and adjudicating buyers.
  • Public funding: Make available short-term federal funding programs to support state and local agencies ready to instigate reforms.
  • Principled penalties: Use mandatory minimum fines from convicted buyers to offset the costs of survivor exit services and law enforcement operations to stop demand.
  • Fair consequences: Create increasingly severe penalty structures for repeat buyers, ensuring that sanctions are fair and consistent with survivor testimony of the nature of victim impact.
  • Upstream messaging: Counter messages that normalize sex buying through educational and public health interventions.
  • Employer impact: Establish employer policies prohibiting sex buying under any circumstances, and suspicion of sex-buying activity on company time or with company resources.
  • Public health: Implement targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications on behavioral “nudges.”

See more on page 32 (Part IV, Policy Recommendations).

Click here to download the full report.

About the Study

Demand Abolition commissioned a survey completed by 8,201 adult males across the US between December 2016 and January 2017 to address these gaps and more. The study design and questionnaire content were developed by a team of researchers and approved by the University of Portland’s Institutional Review Board. See the full report for more details.

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