Sex work: the statistics

In the first blog of this mini-series on sex work, we’re starting out by looking at the stats. How common is sex work in the UK and US? What does it involve? Roughly how many men have paid for it, and how many women have charged for it? 

Prostitution is often called the world’s oldest profession. In reality, hunting and farming most likely preceded it, but the fact that demand for sex almost always outstrips supply has shaped human society for millennia. 

Sex work in the digital age

The vast majority of sex workers today are undocumented by governments, in large part because sex work is typically illegal in the West. Many workers would be more accurately characterised as modern slaves, having been trafficked or sold into prostitution against their will, sometimes from childhood; conservative measures suggest that one out of every seven women working as prostitutes in Europe are the victims of sex trafficking

But the rise of OnlyFans and similar digital platforms has made sex work easier and more accessible than ever – particularly for women from social backgrounds not usually associated with prostitution. The relative safety and hygiene provided by digital connection have meant that many new women and teenage girls have turned to sex work for additional income. Like many businesses, OnlyFans operates a referral scheme, meaning creators can earn additional income from encouraging their friends to become creators too.

OnlyFans doesn’t share user metrics, so most available stats on user and creator numbers are guesses. We do know that in February of this year, its website saw roughly a billion website visits:

Source: Statista

Whilst it’s not quite in Facebook territory, OnlyFans has been visited by the equivalent of 1 in 8 people worldwide (bearing in mind that most of its traffic will be from repeat visitors, and of course isn’t evenly distributed throughout the population). 

What proportion of men buy sex?

Just as it’s difficult to get accurate data on pornography usage, most people (overwhelmingly though not exclusively men) who frequent sex workers, whether physically or digitally, are reluctant to speak about it. Nonetheless, researchers who offer anonymity have been able to survey many, and some websites set up to facilitate information-sharing between customers serve as useful tools for profiling them.

One 2014 survey of 6,293 British men (aged 16-74) found that 11% – more than one in ten – of all men reported ever paying for sex. A majority (63%) of those who had paid for sex had done so outside the UK, primarily in Europe and Asia.

An Australian study (2004) found significantly higher numbers. Surveying 1,225 people (612 men), it found that 23.4% had paid for sex at least once.

In Sweden, which unlike the UK and US does not criminalise selling sex (but does criminalise those who buy it), a 2020 survey of 16 to 84-year-old men found that 9.5% reported having paid for sex. Other surveys in Nordic countries place the proportion of men who pay for sex at 12.9% (Norway) and 11-13% (Finland). Criminalising sex buyers appears to reduce their prevalence.

In the US, the figure is estimated at 16%.

What do we know about men who buy sex?

The Australian study above found that men who paid for sex weren’t especially different in demographic terms from those who hadn’t – except that they were likely to be older*, less educated, and less likely to have a regular sexual partner. These findings have been echoed in Sweden, although the study found that around 50% of buyers were both highly educated and married – much like many non-buyers.  Sex buyers were also more likely to be employed than non-buyers, and one qualitative study found that only a third (34%) of male sex buyers were single. The same appears true in early research on OnlyFans subscribers: the average user is a white, married male.

There are, however, differences. Demand for paid sex was higher amongst those who were dissatisfied with their sex life (or had less sex than they wanted), and men who were frequent users of pornography. Frequent pornography users were three times more likely to have paid for sex than other men.  

Sex buyers also change partners more frequently (which helps explain their association with public health risks) and are more likely to have experienced violent relationships – although we don’t know whether they were the perpetrator or victim of violence, or indeed both. Alcohol and drug use were also more common, as they are in men who use pornography frequently.

Above, we saw that only a minority of sex buyers are single. This is explained in part by partnered men seeking out sex workers to fulfil sexual desires that their partners are seen as being reluctant to accommodate – often because of their risk profile, physical pain, or associated humiliation. Sex buyers also report being embarrassed to ask partners for certain sex acts or the fulfilment of specific sexual fetishes. Others wish for greater sexual variety, specific physical attributes (including variation in age and ethnicity), the thrill of doing something illicit, and the feeling of dominance or control over the interaction.

Men who paid for sex overwhelmingly reported keeping their behaviour private – from their wives and sexual partners, but also from male friends, due to fear of a negative reaction. We don’t yet know if the same is true of those who frequent sex workers’ content online, although research is likely to run into the same obstacles faced by studies of paid sex. We look forward to seeing more data emerge in the coming years, and will be publishing more on this topic in the coming weeks.

*Increasing age increases the time in which men could have paid for sex, so it isn’t necessarily true that older men are more likely to pay for sex – only that they are more likely to have paid for sex in the past.

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