Prostitution is sometimes referred to as “the world’s oldest profession” because the sale of sex can be traced back to almost all cultures and societies in recorded history. However, the results of several recent surveys have led some to wonder whether prostitution is becoming a thing of the past because fewer and fewer people are reporting experience buying and selling sex.
Consider that data from the 1940s suggested that purchasing sex was a normative behavior among men. Specifically, Alfred Kinsey’s famous studies of human sexual behavior revealed that 69% of the men he surveyed had bought sex at least once ! Needless to say, this statistic was shocking to many people at the time; however, this number may not be accurate because we know that Kinsey did not recruit a sample that was representative of the population. That said, it does tell us that, at least among men who were willing to participate in sex research in Kinsey’s era, buying sex was a very common experience. In some ways, this isn’t particularly surprising, given that sex was difficult to come by in those days due to social, moral, and legal prohibitions that largely confined sexual activity to heterosexual intercourse within marriage.
However, as restrictions on sexual activity have loosened and attitudes toward sex outside of marriage have liberalized, we have seen a corresponding decrease in the number of men saying they have paid for sex. For example, a nationally representative U.S. sex survey from the early 1990s found that 16% of men reported having visited a prostitute at least once in their lifetime . A number of other sex surveys in the 90s yielded similar statistics.
In the past decade, results from the General Social Survey suggest that the numbers have declined even further, to 13.2% in 2006 and 9.1% in 2012 . As additional evidence that trends in purchasing sex are changing with each successive generation, the percentage who reported having ever paid for sex is even lower among younger guys than it is among older guys.
How do we explain these shifts? As mentioned above, part of the story is likely attributable to shifts in social norms, not to mention the repeal of laws that criminalized premarital sex and cohabitation (yes, those things used to be against the law just a few decades ago—in fact, although rarely enforced, such laws are still technically on the books in some states!). However, another part of the story likely has to do with the ease with which we can now facilitate casual sexual encounters. With the touch of a button on our computers and smartphones, we can easily find other nearby people who are ready to have sex without any exchange of money required. Thus, there may just not be as much need for purchasing sex now that it has become easier to find for free. Of course, we shouldn't discount the effect of the recent economic recession either, because the reality is that there is now less disposable income available for sex, among other things.
Will prostitution ever disappear completely? That’s not likely. Even though sex today is more freely available than in the past, there are some folks who simply prefer sex with prostitutes to traditional relationships. For example, some may enjoy the lack of commitment and the fact that there are no expectations afterward (aside from settling the tab). Thus, while the sale of sex appears to be on the decline, the world’s oldest profession will probably never become obsolete.
 Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W.B., & Martin, C.E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: Saunders.
 Laumann, E.O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Reyes, E.A. (2013). Fewer men are paying for sex, survey suggests. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-paying-for-sex-20131102,0,796675.story#axzz2jb2YDmcA
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