This article takes a hard look at prostitution, and how it affects people, taking in its intrinsic links with porn, sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation, its inherent racism, and why we should hold those who drive it accountable.
Geena Leigh was in prostitution for 19 years from the age of 18. In her submission to an Australian inquiry into the regulation of brothels, she said 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.”
Geena lives in Australia, where the sex trade is decriminalised in some states. In her submission to the Australian government she tells how, when she was trying to get out, she kept thinking: “It’s legal so it can’t be that bad.” So she told herself to handle it and kept on, “despite that it was a life of utter misery.”
No-one warned Geena what it would be like and how it would affect her over time. Now she speaks in schools, because she wants girls to know the truth about prostitution and how damaging it is to women’s well-being.
No one told these women how damaging working with asbestos would be either. This photo shows women working in an asbestos factory in 1918, when few people knew that asbestos causes fatal lung diseases, and a slow and painful early death. Now the damage is undisputed and a full ban came into force in the UK in 1999.
Before we look at the reality of prostitution, let’s notice who does the buying and who is bought and sold. Almost all of the prostitution buyers – or punters as we sometimes call them – are male.
And the vast majority of those who are bought and sold in prostitution are female. Nowhere in the world are there brothels full of men for the exclusive use of women.
In this article we refer to those who are bought and sold as women and girls. We do this for simplicity, and to emphasise the gendered nature of prostitution – and not to suggest that it’s any less damaging to boys, men and transgendered people.
This powerful painting is by Suzzan Blac, a survivor of prostitution and sex trafficking. Notice the young woman in the picture has a gun pointing at her head.
Girls don’t generally grow up wanting to be in prostitution. So what has happened to the girls and young women who end up in it?
Testimony from survivors and studies of women and girls in prostitution consistently show that many, often as many as a third, were in local authority care as children; about half started in prostitution before they were 18, or when they were homeless; about half were coerced into it by someone; and about three quarters had been abused as children.
In recent years there’s been a huge increase in poverty in the UK, as a result of things like government austerity policies, low wages, zero-hour contracts, student fees, and benefit cuts and sanctions. This has hit women, especially single mothers, hardest.
The film, I, Daniel Blake, shows single mum, Katie, turning to prostitution as a last resort. Agencies who work with women in prostitution are reporting that they’re seeing this all over the country: desperate women turning to prostitution to provide for their children.
Pimping is extremely lucrative. A pimp earns on average £70 per hour per woman. Compare that to the adult minimum wage. But no one really wants to have sex with up to 20 strangers a day – so pimping invariably involves force and coercion.
So what do we mean by grooming? Typically a pimp starts by playing on her need for love and attention, and her desire for a better life and nice things. He introduces commercial sex by saying he has an urgent need for money, ‘If you love me, you’ll do this,’ he says. Soon this changes to: ‘You are just a whore. My whore!’ He continues alternating emotional manipulation and violence, while living on her earnings, for as long as she lasts.
There’s simply no way that most girls and young women, especially those from troubled backgrounds and local authority care, have the life experience and confidence to understand the ulterior motives behind this type of manipulation and to resist it.
We’ve all heard of the cases of children being groomed by gangs of men – for example, in Oxford, Rotherham and Rochdale. In the Oxford case, there were an estimated 373 child victims, most of whom were girls, many from local authority care, some as young as 11. They were sold to men for up to £600 an hour.
This is now referred to as “child sexual exploitation” (CSE) which makes it clear that the child is not to blame. Unfortunately, however, it obscures the fact that ordinary men in the community pay to rent the girls to use and abuse, and the huge profits that motivate the pimps.
There’s evidence that this is happening all over the UK.
Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. The internationally agreed definition is in a UN treaty that’s known as the Palermo Protocol. The key features of the definition are using force or coercion, or taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability, in order to exploit (i.e. profit from) their prostitution – regardless whether the person is transported from place to place. Whether the person has consented is also irrelevant, just like with slavery and torture.
The sex trafficking legislation in England and Wales is in the Modern Slavery Act. Unfortunately, it doesn’t use the Palermo Protocol definition. Because, if it did, it would be clear that sex trafficking is essentially the same as the vast majority of pimping. And because the majority of women and girls in prostitution are pimped, this means that most prostitution does actually meet the international definition of sex trafficking.
