Prostitution Push and Pull: Male and Female Perspectives
Vanwesenbeeck, Ine, The Journal of Sex Research
The question why people enter prostitution persists as a widely debated question in scientific research on sex work. Until the 1990s, this literature focused almost exclusively on female prostitutes and almost exclusively on the Western world. It is by now difficult to believe that the early studies--simmering with abhorrence, incomprehension, and fascination--predominantly looked at individual prostitutes' presumed "evil characters" or "sick personalities." More recently, albeit hesitantly at first, a proposition has come to prevail of sex work as a rational, financially motivated choice by adult women in a context of limited (other) career possibilities. At the same time, two developments have widened the scope of the prostitution literature to a more international, global perspective: the HIV epidemic and the worldwide increasing migration. With HIV-related issues dominating the literature from the beginning of the 1980s onward, the question of why women enter sex work somewhat faded into the background. However, growing migration and connected discussions about trafficking have put it in the middle of scientific as well as political debate again. There is now a growing body of literature addressing the exchange of sex for money as a complex social phenomenon firmly grounded in social, economic, political, criminal, and sexual relations in which many actors play a role--policymakers, health care workers, and a so-called rescue industry (Agustin, 2007) included.
Among all that is now being written on sex work, research on male prostitutes and their background motives for sex work is only beginning to constitute somewhat more than the proverbial needle in the haystack. Therefore, the analysis by Smith et al. (2012) on how young men become, and stay, involved in male escorting is a welcome contribution to the sex work literature. As the authors have shown, the literature on male sex workers compares to that on female prostitutes, first, in the dominance of deviance models and, later on, on the focus on HIV transmission risk. Importantly, Smith et al. (2012) go beyond these limited perspectives by joining the currently expanding trend of looking at sex work as an opportunity rather than as a problem and, even more significant, as a process of rational choice within a certain social context rather than as an (unfortunate) individual inclination. They propose a social cognitive view of sex work as the outcome of a reciprocal interaction between (facilitative) surroundings, (supportive) experiences and cognitions, and (proactive) behaviors. They describe a group of male sex workers in one escort agency that, after initial acquaintance with future colleagues, actively explored its prostitution possibilities. For the young men under study, notably supportive working surroundings, effective coping strategies, and a growing sense of "self-efficacy" eventually turned sex work into an increasingly comfortable experience and viable moneymaking option.
In this commentary, I intend to add some reflections from a broader perspective to Smith et al.'s (2012) insights for this specific sample. I do not claim exhaustiveness in any way. I will make only some observations on male versus female positions related to push and pull factors, stigma, and coping in prostitution. I start with a short consideration of the number of men and women in sex work.
Number of Men and Women in Sex Work
Figures on the numbers of men and women ever having engaged in the exchange of sex for money vary widely internationally, no doubt partly because of differences in research methodologies. Recent figures for the Netherlands are relatively high. In 2006, more than 3% of both men and women in the adult population (19 to 69 years of age) reported ever having received money for sex (Bakker & Vanwesenbeeck, 2006). In other countries (as in the Netherlands 25 years ago), the prevalence is mostly found to be around 1%. …