RCASA Friday Facts: Prostitution Factsheet on Human Rights Violation

In Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on October 7, 2011 at 5:00 am
90% of prostituted women interviewed by WHISPER had pimps while in prostitution (Evelina Giobbe, 1987, WHISPER Oral History Project, Minneapolis, Minnesota).

Pimps target girls or women who seem naive, lonely, homeless, and rebellious. At first, the attention and feigned affection from the pimp convinces her to “be his woman.” Pimps ultimately keep prostituted women in virtual captivity by verbal abuse – making a woman feel that she is utterly worthless: a toilet, a piece of trash; and by physical coercion – beatings and the threat of torture. 80% to 95% of all prostitution is pimp-controlled. (Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995, New York, New York University Press)

Describing the trauma of prostitution, and its consequences, one fourteen year old stated: “You feel like a piece of hamburger meat – all chopped up and barely holding together” (D. Kelly Weisberg, 1985, Children of the Night, Lexington Books, Toronto).

The answer to the question “why do prostitutes stay with their pimps?” is the same as the answer to the question “why do battered women stay with their batterers?” (Melissa Farley, 1996) Humans bond emotionally to their abusers as a psychological strategy to survive under conditions of captivity. This has been described as the Stockholm syndrome (Dee Graham with Rawlings and Rigsby, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives, 1994, New York University Press, New York.)

“About 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape. It’s hard to talk about this because..the experience of prostitution is just like rape. Prostitutes are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year. They are the most raped class of women in the history of our planet. ” (Susan Kay Hunter and K.C. Reed, July, 1990 “Taking the side of bought and sold rape,” speech at National Coalition against Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C. ) 

Other studies report 68% to 70% of women in prostitution being raped (M Silbert, “Compounding factors in the rape of street prostitutes,” in A.W. Burgess, ed., Rape and Sexual Assault II, Garland Publishing, 1988; Melissa Farley and Howard Barkan, “Prostitution, Violence, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” 1998, Women & Health.

78% of 55 women who sought help from the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in 1991 reported being raped an average of 16 times a year by pimps, and were raped 33 times a year by johns. (Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives Annual Report, 1991, Portland, Oregon)

85% of prostitutes are raped by pimps. (Council on Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, 1994)

Prostitution is an act of violence against women which is intrinsically traumatizing. In a study of 475 people in prostitution (including women, men, and the transgendered) from five countries (South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia):

62% reported having been raped in prostitution.
73% reported having experienced physical assault in prostitution.
72% were currently or formerly homeless.
92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately.
(Melissa Farley, Isin Baral, Merab Kiremire, Ufuk Sezgin, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (1998) Feminism & Psychology 8 (4): 405-426

83% of prostitutes are victims of assault with a weapon. (National Coalition Against Sexual Assault)

A Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography concluded that girls and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the national average. ( Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada 350.

Many of the health problems of women in prostitution are a direct result of violence. For example, several women had their ribs broken by the police in Istanbul, a woman in San Francisco broke her hips jumping out of a car when a john was attempting to kidnap her. Many women had their teeth knocked out by pimps and johns. (Melissa Farley, unpublished manuscript, 2000)

One woman (in another study) said about her health: “I’ve had three broken arms, nose broken twice, [and] I’m partially deaf in one ear….I have a small
fragment of a bone floating in my head that gives me migraines. I’ve had a fractured skull. My legs ain’t worth shit no more; my toes have been broken. My feet, bottom of my feet, have been burned; they’ve been whopped with a hot iron and clothes hanger… the hair on my pussy had been burned off at one time…I have scars. I’ve been cut with a knife, beat with guns, two by fours. There hasn’t been a place on my body that hasn’t been bruised somehow, some way, some big, some small.” (Giobbe, E. (1992) Juvenile Prostitution: Profile of Recruitment in Ann W. Burgess (ed.) Child Trauma: Issues & Research.
Garland Publishing Inc, New York, page 126).

In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted suicide. Prostituted women comprised 15% of all completed suicides reported by hospitals. (Letter from Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Jan 6, 1993, cited by Phyllis Chesler in “A Woman’s Right to Self-Defense: the case of Aileen Carol Wuornos,” in Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, 1994, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine.

Like combat veterans, women in prostitution suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological reaction to extreme physical and emotional trauma. Symptoms are acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional numbing, and being in a state of emotional and physical hyperalertness. 67% of those in prostitution from five countries met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD – a rate similar to that of battered women, rape victims, and state-sponsored torture survivors. (Melissa Farley, Isin Baral, Merab Kiremire, Ufuk Sezgin, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (1998) Feminism & Psychology 8 (4): 405-426

“For a great part of 1992 I lived in a beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill. I drove my expensive car. I bought lovely clothes and traveled extensively out of the country. For the first time in my 20 years as an adult woman, I paid my own way. There was no need to worry about affording my rent, my phone bill, all the debts one accumulates simply by living month to month. I felt invincible. And I was miserable to the core. I hated myself because I hated my life All the things I came to possess meant nothing. I could not face myself in the mirror. Working in prostitution lost my soul.” Survivor interviewed by Debra Boyer, Lynn Chapman and Brent Marshall in Survival Sex in King County: Helping Women Out (1993), King County Women;s Advisory Board, Northwest Resource Associates, Seattle.

