I don't remember much about sex education in 10th grade, other than anxiety about what topics I might have to discuss with peers. But I do remember a woman who came to our private, secular school to talk about "chastity." She kept me enthralled as she explained we had been deceived by adults to believe that sex was an inevitable part of adolescence. She said, "You have power over your own desires. You are not a victim of your own urges but can make responsible choices." Her message was old-fashioned even 20 years ago, and the sex-ed teachers didn't approve. But as a girl trying to make sense of both the desire for sexual intimacy and the desire to wait for sex until marriage, her message of self-control was liberating.
I thought of her words upon reading a recent study about men who purchase sex. In the study, clinical psychologist Melissa Farley and a team of researchers interviewed 201 men in the Boston area about their sex-buying habits and their attitudes toward women. One hundred of the men were "non-sex buyers," and 101 were "sex-buyers." Farley's study is unusual because it deals exclusively with men's attitudes about buying sex, whereas most research within the field has focused on selling sex (i.e., prostitutes). And, while most studies of "johns" only identify behaviors among men who buy sex, this study involves a control group of "non-sex buyers" who correlate to the sex buyers in age, education, and income level. This study (overview here) distinguishes between men who buy sex and those who do not. Yet it also underscores the prevalence of men seeking sexual stimulation outside of intercourse with a willing partner.
The report concludes that men who buy sex are different from those who do not: "The common myth that any man might buy sex (i.e., that a sex buyer is a random everyman, an anonymous male who deserves the common name, john) was not supported. Sex buyers shared certain attitudes, life experiences, and behavioral tendencies that distinguish them from their non-buying peers in socially and statistically significant ways."
Farley wants to abolish the sex trade, and her findings support the conclusions that buying sex is linked to criminal behavior, violence against women, and objectification of women. Furthermore, her study shows that buying sex is harmful to the men themselves, who self-report "ambivalence, guilt and negative thinking about buying sex. They felt just as many negative feelings after buying sex as they did before." The men who bought sex reported difficulty achieving intimacy with women in other relationships (61% of the men who bought sex had a wife or girlfriend).
The study demonstrates a qualitative difference between the two groups of men. But an article about this study in Newsweek complicates the picture. Newsweek reported that "buying sex is so pervasive that Farley's team had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don't do it." In Farley's words, "We had big, big trouble finding nonusers." Eventually, Farley and her team loosened their definition of "sex buyers." In the study, she writes, "We defined non-sex buyers as men who have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, massage sex worker, or prostitute, have not been to a strip club more than one time in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, and have not used pornography more than one time in the past week." Virtually all men use porn, in other words, on a regular basis. Seventy percent of the "non-usuers" were married or had a girlfriend.
Farley advocates graver criminal and monetary punishment for men who purchase sex, and her recommendations may well draw positive attention to the problem of sex trafficking and the possibilities for changing the acceptability of prostitution, an industry that has been tolerated in the past despite being illegal.
The men in this study who bought sex felt shame, guilt, and loneliness. Their emotions reflect the reality that sex is intended for intimacy between two mutually consenting and self-giving partners. The Christian message of lifelong, monogamous marriage as God's design for sexual intimacy may come across as quaint and outdated, or as hopelessly naïve, in the face of Internet porn, the sexual revolution, and a hyper-sexualized culture. Yet the message I heard nearly two decades ago about chastity still offers liberation from the bondage of insatiable desire. In fact, this countercultural message is more important than ever.
When it comes to sex, the gospel offers a twofold hope. First, it offers forgiveness from sexual sin and freedom from guilt and shame. Second, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it offers healing so that men and women can give to and receive from one another as those created in God's image. Christians support Farley's desire to abolish the sex industry. We can and should speak out against the buying of sex in general—in the form of pornography, prostitution, and everything in between. Like Farley, we oppose turning women's and men's bodies into commodities, and the ensuing dehumanization that happens to both men and women alike in the sex industry.
For pragmatic purposes, both legal and programmatic, it is helpful to delineate between men who buy sex and those who do not. For Christian purposes, however, this study reinforces what we already knew: We are all the same—sinners in need of redemption, glorious beings with the desire for intimacy and the propensity to shortcut intimacy for instant gratification. Farley's study is bad news in that it identifies how prevalent it is for men to buy sex. But the Christian message is good news because we not only articulate the problems that happen when sex is bought and sold but also the beauty that exists when, in the context of a lifelong covenant, it is given and received.