Prostitution is sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest profession. The term ‘profession’ puts it on a level with other forms of labour and gives it a dignity which it does not deserve.
Historically, prostitution has always been associated with slavery, poverty and destitution, though in recent years we’ve constructed the mythical Pretty Woman and Belle de Jour types: ‘happy hookers’ who allow us to avoid acknowledging the reality of women making their bodies available for the sexual use of paying men. This fantasy reimagines prostitution as something empowering and faintly glamorous for women seeking wealth, independence and even fun – when, in reality, it’s devastatingly harmful to a woman’s physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.
“I may as well have been a plastic doll. After they had their way, I would lose my appeal and they’d dispose of me.”Rhiannon, Sex Trade Survivor1Rhiannon, I Didn’t Come to Hear Bitches Recite Poetry, pp. 67-78 M.Tankard-Reist and C.Norma (Eds.) Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (2016 Spinifex Press). p.71
“I got to the point early on in prostitution where I saw being happy as simply unrealistic, and I was right. I didn’t know any women who were happy in prostituion and I didn’t meet any in later years either. There are no ‘happy hookers’ in my experience.”Rachel Moran, Sex Trade Survivor2R. Moran (2015), Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (W. W. Norton,2015), p.60
Not a single person with any working knowledge of prostitution would deny the stark fact that it’s incredibly violent.3C.Watts and C. Zimmerman (2002) Violence against women: global scope and magnitude. NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11955557 Women in the sex trade have the highest rates of rape, physical assault, and homicide of any group of women ever studied. It’s been estimated that women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than are non-prostituted women.4C. Salfati, A. James, L.Ferguson (2008) Prostitute homicides: a descriptive study. NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18319375
“The johns – the clients – are violent. I’ve been shot five times, stabbed 13 times. I don’t know why those men attacked me, all I know is that society made it comfortable for them to do so. They brought their anger or mental illness or whatever it was and they decided to wreak havoc on a prostitute, knowing I couldn’t go to the police and if I did I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”Brenda Meers Powell, Sex Trade Survivor5J.Bindel, The Guardian (30.04.2013) Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace
In the UK, it’s estimated that around 89 prostituted women have been murdered in the last 10 years (although this figure is thought to be conservative).6C. Moreton, Independent (24.02.2008) Cole Moreton Prostitute murders: The tragedy of the cases still unsolved The 2014 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution describes violence experienced by women in the sex trade as “near pandemic.”72014 Behind Closed Doors Organised sexual exploitation in England and Wales An inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade
A 2002 study interviewing women in the Merseyside sex trade found that 43% had been sexually assaulted, 36% had been raped, 43% had been threatened with a weapon, and 13% had been kidnapped.8D. Radatz (2009) Systematic approach to prostitution laws: A literature review and further suggestions Eastern Michigan University DigitalCommons@EMU
A 2004 study commissioned by the UK Crime Reduction Programme (CRP) reported that just over half of the 133 prostituted women surveyed “had been forced to have sex or been indecently assaulted and the perpetrators were most often the male clients (81%) and / or a boyfriend / pimp / partner (23%).”9M. Hester and N. Westmarland. (2004) Tackling street prostitution : towards a holistic approach. Project Report. Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London, p.82
“The violence in prostitution is complex. It’s not just being hit, kicked and raped… It is psychological and verbal… physical… sexual… material… financial.”Tanja Rahm, Sex Trade Survivor10T.Rahm, Internalising the Violence pp.79-90, M.Tankard-Reist and C.Norma (Eds.) Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (2016 Spinifex Press) p.80
Wherever there’s a demand for prostitution, there’s a lot of money to be made – at least by the third parties who profit from other people’s sexual exploitation. Many prostituted individuals are under some form of third-party control from traffickers, pimps, brothel owners or abusive partners, at least at some point. “Most researchers agree that control of prostituted women by pimps involves understanding the ‘wants’ of these women and controlling those wants through the use of threats, intimidation, and violence.11C.Williamson and T.Cluse-Tolar (09.2002) Pimp-Controlled Prostitution: Still an Integral Part of Street Life NCJ Number 196630 Journal Violence Against Women Volume: 8 Issue
