We know that prostitution is deeply harmful, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s no surprise then that those who enter the sex trade are generally not those who’ve had a stable, trauma-free upbringing, nor those who are educationally, socially and economically prosperous. This is a generalisation but globally and historically, for the overwhelming majority, selling sex really is a last-ditch resort, the choice of choicelessness.
“For the vast majority of people, sex work or whatever name you give it is a survival strategy. For most it is a practice enforced by poverty, degradation, homelessness, hunger and powerlessness; a form of slavery to economic, social and cultural deprivation, stigmatisation and marginalisation.”Shivananda Khan, Journalist1P. Aggleton, Men Who Sell Sex, International Perspectives on Male Prostitution and HIV/AIDS, Temple University Press, 1999
“I worked with women who had grown up in foster care, women who had fled childhood sexual abuse, women who had lived on the streets, women living with drug dependency, and young single mothers who had no other way to provide for their kids. All of us had been raped at least once, and some of us habitually self-mutilated (punters never seemed to care about the scars on our wrists). We are told of women who ‘love’ working in the sex industry but in my time I never met such a woman.”Rhiannon, Sex Trade Survivor
In order to understand the problem with considering prostitution simply a matter of personal choice, we must take a closer look at the typical demographic of those working in the sex trade.
Poverty and low employment prospects
Poverty, debt and marginalisation from the mainstream employment structures are important drivers to prostitution.2B.Brents & T.Sanders (2010), Mainstreaming the Sex Industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence, Journal of Law and Society, Volume 37, Issue 12 Researcher and clinical psychologist Dr. Melissa Farley writes: “Everywhere, prostituted people are overwhelmingly poor, indeed normally destitute. There is no disagreement on this fact. Urgent financial need is the most frequent reason mentioned by people in prostitution for being in the sex trade.”3C.MacKinnon TRAFFICKING, PROSTITUTION, AND INEQUALITY 46 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 271
Many of those in prostitution in the UK say they were driven into it because they were unable to find other forms of employment. Some asylum seekers who have no recourse to public funds turn to the sex trade as a form of survival.4R. Dibb, T. Mitchell, G.Munro, E. Rough (2006) Substance Use and Health Related Needs of migrant Sex Workers and Women Trafficked into Sexual Exploitation in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the City of London. London: The Salvation Army – Research and Development Unit
Poor education, as well as a lack of training and qualifications, both pushes women into prostitution and reduces the chance of them finding alternative forms of employment once they exit. One UK study of women in the sex trade found that a third left education at the age of 14 or younger.5N. Jeal and C.Salisbury, C. (2004) A health needs assessment of street-based prostitutes: cross sectional survey. Journal of Public Health, Vol. 26, 2:147-151 Another found that 39% had no formal qualifications or training.6J. Bindel, L. Brown, H. Easton, R. Matthews and L. Reynolds Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution Eaves and London South Bank University (LSBU)
Previous abuse and neglect
Research shows that previous abuse- whether physical, sexual and emotional- is something experienced by the majority of women in all forms of prostitution.7Silbert and Pines (1982a) Child Abuse as an Antecedent to Prostitution in Child Abuse & Neglect 5(4):Pp 407-411 Although this form of vulnerability is often the least visible, childhood abuse is such a common precursor to prostitution that it’s considered by many to be a necessary if not sufficient risk factor.8K. Tyler. Kimberly, D. Hoyt & L.Whitbeck (2000), The Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Later Sexual Victimization among Female Homeless and Runaway Adolescents Journal of Interpersonal Violence Vol 15, Issue 3, 2000 https://doi.org/10.1177/088626000015003001 Childhood sexual abuse can effectively become a form of grooming, a training ground for prostitution since it normalises unwanted sexual advances and conditions people into believing that their value lies in being used as a sexual object.9D. Aumord, The Guardian (28.10.09) Exit strategy
