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Is Sex Work a Safe Way for Predatory Men to Work Through Their Fantasies?

Five experts weigh in

Ever since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, there’s been a fair amount of discussion — on this site included — about how the country’s unhealthy attitude toward sex contributes to a nation of sexual predators. But after Louis C.K.’s admission of guilt, a few people raised an even more pointed question: Would C.K. have felt the need to forcibly masturbate in front of his female colleagues if he’d been acting out these fantasies with a sex worker instead?

It’s not an exact 1:1 comparison, but some studies have shown that pedophiles have stopped molesting children when given software that allows them to act out their worst impulses on computer simulations rather than kids. Would something similar have sufficed for Weinstein? C.K.? Or as the above tweet suggests, did their fetish have nothing to do with being watched and everything to do with their hoping to humiliate and violate women in their peer groups?

For an expert opinion, we sought out Jim Pfaus, a neurobiologist at Concordia University in Montreal who studies the intersection of the brain and sexual behavior in rats and humans; Chris Donaghue, a doctor of clinical sexology and human sexuality and certified sex therapist; David Ley, a clinical psychologist and author of The Myth of Sex Addiction; Antonia Crane, a longtime stripper whose experiences as a sex worker are captured in her memoir, Spent; and porn star Kayden Kross.

Pfaus: Well, hiring a sex worker is one way to do it, though some men experience a thrill (meaning increased arousal) when they carry out the fetish on someone unsuspecting. Generally speaking, fetish behavior, which in this case verges on masturbatory exhibitionism, is hard to relinquish because sexual pleasure is related directly to the level of arousal.

Think about what happens when people in long-distance relationships finally are able to see one another, and the degree of arousal they have (and ruminate over for days in advance) that supports the level of pleasure they achieve. Or the kind of arousal that accompanies doing something “naughty” with a consenting sex partner.

Orgasms that ride on high arousal are felt as more pleasurable. That’s also, in part, what sustains the fetish behavior itself. Treatments exist (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy), but the outcomes are limited.

If they did it with a sex worker, she’d have to act surprised — while still being okay with it. Again, this is a bit like treating alcoholism with gin, but certainly something that could be considered. Finding a stable partner who enjoys watching him masturbate would be better, however.

Donaghue: The behavioral problem of these men is about a lack of impulse control when aroused, and also about the misuse of power and a lack of empathy. Powerful narcissistic men don’t take into account the impact of their behavior on others because they feel they’re above “the rules” and aren’t concerned with consent. Using a sex worker would only satisfy a man who has boundaries and impulse control, which these men appear to lack.

A sex worker would be able to provide consensual non-consent, but that still involves boundaries and care, which most of these men have shown they lack. They’re primarily raging sexists and misogynists who don’t care about the health or safety of women. And sex-worker use is all about safety and care. Sex work could involve power dynamics, but Hollywood’s perpetrators prefer to sexually assault and force themselves on women, negating any form of healthy consent.

Crane: Do I think seeing a sex worker can be a healthy choice? Absolutely. But in this context, it’s asking too much of sex workers to carry a huge burden we’re unqualified to carry.

That said, I think it’s a wonderful and healthy thing to explore losing power, particularly for men who have more than their fair share of it. I’m not saying a sexual predator or someone who jacks off in front of super fans will be cured or healed by hiring a pro domme, but maybe it would be a healthy thing for him to explore: to surrender control, to feel powerless.

So yes, I think it could help.

Treat, I don’t know.

Which brings me to sex addiction: a divisive and controversial topic. If sex addiction is a sickness (and not an excuse) then perhaps there’s a cure, right? But if men like Louis C.K. continue to see women as objects to use and discard for their pleasure and entertainment and get away with it, they won’t change. I don’t believe in witch hunts; I believe in reform. Give me a few unpaid hours with Louis C.K., and I’ll attempt to get him to hear me out and see our side. Afterward, let’s see if he’ll change his behavior. Either way, change comes from within — not necessarily from seeing a sex worker.

Ley: Research has shown that access to sex workers does decrease rates of sexual crimes. For many men, the ability to negotiate with a sexual professional to meet their needs does offer an opportunity to fulfill these desires in a way that doesn’t violate the rights of others.

However, for men with high levels of narcissism and sociopathy and low levels of empathy, this outlet might not be enough.

And so, the answer is that this isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all issue, and we have to evaluate each of these persons as individuals. Issues of power and control play heavily in the personalities of these people — not just when it comes to sex. If someone acts selfishly in other aspects of their lives, why are we surprised when they do so in sex and love?

Kross: Most fantasies can be filled to some extent by a sex worker willing to take on the job, but there’s a difference between having a fantasy fulfilled and curtailing issues with self-control and/or abuses of power. So I don’t think fulfilling a fantasy does anything to treat the underlying belief systems that lend to sexual harassment.