Sex can be sold, but intimacy cannot be bought

The most popular service in brothels is called the “Girlfriend Experience.”
The most popular service in brothels is called the “Girlfriend Experience.”
Image: Reuters/Adam Tanner
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I have met more than my share of lonely people. That’s what happens when you spend time in brothels. (As a journalist.)

Many of the sex workers aren’t lonely, since most of them have families and partners. Lonely is what describes many of the customers, even some of the married ones. The ones I have met are mostly men incapable of intimacy and connection, either because of a mental disability, or just deep insecurity and fear of rejection. I expected to dislike them, but mostly I felt pity. They badly want, and need, to connect with another person, but are incapable of being in an intimate relationship.

People buy sex for many different reasons. People who haven’t seen the industry up close misunderstand this transaction. They see sex as a commodity and assume customers seek out the physicality of the act, a forum to act out dark fantasies, or just exercise their power. But many sex transactions are mostly about intimacy.

Ross Douthat and Amia Srinivasan both recently wrote about the people—mostly men—who are “involuntary celibate” and, sometimes, driven to violence. Remove the violent and sadistic aspects of this—probably the cause, not the effect, of the men’s sexless loneliness—and many members of this community sound similar to brothel customers I’ve encountered. They both lack affection in their daily lives; brothel customers have found a way to get it.

Douthat and Srinivasan each ponder whether people are entitled to sex, even if no one wants to have it with them. Douthat attributes the increase in the anxious, sexless population to decaying morals and inequality. It is not obvious the sexually frustrated population has grown in recent decades, though perhaps loneliness is on the rise as a result of technology. But there has always been a lonely population starved for affection, that’s why prostitution has such a long history. Alex Tabarrok points out that several European countries have programs to provide subsidies for severely disabled people to see sex workers.

The right to sex

Whether anyone is entitled to anything is a question best left to philosophers and pundits. I am an economist, so the questions I can answer are about why certain markets exist and what prices tell us about the goods sold in them. If a service is not freely available and people want it, a market for it will appear. The way that market functions gives us insight into what people desire. The fact the market for sex exists demonstrates that there is, and has always been, a population that lacks sex and intimate connection in their personal lives. But what’s missing from the debate about sex redistribution and the “right to sex” is an understanding of what these transactions are really about.

I’ve made three trips to various Nevada brothels, and interviewed dozens of women who work as escorts. It seems to me the market is not selling sex, but offering affection and intimacy. The most popular service is called the “Girlfriend Experience,” and it’s so common that people in the industry refer to it by its acronym, GFE. It includes, kissing, cuddling, talking, and going to dinner. GFE offers the intimacy of a relationship, with some extra benefits. The customers don’t have to fear rejection, they can rely on someone tending to their emotional needs, and don’t have to be mindful about the needs of their partners. The sex worker never talks about her sick child, concerns about money, or complains about brothel politics.

I observed in the brothel a booming market for intimacy that commands a large premium over sex. GFE is the most popular service offered by sex workers. It costs more than straight sex because it is in bigger demand and it is more demanding for the provider, in terms of mental energy. Middle-age women tend to be the highest earners for the service (and the brothel overall), because they are better at connecting with their customers and are more attuned to their emotional needs.

Intimacy and authenticity

Of course, this affection is not genuine. If it were, the customer wouldn’t need to buy it. Selling intimacy is a unique proposition. Most goods and services don’t change depending on whether they are given for free or sold for money. A book it is still a book whether or not you get it as a gift or buy it in a store. But intimacy is different: It is only authentic when given freely.

Intimacy serves a function when sold, but it rarely replaces what a customer is looking for. Some sex workers were proud to tell me that their customers, bolstered with confidence from their brothel experiences, went on to have meaningful relationships out in the real world.

But most of the time, this is not the case. Sex serves a need, and can be sold to satisfy that need. But the underlying loneliness craves intimacy, and that cannot be bought. The debate about the “right to sex” misses the point. How can society, or the market, provide the lonely with affection and love?