“[In the past, we had a women’s] movement which understood that the choice to be beaten by one man for economic survival was not a real choice, despite the appearance of consent a marriage contract might provide. …Yet now we are supposed to believe, in the name of feminism, that the choice to be fucked by hundreds of men for economic survival must be affirmed as a real choice, and if the woman signs a model release there is no coercion there.” (Catharine A. MacKinnon, “Liberalism and the Death of Feminism,” in Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice Raymond (eds), The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism, 1990, Teachers College Press, New York.)

67% of 475 people in prostitution from South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia met diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 92% stated that they wanted to leave prostitution, and said that what they needed was: a home or safe place (73%); job training (70%); and health care (59%). (Melissa Farley, Isin Baral, Merab Kiremire, Ufuk Sezgin, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (1998) Feminism & Psychology 8 (4): 405-426

Other studies have noted that those in prostitution want to escape, and have the same needs as others who are in similar circumstances. El Bassel found that women who used drugs and who also prostituted were significantly more psychologically distressed than were drug-using women who did not prostitute. El Bassel et al. (1997) “Sex Trading and Psychological Distress among Women Recruited from the Streets of Harlem,” American Journal of Public Health, 87: 66-70.

In order to understand the trauma of prostitution, it is necessary to also understand the ways in which racism and sexism are inextricably connected in prostitution (see Vednita Carter,1993, “Prostitution: Where Racism and Sexism Intersect,” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, 1: 81-89. Also see Jackie Lynne (1998) “Street Prostitution as Sexual Exploitation in First Nations Women’s Lives.” Essay submitted in partial fulfillment of Master of Social Work, University of British Colombia, Vancouver, B.C., April 1998. See a short version of Lynne’s thesis “Colonialism and the Prostitution of First Nations Women in Canada” on the Prostitution Research & Education web site <http://www.prostitutionresearch.com>

There are few if any programs which address the needs of children of prostitutes. In a recent study of 1,963 prostitutes, more than two-thirds had at least one child. The average number of children was 2. 40% of the children lived with their grandmothers, but 20% lived with a mother working as a prostitute. 9% of the children were in foster care. 5% of the working prostitutes were pregnant when interviewed. (Adele Weiner, “Understanding the Social Needs of Streetwalking Prostitutes,” 1996, Social Work, 41: 97-106.)

In 1994, women in the sex industry were identified as one of three populations most in need of specialized services, primarily as a result of the violence inflicted upon them as a result of their work. (City of Seattle Dept of Housing and Human Service, Domestic Violence Community Advocacy Program Expansion, Feb. 1994)

In prostitution, demand creates supply. Because men want to buy sex, prostitution is assumed to be inevitable, therefore ‘normal.’ Here are quotes from three different johns:

  1. “It’s like going to have your car done, you tell them what you want done, they don’t ask, you tell them you want so and so done…” (McKeganey, N. and Barnard, M. ,1996, Sex Work on the Streets: Prostitutes and Their Clients. Milton Keynes Open University Press, Buckingham, Scotland.).
  2. I am a firm believer that all women… are prostitutes at one time or another” (Hite, S. ,1981, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. New York, Alfred A. Knopf)
  3. Discussing his experience in a strip club, one man said, “This is the part of me that can still go hunting” (Frank, K. (1999) Intimate Labors: Masculinity, Consumption, and Authenticity in Five Gentlemen’s Clubs, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke University, Durham, N.C.).
  4. Violent behaviors against women have been associated with attitudes which promote men’s beliefs that they are entitled to sexual access to women, that they are superior to women, and that they are licensed as sexual aggressors. ( White,J.W. & Koss, M.P 1993, “Adolescent sexual aggression within heterosexual relationships: prevalence, characteristics, and causes. ” In H.E. Barbaree, W.L. Marshall and D. R. Laws.(eds.) The Juvenile Sex Offender, Guilford Press, New York.

In 1993, 42% of women arrested in Seattle on prostitution-related charges were convicted.

In 1993, 8% of men arrested in Seattle on prostitution-related charges were convicted. (Seattle Women’s Commission, 1995, “Project to Address the Legal, Political, and Service Barriers Facing Women in the Sex Industry” Seattle, Washington.

If we view prostitution as violence against women, it makes no sense to legalize or decriminalize prostitution. The primary violence in prostitution is not “social stigma” as some maintain. Decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution would normalize and regulate practices which are human rights violations, and which in any other context would be legally actionable (sexual harassment, physical assault, rape, captivity, economic coercion.) or emotionally damaging (verbal abuse). (Melissa Farley)

In 1999, the Swedish Parliament put into effect a law which criminalizes the buying of sexual services but not the selling of sexual services. This is a compassionate, social interventionist legal response to the cruelty of prostitution. (see,Sven-Axel Mansson and Ulla-Carin Hedin, 1999, “Breaking the Matthew Effect – On Women Leaving Prostitution,” International Journal of Social Work. Also see Prostitution Research & Education web site, http://www.prostitutionresearch.com for a copy of the Swedish law))


“It takes a village to create a prostitute.”

P.R.E.: Melissa Farley, PhD is at mfarley@prostitutionresearch.com
Current Webmaster: Nitecat Media

All Contents ©1998-2004 Melissa Farley unless otherwise noted.


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