Everyone knows the story of how Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear to give as a gift to a prostitute with whom he was in love (though some sources indicate that it was just a portion of his earlobe). Despite – or perhaps because of – the outlawing of prostitution, sex workers have held a romantic quality for artists for years. Research, and popular culture, on the matter suggest that, for the most part, men seek out sex workers because they cannot have or do not want a conventional relationship. While that certainly exists, new research has emerged saying that a significant minority of Johns find emotional intimacy from the sex workers that they see, creating opportunities and complications for them and sex workers.

Investigators Christine Milrod, PhD, and Ronald Weitzer, PhD, from the George Washington University, rummaged through 394 threads from the website The Erotic Highway dating from May 2006, the site's inception, to July 2011. The website is a top-ranked site for people who see sex workers, with 1 million registered users and up to 300,000 users visiting the site a day.

Previous research has indicated that people see sex workers for the following reasons:

  • "some have difficulty finding a partner for a conventional relationship;
  • some are unsatisfied with their current partnered relationship;
  • some patronize sex workers in order to bolster their masculinity;
  • some seek to abuse other people and target sex workers because they are viewed as accessible and unlikely to report victimization to the police;
  • some are looking to fulfill a fantasy with a person who will engage in desired activities (such as role playing or sadomasochism), someone with a desired physical appearance, ethnicity, or cultural background (often based on stereotypes of other nationalities), or someone of a different sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual men experimenting with gay or transgender individuals; heterosexual women seeking lesbian experiences, etc.);
  • some buy sex because they find it risky, thrilling, or sporting (calling themselves hobbyists);
  • some wish to avoid the obligations or emotional complications involved in a conventional relationship; and
  • some seek a limited romantic or emotional connection in addition to or instead of a purely physical experience."

While the first seven groups of customers certainly exist in abundance, Milrod and Weitzer found that a third of men find themselves falling into the last group: infatuated, falling for, or engaging in friendships with the sex workers that they see which, on the site, they describe as "providers." These men – all of the people that Milrod and Weitzer quoted appeared to be men - pride themselves in their ability to give pleasure to the worker, and seem to have respect for them as well. Milrod and Weitzer separate these people into the following categories: those who feel that their providers are engaging in counterfeit intimacy, those who feel that their provider reciprocates, and those who are confused by the feelings that they have for their provider or that the provider might have for them.

It has been well-documented that sex workers sometimes provide "counterfeit intimacy," making it seem like he or she cares for their client more than they actually do. Before this study, it was more or less unknown whether clients were aware of the perhaps falsified intimacy, but many do. The researchers say that this group consists of a fifth of the focus of their study. In fact, while sex workers are typically "commodified by their clients and managers," many men feel that they are treated as commodities themselves by their providers, warning other commenters about their deception and manipulation.

Still others believe that there is a genuine connection between them and their provider. One commenter described how he was invited to his provider's house for Thanksgiving and introduced as her boyfriend. Another described how very little money changed hands at this point in his relationship between himself and his provider, and another talked about how their children had met and were friends. Many men use the word "love." One commenter says, "[I'm] willing to leave my wife for her. That’s what my heart is telling me."

The last group describes the confusion that they feel about the blurring of the lines between the job and the emotional relationship. One man said, "I have an ATF [all-time favorite] provider that I thought I had made a 'connection' with... There was some real level of caring between the two of us, although we didn’t really interact outside the hobby...Lately, I sense I’m just another one of her clients…Maybe it was all a part of the illusion from the beginning. She’s one of my favorite people in any context, but I’d rather not see her if I’m just another client."

For the men who saw themselves as having a sort of emotional relationship with their provider, the decision to end involvement with a sex worker was treated like a break-up. One described a former provider as always having a place in his heart – and being willing to give her a good review if it was ever necessary.

The entire article from Men and Masculinities is available online for a limited time.