The real harms of prostitution
Before we decide whether to legalise prostitution, it is important to know what prostitution is and what it is not. It is not a job like any other job.
Copyright © 1995 by Soon-Duk Kim
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 her self and those qualities that define her as an individual, and for him she becomes sexualized body parts. She acts the part of the thing he wants her to be.
A john who was guaranteed anonymity said prostitution was like “renting an organ for ten minutes”. Another man said, “I use them like I might use any other amenity, a restaurant, or a public convenience.”
As shocking as these men’s observations may sound to those who think prostitution is like the movie Pretty Woman, their descriptions closely match women’s descriptions of prostitution. The women explain to us how it feels to be treated like a rented organ. “It is internally damaging. You become in your own mind what these people do and say with you. You wonder how could you let yourself do this and why do these people want to do this to you?”
Women who prostitute have described it as “paid rape” and “voluntary slavery”. Prostitution is sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, often worse. His payment does not erase what we know about sexual violence, domestic violence and rape.
This understanding of the realities of prostitution by the john and the woman he buys is at odds with the notion of prostitution as slightly unpleasant labour that should be legalised. Whether or not it is legal, prostitution is extremely harmful for women. Women in prostitution have the highest rates of rape and homicide of any group of women ever studied. They are regularly physically assaulted and verbally abused, whether they prostitute on the street or in massage parlours, brothels or hotels.
Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in legal prostitution. In one Dutch study, 60 per cent of women in legal prostitution were physically assaulted, 70 per cent were threatened with physical assault, 40 per cent experienced sexual violence and 40 per cent had been coerced into legal prostitution.
In nine countries, we found that 68 per cent of women, men and transgendered people in prostitution had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a prevalence that is comparable to that of battered or raped women seeking help, and survivors of state-sponsored torture. Across widely varying cultures on five continents the traumatic consequences of prostitution were similar whether prostitution was legal, tolerated, or illegal.
Yet some who may not be familiar with the sex industry believe that legalisation will decrease the harm of prostitution, like a bandage on a wound. They ask: “Wouldn’t it be at least a little bit better if it were legalised? Wouldn’t there be less stigma, and wouldn’t prostitutes somehow be protected?”
Underpinning laws that legalise prostitution is the belief that prostitution is inevitable. Public statements by pimps emphasise that prostitution is here to stay, with Dennis Hof in Reno and Heidi Fleiss in Sydney repeating the mantra that “boys will be boys”. Although false, these stereotypes about men mainstream prostitution and they are also good business strategy, relieving johns of ambivalence regarding the social acceptability of buying sex while at the same time inviting men to spend like suckers.
Pimps do not suddenly become nice guys because prostitution is legal. Legal Amsterdam brothels have up to three panic buttons in every room. Why? Because legal johns are not nice guys looking for a normal date. They regularly attempt to rape and strangle women.
As Amsterdam began shutting down its legal brothels a few years ago, Mayor Job Cohen acknowledged that the Dutch had been wrong about legal prostitution. It did not make prostitution safer. Instead, he said, legal prostitution increased organised crime. It functioned like a magnet for pimps and punters. Trafficking increased after legal prostitution – 80 per cent of women in Dutch prostitution have been trafficked.
Do not believe what you see on Cathouse. They are acting. A colleague was telling the truth about her experience of prostitution on a TV talk show. During a break in filming, she was approached by a second woman who had been escorted in front of the cameras by her legal Nevada pimp. Whispering, the frightened woman begged for help, saying the pimp had coerced her to say on camera how much fun prostitution was. Leaving behind her purse and coat so the pimp would assume she was returning, they both ran and the woman was helped to escape.
The dilemma is not that there is no legal redress for coercion, physical assault and rape in illegal prostitution. There are laws against those forms of violence. The dilemma is that once in prostitution, there is no avoiding sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, rape and acts that are the equivalent of mental torture.
What do johns say about prostitution?
You get what you pay for without the “no,” a sex buyer explained.
Non-prostituting women have the right to say “no.” We have legal protection from sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. But tolerating sexual abuse is the job description for prostitution.
It’s a myth that johns are harmless.
Research shows that a majority of johns refuse condoms, pay high prices to desperately poor women to not use condoms, or rape women without condoms.
