Why a "Brothel for Women" Is a Bad Business Model

A former New Zealand Member of Parliament is setting out on a new business venture that she feels will be very popular—a brothel for women. She has even done her "research" to see if demand exists for this service and found that over one-in-four women say they would hire a male sex worker. It is good to do market research, but there is good reason to believe that when it comes to selling sex to women, the numbers won’t add up.

It is men’s desire for variety in sexual partners and their willingness to engage in anonymous sex that fuels the world sex trade. The reason a market for sex exists in the first place is that women have to be paid to have sex with strangers. Men don’t have to be paid to have sex with strangers and, even if they did, most women would be unlikely to pay for their services.

If you doubt me, I propose you undertake the following study. Go and ask your friends, co-workers and random people you meet on the metro the following question: Ideally, how many sexual partners would you like to have over the next two years? I can tell you now; the men will report a desire to have far more partners than will the women. When these studies have been done in the past women report, on average, that they would like one sexual partner over the next two years compared to men who report, on average, that they would like to have eight. Women do not share men's love of variety in sexual partners.

Or, ask this question instead: What is the minimum amount of time you would need to know someone before you wanted to have sex with them? I am going to guess that few women will say five minutes but many men will have no trouble with that time-frame. When these questions have been asked in the past, many women have said that six months is too soon.

The best study that I know that examines the willingness of men and women to engaged in sex with strangers was done on university campuses the late 1970s, and again it the early 1980s.* It may seem that a study done so long ago is irrelevant to today, but in fact the timing was perfect. At this time the sexual revolution was in full swing, but lovers were still blissfully unaware that right around the corner was a new disease (AIDS) that was about to change the way we think about casual sex. New rules prevent us from randomly experimenting on university students, so we couldn’t even begin to replicate this study today.

During the course of the study, a moderately attractive man/women walked up to a woman/man on a university campus and said “I have been noticing you around campus, I find you very attractive. Would you...” and then offered the unknowing participant one of three options: Have dinner with me tonight; come to my apartment tonight; go to be bed with me tonight. Both the target men and women must have found the person attractive since more than 50% of each group said “yes” to dinner (56% of women and 50% of men). The interesting result, though, is that as the offers became more sexual the men increased, while the women decreased, their willingness to participate. Remarkably, 50% more men were willing to have sex with the random stranger than were willing to have dinner with her. In response to the question "Would you go to bed with me tonight?" men responded: "Why do we have to wait until tonight?" or "I can’t tonight but tomorrow would be fine." Even those who said "no" (only 25% of the sample) expressed regret at having to do so. None of the women in the sample agreed to have sex with the handsome random stranger. Not one. Women responded to the offer with comments like "What's wrong with you? Leave me alone!"

It isn’t true that no women like sex with strangers—just like it isn’t true that all men do—but it is unlikely enough there are enough women wanting anonymous sex to make beefcake-for-hire a profitable business venture. In order to believe the one-in-four statistic collected in New Zealand you would have to not only believe that women want sex with a stranger as much as men—you would have to believe they want it more. In the developed world, including New Zealand, about one-in-five men will have sex with a prostitute in their lifetime. Female demand is likely to be a small fraction of that number. After all, if women turn down offers of free sex, what reason do we have to believe they are willing to pay for it?

Demand aside, you really need to wonder about the supply-side in this female brothel model: Are men really willing to pay a Madame to work in a brothel? Many brothels take 50% of a sex workers income but provide security and a stream of clients in return. Most male sex workers can advertise online or work out of a bar and travel safely to the home of their clients, especially in an environment where sex work is not a criminal act. I would be very interested to see what share of the take a man would have to be offered to encourage him to work in a brothel—not 50%, surely. Probably significantly less.

All of this makes me think that a brothel for women is not a viable business model. I will give them credit though; it should be a fun experiment.

*  Clark, Russell and Elaine Hatfield (1989). "Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers." Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality Vol. 2(1): pp 39-48.

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