Buying Sex on Company Time: Engaging Organizations in Reducing Demand


Efforts to engage both politically and academically with questions of “sex work” have most often looked at the male “client” or “buyer” and the female “worker” or “seller.” But what happens when the client is also a worker? Many of the men who buy sex do so outside of the country in which they live; a recent survey in Sweden found that fully 80% of all purchases of sex by Swedish men occur abroad (Svedin, et al., 2012). Some were specifically “sex tourists,” traveling to destinations for the explicit purpose of buying sex. Others were simply on vacation, or traveling for work, or being relocated abroad.


But for one-third of those cases, the purchase of sex is seen as an entertaining way to spend an evening while at a business conference or meeting, or a larger scale convention (see also Kousmanen, 2008). Men often experience these conferences, meetings and conventions as divided into two distinct spatial and temporal arenas: during the day, in the meetings, when they believe they represent their companies or organizations, and therefore behave appropriately, and, by contrast, at night, in clubs and bars and hotel rooms, and other specific sites for the purchase of sex. These are “time-outs” or “time out of time” – a brief vacation from both their domestic lives at home and their corporate responsibilities at their conferences, when they believe normal rules of decorum do not apply.   In Sweden, a recent survey found that,

If so many men buy sex when they are not in their home countries, and when they are on “company time,” then efforts to reduce the buying of sex must also address these organizational dynamics. Efforts to engage men as individual consumers must be accompanied by efforts to engage men in the organizations to which they belong and which they claim to represent.


We address several lines of interactions: (1) the triangular relationship between sex worker, client, and the institutional apparatus in which these transactions are conducted; (2) the triangular relationships among male workers and female workers in the same organization and the sex workers; and (3) the relationships among corporate executives and managers, employees and the organizations in which sex work takes place – company business meetings and the hotel industry.

In this paper we examine those organizational dynamics of buying sex, and then turn our attention to the Swedish case, where efforts to problematize the buying of sex, as opposed to most countries’ efforts to police the selling of sex, have had an important impact both on the actual consumption of sex, but also on the political conversations that swirl around it at the policy level.

Prostitution and Male Domination

In this paper, we are less concerned with entering debates about the motivations of women – whether the women who sell sex are trafficked into it against their will, or whether they see it as a reasonable occupation in a gender-skewed labor market. We are concerned here with the motivations of men. These motivations have often been downplayed or ignored; As Joe Canon argues:

 The demand side that is the motivations of actors related to men’s purchasing of sex has long been invisible or ignored. Nonetheless, we know that stereotypes about masculinity and men’s sexuality have often reinforced or perpetuated norms that lend to the broader social rationalization of men’s purchase of sex, and in some cases, support or encourage compliance for these behaviors. (cited in Ricardo and Barker, 2008).

Motivations for buying sex among vary considerably – from the historical cases of young men being initiated into sex in the first place by their fathers, friends, or fellow servicemen, to those men who feel too ashamed to ask for various sex acts from their regular partners, to men who seek out exotic fetishistic activities as sex tourists.

What unites all these buyers is a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Quite simply, men purchase sex not only because they have the money, but also because they feel they have the right to do so. In that prostitution expresses gender inequality. More than that, however, the global commercial sex entertainment industry expresses and reproduces several hierarchies at once: men over women, rich over poor, North over South, ethnic majority over ethnic minorities – such as white men buying sex from minority Roma women from Hungary in Switzerland or from Turkish minority women from Bulgaria in Belgium.

Corporations are often complicit in these reproductions of inequality, both between their male and female employees, and between the buyers and sellers of sex. To give but a few examples, in 2007, a German insurance firm rewarded its 100 best salesmen with a prostitute-filled “sex party” in Budapest’s most famous thermal baths. At least 20 women were hired and were color-coded to indicate which men were allowed to have sex with them. Those wearing white ribbons were reserved for “the very best salespeople and executives” (Pidd, 2011). In 2008, a group of Scandinavian European parliamentarians has called for the EU Parliament in Strasbourg to stop using hotels where prostitutes are allowed.

Clearly, any effort to engage a serious policy debate about the buying and selling of sex requires an organizational, sociological approach in addition to a more psychological understanding of individual men’s and women’s motivations.

An Organizational Focus on Sexual Entertainment: The Homosociality in Heterosexual Sex Purchases

Scholars in gender and organization studies have long studied how organizational culture produce and reproduce inequalities in organizations (Mills, 1988; Hearn, 1992; Gherardi, 1995; McDowell, 1997; Wajcman, 1998; Rutherford, 1999). Sexuality is an important constituent (Hearn & Parkin, 1987; Adkins, 1995; Rutherford 2001) but while scholars have directed their attention to practices such as sexual harassment, few have studied practices involving the consumption of commercial sex in work-related settings. Such practices include visits to strip clubs or buying escort services on business travels or when entertaining clients, and have been labelled “sexual entertainment” by Rutherford (1999, 2011).