Research compared frequent and infrequent sex buyers. The men who most frequently used women in prostitution were the most likely to have committed sexually aggressive acts against non-prostituting women.
Do all women have the right to live without the sexual harassment or sexual exploitation of prostitution – or is that right reserved only for those who have sex, race or class privilege?
Although a majority of UK johns believe that most women have been lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution, they buy them anyway. This finding is consistent with another study showing that 47 per cent of US johns who responded to an online escort advertisement were willing to buy a child despite three warnings.
According to a john interviewed for a research study, “All prostitutes are exploited. However, they also have good incomes.” (Di Nicola, Cuaduro, Lombardi, & Ruspini, 2009, “Prostitution and human trafficking: Focus on clients”)
Some people have made the decision that it is reasonable to expect certain women to turn ten tricks a day in order to survive. Those women most often are poor and most often are racially marginalised. This neocolonial economic perspective is enshrined in a Canadian prostitution tourist’s comment about women in Thai prostitution:
These girls gotta eat, don’t they? I’m putting bread on their plate. I’m making a contribution. They’d starve to death unless they whored.
This john-sympathetic economic Darwinism avoids the question: Do all women have the right to live without the sexual harassment or sexual exploitation of prostitution – or is that right reserved only for those who have sex, race or class privilege?
Which laws work, and which laws fail to stop the harms of prostitution?
All women should have the right to survive without prostituting.
Women, men, children, and the transgendered in prostitution should not be arrested. There’s no debate on that important issue.
Let’s get to the facts, not the myths, about legal prostitution. There is lots of evidence about the negative consequences of legal and decriminalised prostitution.
Legal prostitution specifies where prostitution is permitted to take place, including municipal tolerance zones or red-light zones. Decriminalised prostitution removes all laws against pimping, pandering, and buying women in prostitution, and decriminalises the person who is prostituted.
Legal and decriminalised prostitution are similar in their effects. Pimp-like, the state collects taxes from legal prostitution. In decriminalised regimes, the old fashioned pimps become legitimised entrepreneurs.
New Zealand passed a law in 2003 that decriminalised selling sex, buying sex, and pimping. A Prostitution Law Review Committee (2008) reported what happened after prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand. Seven years after the NZ law was passed, battles are still being waged about whose neighbourhood prostitution will be zoned into. No one wants prostitution next door. Prostitution is zoned into the neighbourhoods of people who cannot afford the legal fees to prevent it.
The regulation of prostitution by zoning is a physical manifestation of the same social/psychological stigma that decriminalisation advocates allegedly want to avoid. Whether in Turkish genelevs (walled-off multi-unit brothel complexes) or in Nevada brothels (ringed with barbed wire or electric fencing), women in state-zoned prostitution are physically isolated and socially rejected by the rest of society.
The social stigma of prostitution persisted five years after decriminalisation in New Zealand, according to the Law Review Committee.
After decriminalization in NZ, violence and sexual abuse in prostitution continued as before. “The majority of sex workers felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred” and that violence was an inevitable aspect of the sex industry, according to the Law Review Committee. After the law was passed, 35 per cent of women in prostitution reported that they had been coerced by johns. Women in massage parlour prostitution who were under the control of pimps reported the highest rate of coercion. Five years after legally defining prostitution as work, the New Zealand law was unable to change the exploitative quasi-contractual arrangements that existed before prostitution was decriminalised. Most people in prostitution (both indoor and street) continued to mistrust police. They did not report violence or crimes against them to the police.
Prostitution is legal in some Australian provinces. The Australian Occupational and Safety Codes (OSC) recommend classes in hostage negotiation skills for those in legal prostitution, reflecting johns’ violence.
Trafficking is most prevalent wherever prostitution is legal or decriminalised. When prostitution is legal, pimps operate with impunity and johns are welcomed. Trafficking of children has increased in New Zealand since decriminalisation, especially the trafficking of ethnic minority Maori children.
Reflecting increased organized crime since decriminalisation, Auckland gangs have waged turf wars over control of prostitution.
Since decriminalisation street prostitution has spiraled out of control, especially in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. A 200-400% increase in street prostitution has been reported.