UK research into young people in prostitution shows that many were sexually, physically or emotionally abused at home or bullied at school.10Annex C, Home Office (2004) : Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution The charity ECPAT found that in the majority of cases, there had been serious child protection concerns within the family and that ‘[p]hysical and sexual abuse were frighteningly common.’11J. Taylor-Browne (2002) More than one chance! Young people involved in prostitution speak out, ECPAT UK, London Another British study of people in prostitution found that 72% reported experiences of physical, sexual and verbal violence during childhood. Past experiences of abuse were said to compound feelings of worthlessness.12J. Bindel, L. Brown, H. Easton, R. Matthews & L. Reynolds (2012) Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution. London: Eaves and London South Bank University
“I knew about half the girls who were on the street with me from the institutional care system and all were in their teens, under the age of consent. Prostitution is populated by people who have no other choice, girls so inured to sexual abuse that prostitution is the next logical step.”Rachel Moran, Sex Trade Survivor13K. Holmquist, The Irish Times (13.04.2013) The myth of the happy hooker
Globally, women typically enter prostitution when they are young, “often well below the age of consent.” Around 50% British prostituted women started out before they were 18 and it’s estimated that the prevalence of under-aged prostituted women has increased here in recent years.14L. Cusick, H. Kinnell, B. Brooks-Gordon and R. Campbell (2009) Wild guesses and conflated meanings? Estimating the size of the sex worker population in Britain. Critical Social Policy. 29: 703. p.97; Home Office (2004) : Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution p.7, Annex C
75% of children abused through prostitution are missing from school and it’s been suggested that up to 5000 young people in the UK may be involved in the sex trade at any one time, with a female/ male ratio of 4:1.15Home Office (2004) : Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution p.7; p.17.
Ethnic minority, black and indigenous women are over-represented in the sex trade. This is largely down to the oppression resulting from intersecting forms of racial, class and gender inequality. Women of colour are often stereotyped and hypersexualised, a legacy of colonisation kept alive in pornography.16C. Butler, A Critical Race Feminist Perspective on Prostitution & Sex Trafficking in America Yale Journal of Law & Feminism: Vol. 27: Iss. 1, Article 3
In brothels, women of colour are often segregated from white women and are generally paid less, experience more violence and find it more difficult to leave. Ethnic minority women are often especially vulnerable when they are isolated from their homeland and from both mainstream society (by virtue of their minority status) and from their own immigrant communities because of their prostitution.17V. Nelson (1993 Prostitution): Where Racism & Sexism Intersect 1 MICH. J. GENDER & L. 81 MICH. J. GENDER & L. 81. Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjgl/vol1/iss1/6
Addiction and homelessness
Homelessness and drug addiction are the two most significant factors prompting engagement in on-street prostitution and significant barriers to those in prostitution leading stable lives. Many of those in UK street prostitution have no reliable accommodation and ‘typically spend their days on a friend’s floor, in squats, crack houses or, occasionally, at a ‘client’s home.’18Home Office (2004) : Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution
Trafficking, grooming and third-party control
All of the risk factors above make girls and women particularly susceptible to entering (and remaining) in prostitution through force, coercion or deception. Any third-party involvement in a woman’s prostitution meets the international definition of human trafficking. Although it’s illegal to profit off a woman’s prostitution, according to a 2018 APPG report, trafficking is “widespread across the UK”, facilitated by adult services websites and often operating through legitimate businesses (licensed as saunas or massage parlours).19Behind Closed Doors Organised sexual exploitation in England and Wales, 2018 Around half of women in prostitution are under pimp control, a fact understood by almost half of UK sex buyers.20M. Farley, J. Bindel and J. Golding(2009): Men who Buy Sex Who they are and what they know. Prostitution Research & Education: “Forty-eight per cent of 103 London men said they believed that most women in prostitution are victims of pimps, reflecting a reality that converges with what is known from observation and research studies.”
Pimping usually involves multiple kinds of coercive control- not just physical violence but also manipulation, deception, debt bondage, threats, surveillance and isolation, all of which increase a dependence. In recent years, there’s been an increase in ‘pimp/partner’ relationships where control is classified as domestic violence.21Home Office (2004): Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution p. 48
Who Buys Sex?