Some scholars have nevertheless problematized the practice of sexual entertainment and identified a range of consequences, both for ordinary work organizations, that is organizations that do not have sexuality as their main business (Hearn & Parkin, 1987) and for organizations in the sex industry, that is organizations where exploiting sexuality is their main purpose (Hearn & Parkin, 1987).

For men, sexual entertainment as a homosocial practice can be seen as a ritual of confirmation, as a loyalty tests and as remedial work. Holgersson (1998) suggests that that sexual entertainment can be understood as a homosocial practice since it is not something done in solitude but a collective activity. Homosociality is here understood as practices in which men orient themselves towards other men within a patriarchal gender order. This preference for men is the result of a preference for power and as power is gendered, homosociality has gendered consequences. Since gender is intertwined with other social power relations such as class, ethnicity, race and sexuality, homosociality contributes not only to the reproduction of gender relations but also to other social power relations (Holgersson, 2013).

Homosociality is often identified as an important process in understanding gender segregation. Homosociality is however not necessarily a result of a specific intention to exclude women but can instead be seen as a ritual where men acknowledge and continuous hierarchical positions to each other (Lindgren, 1996, 1999; Barrett, 1996; Bird, 1996; Meuser, 2007). It is through homosocial interaction that men collectively recreate masculinity as superior and it is thus central for the ritual of confirmation that the superiority over women and other men is highlighted and confirmed. It is also central that the men involved in the homosocial interaction conform to the dominant culture and practice what Connell (1995) calls “complicit masculinity”. As long as men do not openly challenge the homosocial interaction by, for example, reacting against a sexist jargon, men who practice complicit masculinities contribute to recreating gender order. In view of this, homosociality can also be understood as a loyalty test where men show their loyalty to the group and/or to the group leader. By following with the majority showing the individual’s loyalty to the group, which is important for example in when pursuing a management career (Kanter, 1977; Collinson & Hearn, 1996).

Linked to the idea of homosociality as ritual of confirmation is the idea of homosociality as identity work. Men reinforce and confirm their identity as men in homosocial settings (Lindgren 1996, Meuser 2004). Several researchers have noted homosociality as part of male managers’ identity work. Homosociality among managers interpreted by Kanter (1977) as a result of the uncertainty inherent in managerial work. The need for conformity and homogeneity is not solely depend on the intrinsic insecurity of management positions. Collinson and Hearn (1996) suggests that homosociality can also be seen as a result of the capitalist organization’s competitive nature and needs of middle-class men to pursue a career. Several researchers have pointed out how male identities that on the surface seem strong, authoritative, confident, are in fact fragile (Kerfoot & Knights, 1993; Kimmel, 1995; Roper, 1996). According to Collinson and Hearn (1996), the attempts to establish a stable and well-defined masculine identity often involve identifying with some men (such as a group or individuals) while differentiating oneself from others (e.g. women and other men). This identity work, however, need not necessarily lead to a more stable identity. As both Kerfoot and Knights (1993, 1996) and Collinson (2003) show, the quest for a stable masculine identity and a core identity can instead create more anxiety and uncertainty. Kerfoot and Knights (1996) argue that the dominant modern management discourse is largely about controlling labor and the organization of production in order to achieve strategic goals such as profit and expansion. The constant pursuit of these objectives is also about a desire to secure a male identity, something rarely achieved in reality since this quest involves competition, which in turn generates uncertainty. Thus, it is the pursuit of security that generates uncertainty. Homosocial contexts may therefore be seen as arenas where men both receive confirmation and face competition. This tension between the support and confirmation and competition and oppression appear to be a defining feature of the dynamics of men’s networks, according to Tallberg (2003).

Sexual entertainment may also be an arena for intimacy between men. The strip club provides a context where men’s heterosexuality goes undisputed which makes it possible for men to engage in homosocial interaction without the risk of being regarded as gay (Holgersson, 1998). This may be particularly important given the dominance of heteronormative business cultures. Moreover, in view of the advances of women on the labor market and in management careers and increasing demands for equality, sexual entertainment could be seen as remedial work (Gherardi, 1995), that is practices that women and men engage in in order to restore or reinstate a patriarchal gender order. Studies of male dominated workplaces have shown that the homosocial contexts have been weakened as a result of organizational and societal changes that have increased the number of women on different tasks and positions (e.g. Lindgren, 1999; Andersson, 2003). Such changes may result in men increasingly seeking out homosocial groups as an expression of resistance towards increased gender equality.Perhaps, asLindgren (1999) suggests, the increased number of women as colleagues and managers creates a need for informal arenas for confirmation. Holgersson (2006) suggests that strip clubs (of a hetero sexual nature) can be seen as homosocial “free zone” for remedial work. For example, in a study of male sex buyers in Finland, Marttila(2003) refers to sex clubs as arenas where there isa traditional gender order that provide some space for men’s”male liberation”. In these contexts,different expectations and views on the sexes markedly from the outside world.Meuser(2004)notes that given that most institutions are not all male, especially in the workplace, they losetheirhomosocialnature.Thusis also hampered the search for homosocial settings. The sex industry can therefore be understood as a place free from women’s demands, where men can fully unite homosocially.