“It is universally accepted that those in command of greater fiscal resources are in a dominant position over those who are not, and the reality of women’s entry into prostitution due to financial hardship has been uncovered in prostitution research globally… Therefore it is obvious that there is exploitation here.”Rachel Moran, Sex Trade Survivor
Normally, rape involves a person being sexually violated against their will; but as one woman in the sex trade observes, “[w]hat others see as rape, we [i.e. women in prostitution] see as normal.”12M. Farley, J.Lynne, & A.Cotton (2005) Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nations Women. Transcultural Psychiatry 42, 242-271. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461505052667. In M. Farley (2018) #MeToo Must Include Prostitution Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 9. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2018.03.01.09 Here, some form of payment is given in order to secure a person’s consent to be sexually violated. Payment thus becomes a form of coerced consent: it dissolves the usual respect for the other person’s sexual autonomy and boundaries. As radical feminist Julie Bindel points out, “[i]f prostitution is ‘sex work’, then by its own logic, rape is merely theft.”13J.Bindel, The Guardian (30.04.2013) Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace The idea that being in prostitution is enjoyable is laughable to those who’ve had much experience of it. An unpublished flier from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) suggests that people in the sex trade should take a break, “when every client makes your skin crawl, when your jaw aches from clenching your teeth to prevent yourself spitting in the bastard’s face . . . [or] when you can’t stand what you see when you look in the mirror.”14M. Farley (01.10.2004), Bad for the body, bad for the heart, Sage journals: Volume: 10 issue: 10, page(s): 1087-1125
As researcher and clinical psychologist Dr.Melissa Farley observes: “Sex buyers don’t acknowledge the humanity of the women they use for sex. Once a person is turned into an object, exploitation and abuse seem almost reasonable.”15M. Farley (2016) Very inconvenient truths: sex buyers, sexual coercion, and prostitution-harm-denial The sex buyer feels an inevitable sense of power and entitlement,so that even the flimsy boundaries that women in prostitution put up (“in order to be able to stand it” as sex trade survivor, Rachel Moran puts it) are regularly violated.16R. Moran (2015) Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (W. W. Norton, 2015), p.175
“I guess the big thing is the control aspect of it. When you’re with a prostitute, you have control over what happens. You get to have control over what you do, when, how, in what order, and I like that.”Sex Buyer17M. Farley, J.Golding, E. Matthews, N.Malamuth, L.Jarrett (31.10. 2017) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking Sage Journals, https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515600874
Addiction and Homelessness
Substance abuse is a common ‘coping mechanism’ that people in prostitution use to deal with the reality and shame of the work, or with loneliness or the effects of previous abuse.18N. McKeganey & M.Barnard (1996) Sex Work on the Streets: Prostitutes and their clients, Buckinghamshire: Open University Press. From Home Office Report 2014; L. Brown (2013) Cycle of harm: Problematic alcohol use amongst women involved in prostitution. Alcohol Research UK and Eaves. Alongside trauma from previous experiences of sexual abuse, drug addiction and homelessness are significant causal factors when it comes to engaging in on-street prostitution.
Many of the people who engage in UK street prostitution have no stable accommodation and “typically spend their days on a friend’s floor, in squats, crack houses or, occasionally, at a ‘client’s home.”19Home Office Review 2014 Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution July 2004 p.51. Class A drug addiction is almost universal among those in street prostitution.20Home Office Review 2014 Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution July 2004, Annex C. There’s an increasing trend for men to ‘pimp out’ their partners in order to fund both of their drug addictions.21Home Office Review 2014 Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution July 2004, p.18.
