Breaking Myths about Prostitution
Prostitution is often assumed to be ‘victimless’. This is a prevalent theory which suggests that all individuals present are consenting. This opinion ultimately conceptualizes prostitutes as people who have chosen this life, who make profit from it and live glamorously. While it may be true that some individuals in the industry choose this line of work and are fulfilled by it, we must recognize that this is not the experience of all sex workers.
This is an important myth to break about prostitution. The truth is that forced prostitution of women is a serious act of violence against them, and a violation of their most basic human rights.
The media certainly has a role to play in the development of this theory. Katie Pedigo, executive director of a nonprofit working with trafficked teens and women called, New Friends New Life, explains how the media portrays prostitution:
“[…] a sexy and highly-paid adventure where business is conducted at upscale bars and in hotel rooms […] Though some sex workers do have that experience, most do not. For the vast majority of prostituted women, prostitution is the experience of being hunted, dominated, harassed, assaulted and battered.”
Many people however seem to be under the impression that women choose prostitution as a vocation like any other, implying they therefore must bear its consequences. The reality of prostitution is that the vast majority of women entering the industry did not do so by choice: various surveys found that approximately 90% of prostituted women did not want to be in this industry, but lacked viable alternatives. Transactional sexual relations can be a breeding ground for exploitation and harassment. Many times a pimp will establish a condition of employment that sex workers must submit to the sexual demands of clients. In this sense, prostitution is not an act of consent between adults, but rather a question of forced compliance. Human Rights Watch explains that, every year, thousands upon thousands of women and girls are lured, abducted or sold into forced prostitution. They subsequently have no possibility to escape or negotiate their conditions of life or employment.
This myth also seems to selectively focus on the women who “choose” to become prostitutes. In doing so, it ultimately ignores the structural factors which cause the supply of sex work. In fact, a variety of devastating socio-cultural causes have been proven to bring women to turn to prostitution. Economic hardship and racism, for example, are prevalent contextual factors leading women into the sex trade. Moreover, studies show that the majority of women in prostitution (including escort services) were sexually abused during their childhood.
Beyond the entry into the sex industry, prostitution itself has the potential to victimize women. In fact, studies show that of working adult women in the sex trade: 82% have been physically assaulted, 83% have been threatened with a weapon, 68% have been raped while working and 84% reported current or past homelessness. From this study, it appears that prostitution has the potential to create a setting which leaves human beings without protection, ignoring their basic rights to dignity and health. Recruiters, brothel owners, and pimps tend to be largely unconcerned with the abuses experienced by their workers, as their focus is on making profit. Women working as prostitutes can easily become pawns in an exploitative game of supply and demand.
In some countries, corrupt government officials intentionally remain silent about the violence experienced by sex workers within their jurisdictions as they receive money from pimps to act as enforcers. Prostitutes thus can be left without a support network and defenseless in situations which violate their basic rights to safety and refuge.
Additionally, we must note that the impact of prostitution on women’s physical and mental health can be devastating. In a study interviewing hundreds of prostitutes in nine different countries, researchers found that 68% of the women met the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), twice the diagnosis rate of wartime soldiers. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain that the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is incredibly high among persons working as prostitutes, who are often unable to prevent and treat these viruses if they are living with poor work conditions.
The mortality rate among prostitute women is also higher than that of the general population. This has been linked to the culture of violence, drugs and homicide attached to prostitution, testifying to the inarguable harms and dangers of the industry and its workers.
When we consider the research that has been done, it becomes difficult to view prostitution as victimless. It’s time we break this myth. It is inarguably difficult to discern who is being empowered and exploited in sex work. We don’t have all the answers, though there is increasing consensus that pornography has a significant role in the demand for prostitution. Research is ultimately still needed so we can gain a better understanding of this complex industry.
Sex workers, no matter the situations leading them to this industry, are deserving of dignity, respect and safety. By extension, they are deserving of help. Recognizing this is a crucial step to combatting the violence and exploitation that sex workers experience.
About the Author
Jess Debanne, a proud Montrealer, is an International Development major at McGill University, minoring in Communications and World Religions. You can find her reading a book in a coffee shop, planning a trip to a new city or laughing with her loved ones. Her passion for social justice issues has inspired her work in nonprofit organizations both at home and in the developing world.