The ‘sex buyer’ shares none of the vulnerability of those who sell sex. Financially and socially, the ‘punter’ tends to be in a relative position of power over the person who’s being prostituted.22ProCon.org (1.6.2011) Percentage of Men (by Country) Who Paid for Sex at Least Once: The Johns Chart
However, whilst there’s no such thing as a ‘typical sex buyer’ research has shown that men who buy sex do tend to exhibit certain characteristics:
Sex buyers are more sexually-aggressive than non sex-buyers
Men who buy sex are characterised by ‘a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification’ according to a recent study.23M. Farley, J. Golding, E. Schuckman Matthews, N. Malamuth, L.Jarrett (2015) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking, Journal of Interpersonal Violence https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515600874
Other research carried out in Scotland found a strong correlation between buying sex and committing sexually-coercive acts against non-prostituted women.24M. Farley, J.Macleod, L. Anderson & J. Golding (2011). Attitudes and social characteristics of men who buy sex in Scotland. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0022645 They are also more accepting of rape myths.25M. Farley, J. Bindel and J. Golding (2009) Men who Buy Sex Who they are and what they know. Prostitution Research & Education, Eaves, London Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco
Sex buyers engaged in significantly more criminal activity than non-sex buyers
‘They were far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit felonies, misdemeanours, crimes related to violence against women, substance abuse-related crimes, assaults, crimes with weapons, and crimes against authority. All of the crimes known to be associated with violence against women were reported by sex buyers; none were reported by non-sex buyers.’26M. Farley, J. Golding, E. Schuckman Matthews, N. Malamuth, L.Jarrett (2015) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking, Journal of Interpersonal Violence https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515600874
Along with other sexually-aggressive men, those who buy sex have less empathy than men who don’t. They tend to view prostituted women as “intrinsically different from other women.”27M. Farley, J. Golding, E. Schuckman Matthews, N. Malamuth, L.Jarrett (2015) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking, Journal of Interpersonal Violence https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515600874 They therefore tend to treat them with less respect.
Sex buyers either deny or choose to ignore trafficking or the harms of prostitution.
In a study interviewing sex buyers from 6 countries 50% of the men admitted that they knew the women they bought were trafficked, pimped, or otherwise coerced and yet, ‘not one man chose not to have sex with the women upon realising this.’28M. Farley, J. Bindel and J. Golding(2009): Men who Buy Sex Who they are and what they know. Prostitution Research & Education
Several studies have found that in general, sex buyers understand that prostituted persons do not enjoy the sex, are economically strapped, are subjected to violence and grave hardships, and are often pimped or trafficked- but this knowledge doesn’t put them off.29M. Farley, J. Bindel and J. Golding(2009): Men who Buy Sex Who they are and what they know. Prostitution Research & Education
‘Prostitutes have little trust in clients as whistleblowers of abuse. They can’t imagine that clients would actually, sincerely and for the right reasons be interested in the well-being of prostitutes… prostitutes describe their clientele as much less responsible than the clients themselves describe. According to them, clients are primarily occupied with their own pleasure and sexual arousal.’30J. Bindel (2017) The pimping of prostitution: Abolishing the sex work myth Palgrave Macmillan UK in 2017 p.139
In Romania, researchers interviewed sex buyers, women in prostitution, pimps, and police officers and they all agreed that sex buyers ‘are not interested if the girls are actually trafficked or not but are rather more interested in satisfying their sexual needs.’31D. Dragomirescu, C. Necula, & R. Simion. 2009 “Romania: Emerging Market for Trafficking? Clients and Trafficked Women in Romania.” in A. Di Nicola (ed.) Prostitution and Human Trafficking: Focus on Clients. New York: Springer (2009) p. 160
“People always ask me how the criminalisation of buyers would have helped me while I was in prostitution. My answer is this: If it had been a crime to buy women for sexual pleasure then I would have known that what these men were doing was wrong. For a long time I blamed myself, thinking that it was my own fault. I chose to be a prostitution. … I am sure I would have left prostitution much earlier if the law had been on my side.”Tanja Rahm, Sex Trade Survivor
These facts help us to recognise that prostitution is inherently exploitative. It’s not so much about sex as power.
“In prostitution, men remove women’s humanity. Buying a woman in prostitution gives men the power to turn women into a living, breathing masturbation fantasy. He removes herself and those qualities that define her as an individual, and for him she becomes sexualized body parts.”Dr. Melissa Farley, Researcher and Clinical Psychologist32M.Farley, CERC(2010) The real harms of prostitution