Where does one start with such a painful and disturbing topic of prostitution? It has been called “the world’s oldest profession” and exists in our earliest records. This cultural reality of dehumanizing women (and sometimes men) has survived for centuries, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon.
Who are these prostitutes? Some are common street prostitutes; some are fancy party girls; some are high-priced escorts. Some are college girls; some are in it for temporary financial reasons. Some are nothing better than slaves. Some are proud of their work and can leave it at any time they please. There is a wide range of circumstances, but in many cases, prostitution is a painful and complicated reality.
Many end up in a life of prostitution because they have no other viable employment opportunities, need the money, or to feed a drug habit. Many prostitutes were teenage runaways. Although most are women, about 20% of the prostitutes in the United States are men, and these male prostitutes typically work independently without a pimp, which allows them to more easily leave prostitution at an average age of 25 (http://www.veronicasvoice.org/statistics/). The vast majority of female prostitutes (up to 90%, as reported by Veronica’s Voice) are under the abusive and coercive control of a pimp and have little choice but to stay in prostitution. About 40% of prostitutes began as child prostitutes (Laws.com).
Early adolescence is the typical entry point of prostitution (we’re talking 12-14 years old). As many as 70% of subjects interviewed by Silbert and Pines said that childhood sexual abuse affected their decision to become a prostitute (qtd. in Farley & Butler, pp. 4). Many of these young prostitutes are school drop-outs and runaways, who get sucked into the life of prostitution while trying to escape the reality of the difficult home life. Homelessness often leads to prostitution (Farley, (2004, Oct. 1), “Prostitution is Sexual Violence,” Psychiatric Times).
Men seeking prostitutes are typically married or cohabiting and seek prostitutes to gratify sexual fetishes or meet sexual needs they feel are not being met by their regular partner. In one 2004 poll, 15% of men in the United States reported paying for sex at some point in their lives, but some claim this information is underreported (Wikipedia, “Prostitution”). These numbers vary greatly by country.
The main users of women in prostitution are regular men who are in regular marriages, study in regular educational programs, and have regular jobs, some of whom are entrusted with upholding the very laws that they violate. In other words, studies indicate that prostitute-users in general are not marginalized men, unlike the women they use and abuse. (Raymond, qtd. in Farley & Butler, pp.5)
Prostitution provides a breeding ground for all sorts of violence, and it has been called the most dangerous profession in America. Field research cited by the U.S. Department of State reports that 60-75% of women in prostitution have been raped (by both pimps and customers or “johns”) and 70-95% were physically assaulted (U.S. Department of State, 2002). This data shows prostitutes to be the most raped and most abused class of women on the planet. But prostitutes rarely approach the law with charges, and when they are reported, few law enforcement officers pursue the case as if these women ‘got what they deserved’ (Lyderson, 2003).
This physical trauma leads to intense psychological trauma. In fact, one survivor says that the psychological damage of prostitution was greater than the physical damage. She says prostitution is “is internally damaging. You become in your own mind what these people do and say with you” (Farley, 2004). Farley and Butler report that 68% of those in some form of prostitution met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and almost three-fourths showed clinically significant symptoms of dissociation (pp.7). The vast majority of prostitutes are drug users, and it is up for debate as to whether these women were driven to prostitution to support their habit or whether they continue their habit to numb the life of prostitution. One Canadian study found prostitutes to have a death rate 40 times higher than the death rate of all other Canadian women (Farley & Butler, pp.7). The high death rates of prostitutes are related to high rates of homicide and suicide, as well as other related health complications.
Prostitution cannot be separated from pornography—which is now rampant. Many women in pornography are prostitutes, and many prostitutes report that their customers have brought pornography with them to illustrate the types of sexual activities they desire.
Some argue for a woman’s right to choose a life as a prostitute. Clinical interviews suggest this is far from the reality. Farley and Butler report that 89% of 854 prostitutes from 9 countries say they want to escape prostitution but cannot because of other needs, including safe housing, another job or job training, counseling, legal assistance, and drug/alcohol treatment (pp.10). It’s not as simple as getting these women out of prostitution—they need a good exit strategy and after-care plan.
All of this information must be considered as the correct course of legal action is debated. In the United States, prostitution is criminalized (with the exception of a few regions of Nevada). This means that everyone related to prostitution can be arrested—the prostitute, the john, the pimp, and the trafficker. But reality shows that a disproportionate amount of women are arrested (92% versus 8% in Boston in 2003), thus showing a system that often harms the prostitutes most of all (Farley & Butler, pp. 11). Women are arrested four times more than men in prostitution related charges, and many johns are let off with ordinance violations and a fine instead of actual crimes and jail time. The women, on the other hand, often serve jail time and end up with quite a rap sheet (Lyderson, 2003). Many argue that this flawed system of justice only perpetuates this form of violence against women, by punishing those who are often the victims. Many advocates are outraged that in spite of the data about child prostitution, the slavery of prostitution, and the violence within prostitution, these women are treated as criminals.
Sweden has taken what many see as the best course of action. Since 1999, they have prosecuted the customers, pimps, and brothel owners, targeting those seeking to buy sex, rather than the prostitutes who are selling it. Within two years of this change in policy, there was a 50% drop in prostitution and 75% drop in men buying sex, as well as a drop in sex trafficking. This contrasts the increased demand for sex slaves and foreign sex trafficking in countries legalizing or tolerating prostitution (U.S. Department of State, 2002).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What brought you to this topic?
What have you learned from this overview? Was there anything particularly striking? Is there anything you disagree with?
Do you have any personal connection or experience related to prostitution? How does this inform your thoughts and opinions?
What are your thoughts on the information about the physical and psychological dangers and harms of prostitution? Do you see this as a tragedy and injustice—or as what comes with the territory and what they deserve?
What do you think the correct legal action should be in relation to prostitution? Why? Should prostitutes be treated as criminals, legal professionals, or victims?
How does your faith background or moral convictions influence your approach to this topic?
Prostitution is a debated and emotional topic. Some point out the victimization of the women and girls trapped in prostitution. Others argue for a woman’s right to choose her profession. Some nations legalize it, others decriminalize it, and others choose some route in between.
Statistically, prostitution is one of the most dangerous “jobs” today, and comes with deep physical and psychological dangers. Although these women might be getting paid for their “services,” this in no way diminishes the harm of physical and psychological abuses.
We must remember that many prostitutes, although now adults, entered into prostitution at a young age. This must be a part of our consideration as we think about whether to label them as “criminals” or think they are prostituting themselves because they want to.
We must recognize the ways in which prostitution, along with pornography, continue to breed a culture of objectification, dehumanization, and violence against women.
Melissa Farley & Emily Butler (2012). “Prostitution and Trafficking—Quick Facts.” Prostitution Research & Education. www.prostitutionresearch.com.