While sexual entertainment may provide arenas for identity work, confirmation and remedial work for men, the consequences for women are not as positive. Homosociality and gender discrimination can be regarded as two sides of the same coin (Holgersson, 2013). In interviews with women who have experienced that male colleagues have engaged in sexual entertainment say they felt offended because they found the practices immoral (Holgersson & Svanström, 2004; Morgan & Martin, 2006). Other women express anger because they feel their male colleagues wish to exclude them, but also because this disadvantages them in their careers. This was particularly salient in interviews with saleswomen in the US (Morgan & Martin, 2006). Women who are involved in sexual entertainment also display a variety of approaches. For example, a woman manager in Australia interviewed by Sheppard (1989) described how she had adopted a strategy where nothing was too rough or abusive for her in order to be accepted in full by her male colleagues. This strategy led her to participate in visits to strip clubs. These activities had made her feel uncomfortable because she found that it forced her to adopt her male colleagues gaze and gave rise to an inner conflict between her desire to belong and be accepted by the group, and her complicity in the objectification of women, and thus herself. However, women are not always entirely negative towards sexual entertainment. For example, Nemoto (2010) shows that some Japanese women workers viewed sexual workplace behaviour such as sexual entertainment as highly sexist and disturbing while others felt flattered to be invited to join their male colleagues since women are often denied access to venues such as hostess clubs. It is also important to note that also men can find sexual entertainment offensive, as for example reported in Holgersson (2011).

For organizations in the sex industry, the practice of sexual entertainment contributes to the mainstreaming of the sex industry and fuels the demand for sexual services and ultimately to the expansion of the sex industry (O’Connell Davidson, 1998; Brents & Sanders, 2010; Jeffreys, 2010; Jykinen, 2005).

Strategies of Intervention

As we have seen, buying sex reproduces gender inequality, in addition to other forms of inequality. And we have argued that organizational and institutional responses are required if buying sex on company time is to be curtailed. Such institutional responses can come from several different arenas: local and regional governments, the hotel and tourism industry, and corporate codes of conduct that make clear to employees that while they are traveling on company business they are on company time, 24/7.

This is different than the normal relationship between company time and personal time. During a normal workweek, without corporate travel, one’s time away from the office or workplace is entirely one’s own. Companies may have guidelines for behavior, but if an employee wishes to buy sex on a weekend, or drink enormous quantities of alcohol on the weekend, the company has no say over that behavior, except as how it might impact on his work on Monday morning. However, when at a business meeting or a conference, one is on company time the entire time, 24r hours a day, representing the company. Therefore the company has every right to impose codes of conduct,, since, during those times, one represents not oneself, but one’s employer. Jeffreys (2010) suggests corporate codes of ethics as a measure to counteract sexual entertainment practices in organizations. In fact, there are examples of US companies such as Morgan Stanley that have no-strip club policies following lawsuits where the companies were sued for not providing equal opportunities to their female employees (O’Donnell, 2006).

To date, there are no empirical studies on the impact of codes of conduct regarding commercial sex. However, research on codes of conduct in general has explored the impact of codes of conduct on employee behavior but has yet to reach conclusive findings. According to a survey of studies on the link between codes of conduct and behavior, Petersen and Krings (2009) draw two conclusions regarding the impact of codes of conduct on behavior. First, codes of conduct must be detailed and straightforward. Second, management should clearly signal that they are committed to the existing codes and that compliance is important, for example by establishing sanctions against breaches of the code.

The Swedish Case

Sweden is often seen as an exemplary country when it comes to gender equality: the country is always among the top two or three countries in the World Economic Forum’s rankings of nations for gender equality. Enviable policies regarding state support for work-family balance, adequate available child care, parental leave (Sweden was the first country to offer fathers paid parental leave, and to implement “use or lose” paternity leave, called “Daddy Days”). While the social safety net is always in danger of fraying, depending on the political leanings of the government in power, Sweden’s system provides a model of harnessing the resources of the state to support family values.

