“Have you ever been with a prostitute?"
The question comes out of the blue. I’m at an exclusive restaurant with two close friends, B and S - both middle aged, well off and working for top companies in the corporate sector.
B takes a sip of sherry, then says, “I had an affair, not so long ago”.
I look at him. I’ve known these guys for ten years.
B shrugs his shoulders. His wife, he says, simply lost interest in sex.
After several years of rejection in the bedroom he simply gave up trying.
“I was thinking that perhaps I was a poor performer ... or that I was just not attractive any more. Or that it was menopause. We talked about it. She said in time things would change. But they didn't.”He and his wife stopped simple acts of affection - holding hands, kissing. B resigned himself to marriage without sex.
The affair lasted nine months. It was a reawakening, a rekindling of forgotten or suppressed feelings, a boost to his self esteem and much needed physical affection.
In the wake of the affair B said he began regular visits to prostitutes. He answered ads in the Herald and online. And he had sex following on from a massage.
“If you’re looking for affection, how can you expect to find that with a prostitute?” I wanted to know.
“You can, indeed,” B asserted. “With one of them I’ve been seeing for a while, a lot of the time all we do is kiss”.
“Does your wife know?”
“No, of course not. I love my wife. We are great companions. But this sort of thing would threaten the relationship. I have no regrets, though. I wouldn’t change things for a minute”.
S leans in. After a pause he quietly announces that he too sleeps with prostitutes – and has done so for 20 years. It started soon after he got married.
“For me it’s just enjoyable sex. I’m not looking for affection. I prefer to get that in other ways than in the bedroom. And I like variety.”
Sex without love?
I knock on the door of a 14th-floor inner city apartment. It is answered by P, a 30-something sex worker for the last eight years and one of the women S has been sleeping with for five years. She leads me into the bedroom, pressing her finger to her lips. Her colleague has a client in the next room.
I look out for a moment over the stunning harbour view. P is lounging on the bed.
“It’s just a straight transaction,” she says. “No emotional ties. $200 gets you an hour. Extras cost more. Kissing is an additional $50. Anal, an extra $100.”
P earns at least $1,200 a week and doesn’t work nights. That's 520 hours of love-free sex a year.
Sex with love is perhaps desirable but certainly not a prerequisite for gratifying sex, writes Dr Albert Ellis (ranked the second most important contributor in the field of psychology by members of the American Psychological Association) in his book “Sex Without Guilt in the 21st Century”.
“Since sex is a biological as well as social drive, and in its biological element is essentially non-affectional, we can expect that however we try to civilise the sex drives ... there will always be an underlying tendency ... to escape from our social shackles and to be still partly felt in the raw.”
An increasing number of men are seeking sexual gratification outside the arena of their long-term relationships. It's not who’s doing it, my corporate friends inform me, it's who’s not doing it.
P's customers range in years from 18 to an 83-year-old who apparently performed very plausibly. Students, trades people, corporates on six-figure incomes and gang members. An estimated 50% of her clients are middle-aged married corporates. Business is booming.
Ellis: “The steady maintenance of prostitution and semi prostitution throughout the world and its legalization in many cities has proven that millions of males can hardly be kept from patronizing prostitutes and in spite of its risks and drawbacks will continue to do so.”
I Skyped Mary Hodson, a sex therapist from Sex Therapy New Zealand.
The largest percentage of the clinic’s clients range between 30 and 50 years old, with the majority married corporates. The men who come to see her, Hodson tells me, have a sexual addiction.
“I’m using that word loosely,” she informs me, “because in the medical and psychological world you don’t call it an addiction because at this point in time, nobody has proven a chemical addiction there. We call it ‘out of control sexual behaviour’.”
“I meet a lot of people in the IT industry who I consider are on the edge of 'out of control sexual behaviour,” continues Mary. “They work long hours, into the night and in the early hours. Paying for sex is kind of a reward for working hard.”
Research that Sex Therapy New Zealand has been involved in has tended to show that the drivers are usually stress, boredom and unstructured time.
P responds to my question about addiction without hesitation. “There are plenty of men who are addicted to sex. They tend to be more controlling. I know of one in particular that has ruined all of his relationships. He lost his family. But he keeps going. He is almost bankrupt.”
Hodson says that although there is no conclusive research on the matter, her experience seems to point to a progression of behaviours which lead towards out of control sexual behaviour.
“People might start viewing pictures on the Internet, then moving to light porn, then progressively, in a quest for more stimulation, end up in the bedroom of a prostitute.”
“When does a sexual behaviour become out of control?” I ask Mary.
“It depends on how much that behaviour is intruding on and creating problems within their work, relationship or some other sphere.”
