On the Frontline: Men in control and vulnerable women? Studying male and female prostitution in Denmark

On the Frontline: Men in control and vulnerable women? Studying male and female prostitution in Denmark

Theresa Dyrvig Henriksen and Margaretha Järvinen

In Denmark selling and buying sex is legal. Procuring or inducing others to sell sex is illegal, as is buying sex from persons under the age of 18. Although the current legislation regarding prostitution dates back to 1999, prostitution still occupies a contentious position in Danish society. It is a legal way to earn money and earnings are taxable, but selling sex is not widely accepted as a profession and sex sellers are not entitled to many employee rights such as unemployment benefits or holiday pay.

Selling sex involves risks, as attested to by many studies. Thus, understanding how to maintain control in such situations so that all parties involved remain as ‘safe’ as possible is critical.  Today’s ethics of commercial sex dictate that prostitution should be associated with freedom and choice and not with subordination of sellers to buyers or with exploitation (economically or otherwise) by third parties.

In our qualitative study we compared male (n=18) and female (n=18) sex sellers and their narratives about intimacy and control in prostitution. All interviewees worked in indoor prostitution (escort, clinics, private). Female sex sellers were involved in heterosexual commercial relationships whereas most of the men sold sex to other men. Comparisons of men and women in prostitution are rare in international research. Nevertheless, studies tend to portray male sex sellers as more agentic and independent than female sex sellers who are typically depicted as vulnerable and exploited. Our research contributes to the very sparse tradition of research including men and women in the same study.

Looking across all 36 interviews, principles of freedom and choice in prostitution were stressed by the majority of both male and female sex sellers typically exemplified by the ability to leave prostitution when you like, with the right to choose which customers to serve and which services to provide. To a very high degree, control in prostitution was a question of how to control intimacy. In the interviews, we identified two, seemingly contradictory, strategies for seeking to control intimacy: to insist on sexual reciprocity in the meetings with customers; another was to keep a professional distance to them, avoiding sexual/emotional involvement.

For the male and female sex sellers applying the strategy of sexual reciprocity, prostitution was restricted to encounters with as much sexual pleasure as possible. They attempted to ensure this by avoiding “unattractive” customers (defined by e.g. age, appearance and manners) and by not agreeing to services that transgressed their own boundaries. Although female sex sellers in general described experiencing less sexual reciprocity than male sex sellers, many of our female study participants describes instances of sexual pleasure from prostitution. That being said, many sex sellers (men as well as women) also used the ideal of sexual reciprocity as a commercial strategy because mutual pleasure was what the customers wanted from the encounters. Furthermore, some interviewees sold ‘boyfriend’/’girlfriend’ experiences simulating personal and emotional involvement with customers. They also described how some customers mistook the intimacy of the encounters for affectionate involvement, and how this felt like an invasion of the sex sellers’ privacy.

The other strategy for maintaining control in their professional lives was to steer clear of any sexual and emotional involvement with their customers. Core to this strategy was to maintain a professional distance and to keep an ‘eye on the prize’. The male and female sex sellers applying this strategy explained that a high degree of control was obtained by being able to choose clients and, by setting up clear rules for what they were willing to do. For instance, some interviewees said they did not want paid sex to be reminiscent of love relations and for this reason prohibited certain acts (such as kissing and cuddling or any personal talk) while others ridiculed their customers for believing that prostitution could possibly be sexually rewarding for sex sellers: “Some men think we enjoy this, and especially being with them because they are such great lovers. Well, let them believe it. It’s the illusion they pay for” (quote from interview with female sex seller).

Yet there was not always a match between the ideals of control and the more detailed accounts of individual experiences provided in the interviews. Several interviewees described that these rules were flexible ‘especially if they [customers] pay a little extra’ (quote from male sex seller who otherwise said he always followed the principle of sexual reciprocity) or if the customers were “regulars or attractive and likeable men” (female interviewee who otherwise stuck to the principle of professional distance).

