Who Pays for Sex?

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One study suggests the reality of paying for sex isn't far from TV's fantasy.

You know that scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts back to his hotel room and tries to persuade her to sleep with him for money? No, you don’t. Because that’s not what the movie’s really about, you guys. Julia Roberts is all like, “Well, don’t you want to have sex?” and Richard Gere is all like, “No, would you like a bathrobe? They’re very fuzzy.” 

But a recent study has determined something we all knew already: Richard Gere is not the archetype of his demographic. According to a recent study at the University of Portland, 14% of men in the United States have paid for sex at some point during their lives. But that’s not the important part. The important part (and the unsurprising part) is that the majority of men who paid for sex weren’t  mentally unstable horndogs with no control over their satanic penises, lurking in dark alleys with bags of cash. They were actually kinda boring.

The researchers found that men who paid for sex didn’t differ greatly economically or socially from the average American male. Demographics of men who were arrested for soliciting sex were pretty much exactly average, except they were slightly more likely to work full-time, slightly more likely to be sexually liberal and slightly less likely to be married.

However, the most “highly active” group of men paying for sex was comprised of men who weren’t arrested or who sought out sex on “prostitute review” websites. This group did deviate from the norm in that the majority were married white men with graduate degrees who earned more than $120,000 annually. So if paying for sex is just an occasional hobby for you, you’re probably pretty average. But if you do it a lot, and with very few consequences, you’re probably Don Draper. 

In Mad Men, prostitution is how they do business. It’s like, “Yeah, I can buy you a scotch on the rocks so you’ll work with our company, but the nightcap you really want is this struggling actress” (heavy winking).   Don Draper and Roger Sterling probably have well-worn address books full of prostitutes. When Pete Campbell can’t get what he wants from the women in his office or his wife, he turns to women whose only request is a look into his wallet.  When Lane Pryce is having marital issues, Don takes him out on the town in a bonding ritual that ends with two women and a wad of cash left on the kitchen counter. Prostitution becomes an expected part of business transactions, and when it doesn’t happen, bloated tycoons are left clawing at their steak and wondering why the ad team didn’t subsidize a different kind of good time. Accounts are lost when no one is picking up the sex tab. Last season, in “The Other Woman,” Joan trades sex for business. The head honcho of a major car company is willing to do business with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce if, and only if, Joan will sleep with him. Joan calls it “prostitution.” Pete calls it “business at a very high level.”  

If the researchers at the University of Portland had used the Mad Men characters as a sample, the percentage of men who had paid for sex would have been much higher than 14%. But there is that one crossover: the bit about the rich, white, married men and their propensity to use cash for sexual satisfaction. Now, let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with sex as a commodity (provided the sex is consensual and safe), nor do I think that every white man with an MBA and a thick wallet is spending his rainy day fund on a good fuck. It just seems worthwhile to note that, while many representations in the media are unbalanced and inaccurate, maybe the Mad Men sex world of the 1960s isn’t as far from today’s reality as it might present itself to be.

Season 6 premieres this Sunday, and we’ll once again be drawn into the glitzy, grimy, (gin-y?) world of ad sales and daytime drinking and Christina Hendricks envy. And there will be those fleeting sexual conquests, tangential to the storyline we’re invested in, who will disappear as soon Roger Sterling pays them, ignored in the episode recaps and weeded out of the commercials—but that doesn’t mean they didn't happen. Of course, Mad Men isn’t a documentary, but it sure as heck isn’t fantasy.