Does this mean that every man who sleeps with a prostitute is displaying out of control behaviour?
“No. Definitely not. There are some cultures where it's considered perfectly normal...there will be men who will see a prostitute and its got nothing to do with a sexual addicition. The real question is whether it's sexually and emotionally healthy for all the parties concerned.”
Dr Ellis goes further, stating that he cannot see why society should not engage in polyamory – more than one loving (and sexual) relationship at one time. Why not, he argues, when the use of modern contraceptives can prevent both infections and unwanted pregnancies, and where there is an opportunity for reasonably well informed people to engage in meaningful, loving and rewarding extra-marital relations?
Further, he says that extra-marital relations can sustain and even enhance one’s marriage.
I wanted to know from Mary if she would consider it reasonable if a well adjusted couple had an agreement that each could have intimate relations with another party.
“Speaking on behalf of the company, it is very much an individual thing and even within our own company, therapists will have their own views. The policy of this company is not to judge people at all and to try and get across the messages of being safe, emotionally and sexually and being able to talk … being able to make decisions without undue influence.”
This has shades of Ira L. Reiss, a graduate in sociology from Syracuse University and a major figure in the social science study of human sexuality. Reiss believes that what is required today is a new set of sexual ethics, which he defined in his Sexual Pluralism Theory. It goes like this. In a shift away from a traditional Victorian approach centering on abstinence - which he considers as narrow, restrictive and fearful (and also the cause of many of our major sexual problems) - he developed a new sexual ethic which guides a wider variety of gratifying sexual behaviours. He called the ethic HER (Honesty, Equality and Responsibility). Honesty was defined as sharing with partners what their clear expectations were, Equality meant that the wishes of both people would carry equal weight and Responsibility would mean that people would strive to avoid negative outcomes, on, say, health or emotion.
Reiss did not mean that everyone had a clear path to any kind of sexual behaviour, but it does open the way to put behaviours such as extra-marital relations onto the negotiating table.
I asked Hodson what she thought about monogamy. “It’s probably very much based on our social conditioning and religion. Very much so. I don’t think anybody should be forced to abandon their own belief system about things like this but we should open our minds and consider things … definitely.”
On the 25th May, 1895, Oscar Wilde told the court of “the love that dare not speak its name”. He was referring to “such a great affection of an elder for a younger man” and on this basis he was charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 – i.e. homosexual behaviour – and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.
In August of 2012, New Zealand Labour MP Louisa Wall’s Marriage Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament with 78 in favour and 40 against. Wall said that it was a step closer to the legal recognition that loving couples, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, should be able to marry.
In October 2007 the Sydney Morning Herald published the following findings according to a survey by condom maker Durex. On average, New Zealand women will have 20.4 sexual partners (the most promiscuous women in the world) and will lose their virginity by the time they are 17.8 years of age. Some might question the veracity of the survey but few would debate that having multiple sexual partners has grown in popularity and become the dominant behaviour of young people today.
The sexual revolution has seen pre-marital sex become the cultural norm. Dr Ellis believes that many of the old grounds for opposing adultery are as senseless in today’s world as the grounds for challenging pre-marital sex.
Were this an ideal society, Ellis argues, we would all, as we feel appropriate – and abiding by the aforementioned HER ethics - enter into extra-marital relations, or, indeed, any other relationship that brings us fulfilment.
Despite the rights or wrongs, society, Ellis asserts, raises individuals to expect sex satisfaction only from their long-term partners, and to feel that their marriages are in jeopardy when a partner has an affair. People in today’s society believe affairs wreck marriages.
“I don’t care what society thinks of me” my friend B says, “but I do care what my family thinks.”
So my corporate friends breach the first of the Reiss sexual ethics. Honesty.
“Partners lie to each other all the time,” says sex worker T, slowly shaking her head. She has come to my downtown office for an interview. Tall and elegant with a long length of blonde hair, T. has been in the business around seven years. Prior to our meeting she had written me a long and thoughtful email. “I’m also aware,” she wrote, “at an experiential level, that couples are dishonest with each other in ways that suffocate growth/quality in their sexual relationships.”
Men and women who participate in adulterous relationships must do so furtively. So while an adulterous relationship may, in fact, not be damaging to the relationship, the dishonesty might well be.
Two years ago I visited the World Press Photo exhibition. There I saw an extremely disturbing series of images where a young man, buried up to his chest, was in the throes of being stoned to death. His crime – adultery.
“Even when they [affairs] are banned and severely punished, their advantages and joys clearly prevail.” Ellis maintains, “History is full of non-monogamous sex-love pairings and will most likely continue to be.”
Once upon a time we had as our guide, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.
Is the case against extra-marital relations still as clearcut today?