Although we found differences in control strategies between male and female interviewees, the intra-group differences (i.e. within the groups of women and within the group of men) were in fact bigger. Often it was more a question of how many customers you sold sex to, how long you had been active in prostitution and your life situation in general (most importantly, if you were in a steady relationship or not) than it was a question of gender differences. Contrary to claims in previous research, we did not find that women in prostitution had greater difficulties in upholding control – or in general were more vulnerable and exploited – than their male counterparts.

Following the criminalization of buying sex in Sweden in 1999 and in Norway in 2009, there have been intensive national debates about whether or not Denmark should follow suit and adopt this so-called ‘Nordic Model’, as has been done in Northern Ireland and France for instance. However, the current official position in Denmark is that prostitution should be regarded as a ‘social problem’ more than a ‘legal problem’. Hence, prostitution is described as associated with physical, mental and social risks and Danish policies in recent years have focused on supporting sex sellers to pursue a better life and enabling them to stop selling sexual services. By and large, this ‘social problem’ approach to prostitution is targeted at women selling sex. Reports show that welfare services primarily succeed in reaching female sex sellers and that contact with male sex sellers are limited or non-existent. As such, it is primarily women who participate in “exit programmes” for sex sellers in Denmark and who are imagined to be victims of exploitative relationships and ‘damaged’ subjects (through the act of prostitution and/or their life circumstances in general).

These gendered aspects of the Danish approach to prostitution are also reflected in our interviews where women were far more focused on the stigma associated with prostitution than men were. Without being asked about this, several women mentioned spontaneously that they were not ‘exploited’ by others (customers, pimps, brothel keepers), that they did not have social or mental health problems, and that they did not come from dysfunctional homes. They actively sought to defend themselves against prevailing conceptions of female sex sellers being people ‘in trouble’ and hence, potential candidates for social interventions. In contrast, few men expressed such concerns. Male interviewees seemed to feel that the ‘social problem’ approach to sex selling had nothing to do with them and they showed little interest in prostitution policies or social interventions in sex selling – although a few said that (female) street walkers may ‘need help’.

Stories serve as transmitters for culture. The cultural image reflected in our interviews was first and foremost the ideal that if you are a sex seller (which you preferably should not be in the first place), you need to be a person in control – otherwise, you are a victim or a social welfare client. It is no coincidence that our female interviewees were especially preoccupied with this. For decades, researchers (among them feminist researchers) and the public debate have focused on the harm done to women in prostitution, while men selling sex have received far less attention. In our study there was a small group of interviewees who described experiencing severe difficulties, some of them related to prostitution (e.g. violence from customers, acceptance of unwanted sexual services for less and less money, sexually transmitted infections), other problems related to their personal and social situation in general (drug use, mental health problems, homelessness). Such experiences of loss-of-control were found among both men and women. Although this group of interviewees could have benefited from social and health services support, it seemed to us that it was easier for the women than for the men to seek and receive assistance. In this sense, the relative invisibility of male sex sellers may be related to positive aspects (less stigmatization and unwanted interventions) as well as negative aspects (lack of access to support when needed). Stereotypical gendered visions of male sex sellers as agentic and female sex sellers as victims obscure a nuanced understanding of contemporary commercial sex working conditions for sex sellers. Recently the Danish government has started to look into how to improve these conditions. The first step has been to establish a working group comprised of eight ministries with the purpose of evaluating current legislation and proposing recommendations on how to better balance the rights and responsibilities of sex sellers. There appear to be no simple solutions, and in Denmark the question of whether to criminalize customers or whether to fully legitimate sex selling as a form of gainful employment still remains unsolved.


Theresa Dyrvig Henriksen is PhD fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and at VIVE – The Danish Center for Social Science Research. Her research primarily concerns vulnerable adults and marginalized groups e.g. sex sellers and homeless people Margaretha Järvinen is professor in sociology at University of Copenhagen. She has for many years worked with research on marginalized groups in society: people with alcohol and drug problems, homeless people, women and men in prostitution.

Image: Purchased from Colourbox