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When rich men pay for sex, is it all about seeking a new thrill?

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft yells to fans during the Super Bowl victory parade through downtown Boston on Feb. 5, 2019.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft yells to fans during the Super Bowl victory parade through downtown Boston on Feb. 5, 2019. AP

Last month, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. The charges against the 77-year-old billionaire were linked to his alleged visits to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa early this year in Jupiter, Florida.

Kraft, though, wasn’t the only one arrested in the sting — there were nearly 200 others — but he may be the one getting all the attention.

That isn’t to say that I believe Kraft is guilty. The courts will have to decide that, but the question that seems to be on everybody’s mind isn’t his guilt or innocence but why would anyone of his economic stature and means pays for sex, especially in what seemed like a seedy strip mall, when they could easily just take their pick of women who, at no cost at all, want to be with them?

And so I asked a few experts about what, in cases like this, could be simmering in a john’s mind. Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, assured me I was overthinking it a bit.

“Many men will solicit prostitutes basically because they can,” he said. “It cuts out many of the nuances and complexities of sexual relations and makes it strictly transactional.”

Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert agreed. While it’s hard to fully know anyone’s motivation, Alpert said one possible explanation for a high-profile, wealthy person utilizing a prostitute on her turf might be that he thinks it will minimize the chances of being caught.

“He might feel he can remain anonymous and blend into society, while inviting a prostitute to where he is might raise eyebrows and call attention to him,” Alpert said. “There’s also an element of the riskier the behavior, the greater the thrill.”

Connecticut College professor Ariella Rotramel, who has done extensive research on sex work, suggested we strip away our assumptions that sex is always attached to romantic relationships like, in Kraft’s case, having a young girlfriend.

“In the case of purchasing sex, the customer is buying an interaction that they are scripting,” she said.

Not only is he choosing the specific sex acts, Rotramel said, he gets to choose the style, tone, convenience, and the biggie, anonymity. It’s important too, in some instances, that the sex is seemingly nonjudgmental and is an expression of their control or power vis-a-vis their money and status.

I asked Rotramel if there is a difference between a rich john and say a middle-class or poor one. “The obvious difference would be the range of choices they would have for purchasing sex,” she said. “There is the phenomenon of men like Silicon Valley tech workers buying the ‘girlfriend experience’ that is more pricey, versus a study in Vietnam that saw a range from low-wage workers buying low-cost sex to high-income businessmen having ‘girlfriends’ for about a week where money is not exchanged, rather they are given expensive gifts.”

This reminded me of conversations I had last year with college students who date men in exchange for college tuition. They insisted, by the way, that they weren’t prostitutes. Funny. The men in those arrangements weren’t johns, either. They call themselves sugar daddies.

Which gets me to the rest of what Rotramel and Ferguson believe is worth considering when thinking about what happened in Florida: decriminalization.

Decriminalizing sex, Rotramel said, would assist in having a more robust conversation about the rights of sex workers themselves, as well as consider the deeper issues around stigma and power that seem to be why this case is of interest.

Whether the data supports contentions that laws against prostitution tend to make it more harmful or not, Ferguson said “it’s probably not a secret that the current approach isn’t” helping.

It’s important to remember, Ferguson said, that prostitutes, in many of these settings, are themselves victims, often of human trafficking or, if not, substance abuse, mental illness, abusive homes or environments of severe economic deprivation. That’s less true among those who are self-employed escorts or, again, in settings where effective government regulation can provide protections, health services and legal enfranchisement to cut down on human trafficking.

“That’s an easy fact to lose sight of in these stories,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the men involved are consciously exploiting the women (often they have no real idea), but bringing this fact up front can help us to have empathy for these women and, as such, allow us to consider what are the best legal remedies that help us to protect people involved in the sex industry knowing it certainly isn’t going away no matter how many strip malls we raid in Florida.”

Alpert told me that he urges clients who participate in this behavior to think about what they might stand to lose should they get caught and ask themselves if it is truly worth it.

“If it is kink and danger they’re after,” he said, “then explore legal and safe means of satisfying that craving.”

And when all else fails, for heaven’s sake, seek professional help.

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