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12 Invisibility of Clients

PLRC - Invisibility of Clients

12.1 Who Buys Sex?

12.2 Why Men Buy Sex

12.3 Criminalising Clients

In discussions about the sex industry, emphasis usually falls on sex workers rather than on their clients. This can provide a distorted view of the nature of the industry and result in the demand side of prostitution seldom being acknowledged.

The focus of the Committee's report has been to assess the impact of reforming the laws relating to prostitution as they applied to sex workers. As such, research for this report has focused on sex workers and their experiences.

There is a paucity of information about clients, which in itself reflects their invisibility. There is even less known about the views of clients and their experience of the law reform. However, client behaviour has been observed to have changed to some extent after the enactment of the PRA. Information from sex workers and brothel operators suggests clients are more open and relaxed since the law reform. In addition, the Committee members noted clients in brothels they viewed seemed not to mind being seen in a brothel.

12.1 Who Buys Sex?

There have been a small number of studies done internationally (and an even smaller number in New Zealand) that consider the role of clients in the sex industry. Indications are that, for some men, paying for sex is a relatively accepted and common phenomenon.

In a UK study, 1 in 29 men admitted buying sex, with this figure increasing to 1 in 11 men in London, where the largest sex industry exists. The study also indicated the proportion of men reporting paying women for sex increased during the five years from 2% in 1990 to 4.2% in 2000 (Ward et al, 2005). An Australian study based on telephone interviews with over 10,000 men showed that approximately one in six men (15.6%) had ever paid for sex, and 1.9% had done so in the past year (Rissel et al, 2003). Results from a New Zealand study indicated that 6% of men had paid for sex in the past year (Dickson et al, 1995, cited in Rissel et al, 2003)

Stereotypes of clients often portray them as seedy, socially inept men unable to 'pull' a woman, yet this has not been borne out in research, nor in descriptions of clients voiced by sex workers. The research suggests purchasing sexual services is the practice of many 'normal', successful, socially competent and often married men. A study conducted on men arrested for 'kerb crawling' in the UK generated a 'typical' client profile of a man in his mid-30s, in full-time employment and with no criminal convictions (Hester and Westmarland, 2004).

12.2 Why Men Buy Sex

One of the few New Zealand studies conducted of clients was undertaken through a project jointly funded by NZPC and the Health Research Council of New Zealand (Chetwynd and Plumridge, 1993). In describing the motives for their encounters with sex workers, the clients referred to the straightforwardness of the exchange (sex without complications), the pleasurable aspects (providing company and fun), as well as alleviating boredom and providing variety. The average age at which participants in the study first purchased sex was 28 years, with the range of ages spanning from 14 to 50 years of age.

A smaller qualitative study of clients purchasing sexual services in New Zealand was conducted by Jan Jordan in 1997. Nearly half the men interviewed were married, two were widowed, one was separated, and four had never been married (including two men in their 70s). The occupational and class backgrounds of the men varied considerably, as did their incomes. Their reasons for visiting sex workers revolved around accessing sexual services, but the significance they attached to sex varied. Factors cited included seeking companionship, accessing support, alleviating boredom and using it as a means to lose their virginity.

Some people may assume that men visit sex workers for alternative or 'deviant' sexual practices. Such assumptions need to be balanced out by sex workers' accounts describing by far the majority of their clients want very ordinary and conventional sexual practices.

The profile of a client as a normal, successful and law abiding citizen does not extend to all clients. One exception is in the use of under age people in prostitution. The Committee understand some of the people arrested for seeking contact with under age people during an operation in Auckland in early 2008 had previous convictions for serious assault, rape and other sexual offences.

12.3 Criminalising Clients

One way to remedy the ways in which legal jurisdictions have ignored the role of clients has been to criminalise men's participation as clients. The kerb-crawling legislation in the UK is an example of this, as is the Swedish model of criminalising men who buy sex (both these approaches are discussed further in chapter eight). Evaluations of these approaches suggest little change in the overall level of prostitution services provided, with demand being either relocated elsewhere or in the transactions being negotiated in more clandestine local environments (Kilvington et al, 2001). When asked if anything might deter them from paying for sex, few men in an East London study mentioned criminal sanctions as holding any relevance (Coy et al, 2007).


The focus of the PRA is on promoting the rights, health and well-being of sex workers. In recognising the demand side of prostitution, this legislation represents an attempt in law to apply some constraints to clients' behaviour. For example, via the requirement that clients adopt safe sex practice, and by increasing the penalty for the use of under age people in prostitution.

The Committee considers the need remains for research to identify the clients of New Zealand sex workers and to establish a fuller picture of their motivations and reasons for buying sex, in order that New Zealand findings can be compared with those obtained internationally.

Efforts to criminalise clients do not appear to deter demand for sex, and the unintended consequences may increase the vulnerability of women offering sexual services. The PRA reflects a more pragmatic sentiment, recognising that, even if viewed by some as undesirable, the practice of prostitution is likely to remain given ongoing levels of demand by men seeking to purchase sex.

While demand to buy sex persists, ways need to be found to reduce the vulnerability of workers and increase perceptions of them as human beings with rights that need safeguarding.

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