But unlike some of its neighboring countries, with equally enviable gender equality policies, Sweden took a dramatic turn in 1999 in implementing a new policy regarding prostitution. While The Netherlands focused on “supply” – legalized prostitution, and providing police protection, state-supported medical care, and enabling prostitutes to organize as workers into a union – Sweden focused on “demand,” enacting a law that criminalized not the sale of sex but its purchase (Svanström 2004). (Since 1982 there is a general law against the arrangement of pornographic shows (Swedish law 1982:344, 10 §). These laws have, however, not entirely extinguished the occurrence of prostitution or strip clubs but have circumscribed these activities in Sweden and have had a normative effect.

The 1999 law, however, only applied to sex purchased in Sweden, exposing a tension in the legal efforts to address the problem of sex trafficking. Trafficking is global, requiring elaborate chains of supply and demand, but laws regulating or prohibiting it can only be national. When so much sex is purchased by Swedes outside of Sweden, activists reasoned, other institutions must be brought into the equation. Creative ways to address this have included placing flyers in airport business lounges to warn Swedish men about buying sex outside Sweden.

One promising avenue for policy development is to engage companies in augmenting or changing their corporate Codes of Conduct to better conform to Sweden’s national policies, as well as to extend those policies to employees when traveling abroad. We regard this as a promising new arena for organizing against prostitution.

According to a study of corporate codes of conduct and sexual entertainment in Sweden (Holgersson 2011, 2014), company representatives claim that it is not accepted for any employees purchase any form of commercial sex when they are on duty, for example on business trips. Surprisingly, however, none of the eleven companies interviewed had explicitly mentioned commercial sex in their codes of conduct. The arguments on why buying commercial sex was not compatible with their codes of conduct varied. A couple interviewees argued that buying sex or sexual services would expose the company to the risk of being accused for bribery or being exposed to blackmail, some argued that such activities would damage the image of the company and that it was not decent behavior.

A Case Study

One company that has begun to develop these policies is Skanska, one of the world’s leading project development and construction groups, with global headquarters in Stockholm. This is a notable case because the construction industry is highly male-dominated – 88% of its 55,000 employees are male, and 99% of its blue collar workers are male – and often depicted as conservative and resistant to change. Determined to become a leader in green initiatives, safety and ethics, the company has now embarked on an internal discussion to revise its corporate Code of Conduct to explicitly prohibit employees from using the sex industry in connection with their work.

Currently, the Code of Conduct does not have explicit statements prohibiting employees from contact with the sex industry in connection with working for Skanska, for example on business trips – although the Code requires “a high degree of integrity and ethics,” and requires that employees comply with all laws in countries where they do business. Such notions are laudable, but vague.

The revision of the Code of Conduct is being developed in stages. Since all employees are required to go through an ethical training every other year, the first step was to incorporate policies about buying sex into the training. Ethical dilemmas were presented to senior managers in group discussions, to generate feedback and hone a new policy. While more time consuming than simply legislating by corporate fiat, these discussions enable the management team to anticipate the sorts of questions and concerns that employees might have.

One of the scenarios to be discussed examines sexual harassment. The group watches a short video in which a female employee is exposed to harassment in the form of graffiti on the workplace. Another scenario involves an employee reporting to a manager that “some colleagues visited a strip club and suspected that there where prostitutes involved.” Group discussion enabled managers to strategize how to respond, and what sorts of issues might arise in similar situations.

The discussions of these scenarios ripple throughout the company, and generate new norms and standards. Skanska believes that it is inappropriate and a violation of company policies to participate in the buying of sex – from prostitutes and escorts to frequenting a strip club – during business trips. It violates, according to the company, the inclusive work environment, and exposes the company and its employees to unacceptable risk.

Obstacles remain, of course. Even during trainings, employees may not voice their concerns because they might be embarrassed about their own behavior on business trips and believe themselves subject to exposure as sex buyers if they raise objections or concerns. Obvious surveillance problems make it virtually impossible to prevent all cases of buying sex, but it both sets people on notice that they risk termination if they are found to have purchased sex. More than that, though, the company believes that by generating these norms from below, that employees will buy in to the company’s position, having generated its new rules from below.

This process is especially hopeful, especially in such a gender-skewed company as Skanska. It suggests that just as policies that target men who purchase sex make clear that the “problem” in prostitution lies less with the women who sell and more with the men who buy sex. Skanska’s policies underline that, given the opportunity to engage in honest conversation about the individual, social, and cultural dynamics of the commercial sex industry, men can also be part of the solution.





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[1]This paper is the result of a collaboration begun at a panel on “Corporate Sexual Responsibility: Ethical Guidelines to Combat Prostitution” organized by the Swedish Women’s Lobby at the Nordic Women’s Forum, Malmo, Sweden, June 6, 2014. The collaboration was fully equal, and the order of the authors is alphabetical. We are grateful to the panel’s moderator, Carin Goransson, for her provocative questions and to the Forum for providing the opportunity for this collaboration.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1