After legalisation of prostitution in Victoria, Australia, the number of legal brothels doubled. But the greatest expansion was in illegal prostitution. In one year there was a 300 per cent increase in illegal brothels.
Staff at a NZ agency providing prostitution exit strategies observed that there were twice as many johns in the street since decriminalisation. The johns were more aggressive after prostitution was decriminalised, soliciting the agency’s women staff members. Similar post-decriminalisation increased aggression against women has been noted among Australian johns.
Is prostitution a choice?
Arguments for legalising prostitution depend on the strength of two arguments: that prostitution is a choice for those in it and that the harms of prostitution are decreased if it is legalised. There is little evidence that either of these arguments are true. But zombie theories about prostitution never seem to die no matter how many facts we beat them down with.
Only a tiny percentage all women in prostitution are there because they choose it. For most, prostitution is not a freely-made choice because the conditions that would permit genuine choice are not present: physical safety, equal power with buyers, and real alternatives.
The few who do choose prostitution are privileged by class or race or education. They usually have options for escape. Most women in prostitution do not have viable alternatives. They are coerced into prostitution by sex inequality, race/ethnic inequality, and economic inequality.
Here are examples of these invisible coercions:
More than 90 per cent of those in it tell us that they want escape from prostitution.
* The woman in India who worked in an office where she concluded that she might as well prostitute and be paid more for the sexual harassment and abuse that was expected of her anyway in order to keep her job. That’s not a choice.
* The teen in California who said that in her neighborhood boys grew up to be pimps and drug dealers and girls grew up to be hos. She was the third generation of prostituted women in her family. Prostitution more severely harms indigenous and ethnically marginalised women because of their lack of alternatives. That’s not a choice.
* A woman in Zambia who said that five blowjobs would pay for a bag of cornmeal so she could feed her children. That’s not a choice.
* The First Nations survivor of prostitution in Vancouver who said, “We want real jobs, not blowjobs,” See here for the rest of her 2009 speech and other writings by survivors who have gotten out and who are supporting sisters to also escape.
* The young woman sold by her parents at 16 into a Nevada legal brothel. Ten years later, she took six psychiatric drugs that tranquilised her so she could make it through the day selling sex. That’s not a choice.
There is no evidence for the theory that legalisation somehow – how is never specified – decreases the harm of prostitution.
In fact, legalisation increases trafficking, increases prostitution of children, and increases sex buyers’ demands for cheaper or “unrestricted” sex acts (Sullivan, 2007, “Making Sex Work: A Failed Experiment with Legalized Prostitution”). Whether prostitution is legal or illegal, research shows that the poorer she is, and the longer she’s been in prostitution, the more likely she is to experience violence. The emotional consequences of prostitution are the same whether prostitution is legal or illegal, and whether it happens in a brothel, a strip club, a massage parlour, or on the street.
A decade ago, Sweden named prostitution as a form of violence against women that fosters inequality. As a result Sweden criminalised buyers and decriminalised the person in prostitution. Iceland, Norway, and South Korea have now passed similar laws, with the UK passing legislation that moves in a similar direction and Israel currently considering such a bill.
The Swedish government recently released an evaluation of the 1999 Swedish law on prostitution much like the New Zealand Law Reform Commission’s Report. The news is better from Sweden.
In a decade, street prostitution in Sweden has decreased by 50 per cent, although it has increased in neighbouring countries. There is no evidence that women have moved from street to indoor prostitution in Sweden.
The intimate relationship between prostitution and trafficking is highlighted when buyers are criminalized. Sweden now has the fewest trafficked women in the EU. The law interferes with the international business of pimping and the practice of buying sex.
While there was initial resistance to the Swedish law, now more than 70 per cent of the public supports it. Women exiting prostitution use state-provided exit services. Not surprisingly, “those who have extricated themselves from prostitution take a positive view of criminalisation, while those who are still exploited in prostitution are critical of the ban.”
Prostitution should not be legalised because it can’t be fixed, only abolished. More than 90 per cent of those in it tell us that they want escape from prostitution. In order to escape they need housing, education, jobs that provide a sustainable income, health care and emotional support. We should all be working on providing women with alternatives to prostitution.