The Hiding Men in Prostitution

Men as prostitution clients have been provided with an opportunity to remain faceless and anonymous while it has been a female prostitute, or rather, an image of her that has been the figurehead of prostitution business. This representation, built upon gendered and often ethnisized stereotypes, has also had an impact on public perception and awareness of prostitution and trafficking. Here invisibility reflects a position of power.

Along with globalization processes, the international sex trade has seen changes towards the expansion of worldwide markets. This has been accompanied by a growing dominance of marketing ideologies and neoliberalism within transnational, global and regional sex industry. This tendency is recognizable also in the practices and views presented by the clients of the markets. This article focuses on white, heterosexual, mainly middle-class men who are or have been prostitution clients and/or sex tourists at some point in their life. The objective is to shortly map the client position within the contemporary, transnational sex market. The article is based on 27 texts from Finnish male prostitution clients as well as personal telephone and e-mail interviews with them. Additionally, short diaries from three female prostitutes and observation of Finnish and international webforums have been used as a supporting material.

Sex tourism connected to “consumer tourism”

Continuous movement over the borders by prostitutes, their clients, and so called third parties (procurers and other organizers) is characteristic to the present sex trade. For example, for the past ten or so years many Finnish prostitution clients have considered the Baltic countries and North-west Russia a sexual haven. This has been enhanced by the representations of Baltic and Russian prostitutes as “more sexual, feminine and skillful” than their Finnish counterparts (and women in general). This globalization of sex trade highlights the need for research on the very transnationality of the industry as well as on racism and intersections of sexuality and ethnicity within the field.

Finnish sex tourism to Tallinn is partly connected to a larger Finnish “consumer tourism” to Estonia and Russia. During the early 1990s it was mainly liquor and cigarettes that attracted Finnish consumers to the Estonian and Russian markets but nowadays it is all kinds of “goods” from sex to eyeglasses. This brings forth the fact that the simple definitions as prostitution client, sex tourist etc. are not functional as such: different identities, practices and spheres of life are connected within the global sex market. From a different angle, a sex tourist or a prostitution client is a husband and a father of three on a weekend trip, or a single, successful manager on leisure-time with his overseas partners. Essential is the fluidity of identities, the men cannot be perceived primarily as prostitution clients (nor as fathers or business men) but they hold a range of discursive identifications.

Faceless and anonymous men

The prostitution practices and the experience of a commercial sexual encounter may vary according to when, where and from whom sex is purchased. Therefore I call for research on prostitution clients and sex tourists as men, as gendered beings, with a special emphasis on the intersecting of gender with other social divisions, as, for example, ethnicity or race. In other words, the aim should be to bring forth the taken-for-grantedness of men’s position as neutral representatives of universal human subjectivity and to critically address men as prostitution clients with a particular focus on gendered power relations.

I have become well aware of the significance of invisibility and anonymity for the agents in prostitution after having interviewed prostitution clients in cafés in central Helsinki, trying to keep one’s voice down – especially on words like sex and prostitute – and having moved from a too crowded café to a more quiet one during one two-hour interview. However, in this respect actors in prostitution are differently positioned. For example in street prostitution invisibility has not been a privilege enjoyed by all: it has been a customary tradition that a prostitute is the carrier of the distinguishing characteristics of the trade (Keeler & Jyrkinen 1999, 6). This practice has enabled the customers to find the sellers.

Men as clients have been provided with an opportunity to remain faceless and anonymous while it has been a female prostitute, or rather, an image of her that has been the figurehead of prostitution business. This representation, built upon gendered and often ethnisized stereotypes (Stenvoll 2002), has also had an impact on public perception and awareness on prostitution and trafficking in a sense that prostitutes and/or trafficked women are often perceived as illegal immigrants and criminals rather than victims or women trying to earn a living. Considering the gendered practices and representations of prostitution in addition to the social stigma linked to the phenomenon, it becomes obvious that here invisibility reflects, or rather is as much as, a position of power.

Desiring the “Other”

The intersection of public and private is characteristic of the whole sex business considering, for example, the immensity of the industry in relation to its hiding customers. In order to develop any understanding of the industry, we must problematize the traditional public/private dichotomy and analyse the sex trade as an extremely complex and multidimensional issue. Not only is there a local and global socio-economic framework that creates favourable conditions for the industry, it also bears a number of culturally and historically constructed, gendered and ethnicized popular myths and media representations (Stenvoll 2002). Not to mention the ideological and political twist as to the ways of controlling the trade.

Sex industry as a whole and prostitution in particular can be seen as an ethnospace where millions of western sex tourists travel every year attracted by the ethnisized and sexualized stereotypes of ‘exotic’ women. On one hand, racism is an integral part of sex business but on the other, it is indeed the difference and exoticism that attract the prostitution clients to the prostitution markets in the “East”. The line between xenophobia and xenophilia thus seems to be vague in the minds of the prostitution clients: difference both builds boundaries and makes one cross them.

Prostitution can also be seen as a highly heterosexual space, highlighting certain kind of homosocial practices, independent of the requirements of gender equality, a space where hegemony of men still persists. From the viewpoint of the clients, prostitution spaces can hence be seen as specialized spaces where arrivals or transits can project alternative worlds (Berlant & Warner 2000, 318). Many of the prostitution clients have brought out the importance of fantasy in prostitution. Some of them have described their sex tours abroad as “travelling to a different reality”.