For those struggling with severe mental health problems and drug abuse, prostitution is often a last-ditch option for survival. Unfortunately in terms of physical and mental recovery and social rehabilitation, it’s also the most damaging.22J.Davis (2004) Off the streets: Tackling homelessness among female street-based sex workers. W. Spice, (2007) Management of sex workers and other high-risk groups. Occupational Medicine. 57: 322-328. Cf. p.5 UCL Review 2014
Regardless of whether people enter prostitution ‘by choice’ – indeed regardless of the form it takes (i.e. street prostitution or high-end escorting) – there is extensive evidence that, added to the high physical risks, being in the sex trade leads to profound damage to a person’s mental and emotional health.23Brody et al. 2005; Ling et al. 2007; Pedersen et al. 2016. (Baldwin, 1992; Barry, 1995; Dworkin, 1997; Herman, 2003; Hoigard and Finstad, 1986; Farley et al., 2003; Raymond et al., 2002) in M. Farley (2017) Risks of Prostitution: When the Person Is the Product Journal of the Association for Consumer ResearchVolume 3, Number 1 | January 2018
Research indicates that the emotional distress typically experienced by prostituted women is “off the charts”, and includes depression, suicidality, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.24D. Ling, W. Wong, E. Holroyd, A. Grey (2007) Silent Killers of the Night: An Exploration of Psychological Health and Suicidality among Female Street Sex Workers Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 33(4):281-99 DOI: 10.1080/00926230701385498 Rates of psychological dissociation, where the mind detaches from the current emotional or physical state, are also high.25M. Farley (2003) Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm, Women & Therapy 26(3-4):247-280 DOI: 10.1300/J015v26n03_06 https://doi.org/10.1300/J015v26n03_06 As sex trade survivor Rachel Moran explains, “the core skill of a prostitute’s ‘work’ is learning to stay outside of herself for her own sake.”26R. Moran(2015), Paid For:My Journey Through Prostitution (W. W. Norton,2015),P.165
In a study of prostituted women across nine different countries, 68% were found to be suffering from PTSD – “a prevalence that was comparable to battered women seeking shelter, rape survivors seeking treatment, and survivors of state-sponsored torture.”27M. Farley (2017) Risks of Prostitution: When the Person Is the Product Journal of the Association for Consumer ResearchVolume 3, Number 1 | January 2018
“Prostitution has this way of stealing all the dreams, goals and beautiful essence out of a woman. During my years in it, I didn’t meet one woman who enjoyed what she was doing. Everyone was trying to get out.”Woman Prostituted for 19 Years28Witness: submission to an Australian inquiry into the regulation of brothels
Since it’s unnatural for a person to allow herself to be sexually violated by a stranger, our reflex response to such an experience is psychological dissociation, where the mind detaches from the current emotional or physical state.29M. Farley (2003) Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm, Women & Therapy 26(3-4):247-280 DOI: 10.1300/J015v26n03_06 https://doi.org/10.1300/J015v26n03_06 As Rachel Moran explains, “the core skill of a prostitute’s ‘work’ is learning to stay outside of herself for her own sake.”30R. Moran( 2015), Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (W. W. Norton,2015), p.165
In the long term, dissociation erodes women’s sense of identity, self-esteem and psychological stability, making it extremely difficult for them to from fully recover – even after exiting prostitution.31M. Farley (2017) Risks of Prostitution: When the Person Is the Product Journal of the Association for Consumer Research Volume 3, Number 1 | January 2018 The challenges of recovery are also complicated by “the cyclical nature of trauma, substance abuse, PTSD, and other mental health issues…”32L. Gerassi (2015): From Exploitation to Industry: Definitions, Risks, and Consequences of Domestic Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work Among Women and Girls Hum Behav Soc Environ. 2015; 25(6): 591–605: 10.1080/10911359.2014.991055
“The overriding feeling when reflecting on the experience of prostitution is simply this: loss. Loss of innocence, loss of time, of opportunity, credibility, respectability, and the spiritually ruinous loss of connectedness to the self.”Rachel Moran, Sex Trade Survivor