Debates around sex work often exclude the clients of sex workers. Academic research into the sex industry also tends to exclude clients¹. Labelled as “Johns” by critics of the sex industry, clients face high levels of stigma and in some cases, criminal prosecution.
Q: Do clients pay for sex because they are unable to find a partner?
A: No. Studies have found a variety of reasons why clients pay for sex: loneliness, boredom, curiosity, the quest for variety, and the desire for sexual activities unobtainable from regular partners.² Some clients, such as those living with disabilities, often depend on sex workers to meet their needs for physical intimacy.
Q: Why are clients reluctant to admit paying for sex?
A: Being exposed as a commercial sex client invites being labelled as ‘criminal’, ‘pervert’, ‘dangerous’, and ‘dirty’, or being considered ‘sexually repulsive’ or ‘sexually inadequate’. ¹
How Many Men Pay for Sex?
The Australian Study of Health and Relationships⁴ found that
- 15.6 % (n=1,458) of all men surveyed had paid for sex on at least one occasion
- Of the men who had paid for sex, 97% had paid for sex with a woman and 3% percent had paid for sex with a man
- Less than 2% of all men surveyed indicated that they had paid for sex within the previous 12 months
Q: Who is more likely to pay for sex – men or women?
A: Men are much more likely to pay for sex. In fact, a man is 156 times more likely to pay for sexual services than a woman. Interviews⁵ in Australia with 10,173 men and 9,134 women found that
- 15.6% of men had paid for sex at least once in their lives
- 0.1% of women had paid for sex at least once in their lives
The statistics above should be considered conservative for two reasons:
- They rely on self-reporting by clients, who are likely to under-report due to stigma
- Differing definitions as to what counts as paying for sex, for example, men who pay for happy ending massages may not think of this as ‘paying for sex’
Q: What types of men pay for sex?
A: Research into male clients finds many of them are successful, socially competent, and often married.⁶
Clients and the Nordic Model of Sex Work Laws
Clients exist at the centre of competing legislative models concerning sex work. One such model is known as the Nordic or Swedish Model. The Nordic Model of sex work laws applies blanket criminal penalties to clients, but not to sex workers themselves. This model has been adopted in a number of overseas jurisdictions, most notably Sweden. This legal approach to sex work is rejected by sex workers and by the sex industry overall, including in countries which have adopted the Nordic Model.
Supporters argue that men paying for sex is inherently violent and exploitative and, much like slavery, ought to be abolished. Proponents of the Nordic Model believe that outlawing the clients of sex workers will decrease the demand for sexual services overall. Our page ‘What’s Wrong With The Nordic Model?’ explains how this system creates an unsafe environment for sex workers.
With regard to the sex industry, Australia remains a largely tolerant country where the Nordic Model lacks widespread support. Numerous independent inquiries⁷ in Australia into both sex work and human trafficking have considered the Nordic Model, but none have recommended its adoption. A Nordic Model bill has never been tabled in any state or territory in Australia.
- Dr Ben Durant, Survival Stripped Bare: An Ethnography of Street Sex Workers in Dandenong, (2015) Australian Catholic University, p49
- Basil Donovan et al, The Sex Industry in New South Wales: A Report to the NSW Ministry of Health (The Kirby Institute 2012) Page 7, page 22
- Richters Juliet, de Visser Richard O., Badcock Paul B., Smith Anthony M. A., Rissel Chris, Simpson Judy M., Grulich Andrew E. (2014) Masturbation, paying for sex, and other sexual activities: the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Sexual Health 11, 461-471
- Rissel CE, Richters J, Grulich AE, de Visser, RO & Smith AMA 2003. Sex in Australia: Experiences of commercial sex in a representative sample of adults. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 27(2): 191–197
- New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee, Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (New Zealand Ministry of Justice, 2008) ‘Conclusion and Future Review’ chapter, page 165
- Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, Inquiry into People Trafficking for Sex Work (2010) Parliament of Victoria
Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Inquiry into the Trafficking of Women for Sexual Servitude (2004) Parliament House
Parliamentary Joint Committee On Law Enforcement, An inquiry into human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices (2017) Commonwealth of Australia
Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee, Improving the Regulation of the Sex Industry and Supporting Sex Workers Who Want to Move On, (2007) Consumer Affairs Victoria
Victorian Attorney General’s Street Prostitution Advisory Group, Final Report (2002)
Marcia Neave’s 1985 Victorian Inquiry into Prostitution
Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety, Inquiry into the Prostitution Act 1992 (2012) ACT Government
South Australian Select Committee, Report of the Select Committee on the Statues Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2015 (2017) Parliament of South Australia
Northern Territory Department of the Attorney-General and Justice, Discussion Paper: Reforming Regulation of the Sex Industry in the Northern Territory (2019) Licensing Northern Territory
Last Updated: 5 November 2019