It is well known that while some social characteristics empower, others subordinate. However, these privileges and disadvantages are not, as presented by Ruth Frankenberg (1993, 236-237), in any way transhistorical but change over time and place. With a potential risk of overgeneralization, I am, however, tempted to argue that, as whiteness in Frankenberg’s argumentation, also maleness “signals the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality, and privilege rather than disadvantage”. Patricia Hill Collins (1990, 226) has named the global system that victimizes “the non-wealthy, non-heterosexual, non-white, non-male, non-Christian” as the matrix of domination. This matrix involves mutually constructing variables that intersect in a way that creates social hierarchies. According to Frankenberg (1993, 237), the coconstruction of gender and whiteness is often visible in the arena of interracial sexuality and relationships.

Prostitute as a social category

Within prostitution contexts, there is an additional dividing category: prostitute as a social category. This becomes evident in sextales of the prostitution clients. The remark “I definitely wanted to know what it would feel like” is often added by the men to more practical motives for buying sex. For many of them, it is indeed the representation of “the dirty whore” which makes the paid sexual encounter special and different from other sexual ties.

For “Jussi”, a 30-year-old Finnish man and a regular prostitution client, the main attraction in paid sexual encounters was the feeling of forbiddenness and dirtiness. Hence, it is evident that the sexual debasement of a prostitute is sexually exciting for him (see also O’Connell Davidson 1998, 140-148). “Jussi” told that the feeling gave him a sense of power and superiority in relation to a prostitute. He also emphasized that this had always happened on a “fantasy” level and never had involved any sadistic or violent manifestations. Following Rey Chow (2000, 510), this can be described as the excitement of subaltern-representation. In other words, the excitement depends on an objectification and specularization of the “other” – it can be seen as the sexualization of the subordination. It seems as if it is the very lack that produces the attractiveness of the ‘other’.

The mental association of a “whore” as a timeless-like, social class or type might offer a way to see deeper into some of the clients’ inability to see prostitutes as individuals. “Katja”, a Finnish prostitute having worked both in Finland and in Estonia, told about a 28-year-old male athlete, who came to her in order to see what it would be like to have sex with “a paid woman”. After sex he had commented that it did not differ from sex with his wife.

Transnational Hegemony of Men?

Keeping in mind “Jussi’s” comment on feeling of superiority in the prostitution encounter, it is not difficult to concur with O’Connell Davidson’s argument on “the moral philosophy” of these men. According to her, it “reveals something of the whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality of classical liberalism’s sovereign self and the tensions generated by its partial and exclusive universalism” (O’Connell Davidson 1998, 129137). Connell (2004, 72-74) for his part has called attention to the gender-neutral language of the neoliberal agenda, which speaks of “markets”, “individuals” and “choice” as if neoliberalism would not have an implicit gender politics.

Connell also argues that the “individual” of the neoliberal theory has the attributes and interests of a male entrepreneur. This is due to the theory actually enhancing the kind of world order, which, through transnational corporations, places the increasingly unregulated power in the hands of few groups of men. Accordingly, Connell names this hegemonic masculinity as transnational business masculinity.

The transnational business masculinity as presented by Connell, is, in my opinion, mainly valid on representational level (Connell emphasizes the character being mainly traceable to management literature, business journalism, corporate self-promotion etc.). Interestingly however, the characteristics of this more or less abstract representation are rather well in line with the views presented by many of my interviewees, especially the ones who concentrate their regular visits to prostitutes on business or tourist trips. Indeed, it is, for example well known that in many parts of the world there is a well-developed sex industry working in close association with hotels catering for international businessmen.

Interconnecting the personal and the public

From the viewpoint of international relations theory the individual agency and experience have largely remained problematic. However, as Youngs, Jones and Pettman (1999, 2-6) argue, intensifying globalization and and the extent to which all aspects of women’s lives and gender relations are now affected by the “international” call for, on one hand “critical and exploratory focus” on “the international” and recognition of the interaction of global, regional and local processes on the other. The aim of feminist international relations theory should be the problematization of public/private dynamics: “the patterns and practices of power that interconnect what happens within the boundaries of “the home”, “the personal”, “the intimate” and what happens within the boundaries of decision-making spheres of so-called public action” (1999, 5).

Drawing on Youngs et all, I suggest that “the ethnographic moment” (Connell 2004, 71) in discussions of men and masculinities need not be passed and do not have to mean restraining to the local. Instead, ethnographic research can challenge the ways of analysing and interpreting larger, global processes and power dynamics that cross both collective and individual spheres (see also Penttinen 2004). In this article I have wanted to argue that the practices and views of prostitution clients can reveal something about the gendered processes, structures and power dynamics of transnational sex trade. As Connell (2004, 73), I believe that globalization processes have created a “new space and arena” for global sex trade beyond state borders.

Critically studying men as prostitution clients

Setting the focus on men involves, however, a risk of “reaffirmation of men and men’s power” (Hearn 1998, 782) at the expense of women. In spite of the visibility of the prostitutes, or to be more specific, the visibility of the representation of them, the voices of the women are very much unheard in public discussions on prostitution. Therefore, the aim in research on men in prostitution must be in problematization of men and men’s power within prostitution contexts. This means decentering of the normative, masculine subject by positioning men as bearers of gender, sexuality, race, class etc and placing them within a larger socio-economic framework, which creates and enables a working environment for the sex industry. Feminist standpoint for research in this case does not mean making the clients’ “voices heard” in an empowering way. On the contrary, an effort is made toward attaining knowledge in the ways male clients – as individuals as well as in group – perceive the prostitution encounter and how they are situated in transnational sex trade. Essential is the critical perspective on men as prostitution clients and sex tourists.


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First published in NIKK magasin 1 2005 © NIKK

By Anne-Maria Marttila

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