Or, as law professor, Catharine MacKinnon, put it, “sex trafficking is straight-up pimping.” She says that, although no one defends sex trafficking, people try to redefine it to cover as few cases as possible, so that nothing has to change, and as a society we don’t have to look at prostitution’s central role in it.
Human trafficking is not only a grotesque violation of human rights, it’s a lucrative crime. It ranks as the world’s third most profitable crime after illicit drug and arms trafficking.
This map shows how traffickers move women and girls around the world to meet the insatiable appetites of men for prostitution. Thinking about global economics, we can see that the countries of origin are poorer and the destination countries are wealthier.
Racism is a central feature of prostitution, with Black and Asian women subjected to some of the worst brutality. Here is a Hong Kong brothel advert that categorises the women by ethnic origin – so race is being used as a key selling point of the women, who are being treated as a product or commodity.
It’s not possible to separate prostitution from pornography – not only because pornography is itself filmed prostitution, and many of the actresses have been coerced into it and meet the definition of being trafficked.
But also because of pornography’s use in the grooming of individual girls and young women into accepting prostitution and acts they would not otherwise tolerate. In fact, you could say that the widespread availability of online porn grooms all our young people into accepting prostitution and the objectification of women and girls.
Ann Olivarius, a lawyer experienced in cases concerning the sex industry, says that some of the most traumatised people she’s ever met are prostituted women whose customers have acted out things they’ve seen in porn films on them.
Next we’re going to look at the reality of prostitution, mostly using graphic art. You may find this distressing, but we do need to face the reality, if we’re to understand what is an appropriate solution.
Prostitution is deeply gendered. Here is a photo of women waiting for punters in a Nevada brothel.
The flow of punters is unpredictable, and the women must maintain a state of perpetual readiness, and compete against each other for the punters’ attention.
And here we see women in a late 19th Century Parisian brothel lined up in their underwear for a punter. Notice the punter is fully clad and he’s sizing them up as if they’re merchandise. Notice the expressions on the women’s faces. Compare their expressions with the punter’s.
So what does he buy?
He buys the use of her body, including her vagina, rectum, mouth, and breasts. This is the core of prostitution. This is not a service: rather he is renting the use of her body.
This autobiographical art, from the “Brothel Girl” Tumblr blog, brilliantly captures the reality of prostitution. As we go through, notice the expression on her face.
While he’s using her, she has to pretend she’s enjoying it, or she has to act out his fantasy, and she has to pretend she thinks he’s great. No matter what she’s actually thinking or feeling, she has to maintain this pretence.
This is part of the deal. Part of what he’s buying.
He buys the “right” to say whatever he wants – no matter how insulting. Punters commonly call her things like “bitch” and “whore.” That’s part of the deal too.
He buys the “right” to be in control.
Here we see him engaging in “reverse oral” or cunnilingus. This is a fairly standard part of indoor prostitution. Clearly this is not about him having a sexual climax; it’s about him demanding that she has a sexual response to him. Maybe that helps him pretend it’s a consensual arrangement.
The prostitution encounter takes place outside normal social conventions. In the words of Julia O’Connell Davidson, he’s allowed to treat her as if she’s socially dead; as if she’s not a human being. Or in the words of a survivor, “like a public toilet.”
And if we think back to the expressions of the women in the line-up, she’s expected to look willing. And the punter interprets this as a free choice to engage in the encounter.
What does it mean for society if we can treat some people as if they’re not human beings?
And what does it mean for her?
Think about your own response to a stranger groping your breasts or touching or assaulting you sexually. Obviously responses vary but typically they’d include emotions like alarm, disgust, fear, anger, violation.
Yet such acts are the essence of prostitution.
So to exist in prostitution, you have to suppress your involuntary responses, and even pretend you’re enjoying it. This requires dissociating from your feelings, from your true self. This can cause long term psychological difficulties. And many women turn to drugs or alcohol just to endure it.
Although some women go into prostitution to fund a drug habit, it’s more common to turn to drugs or alcohol once you’re in it – because it’s the only way you can bear it.
Here’s a quote from a survivor of prostitution that illustrates this: “I’d numb my feelings… I’d actually leave my body and go somewhere else with my thoughts and feelings until he got off me and it was over with. I don’t know how else to explain it except it felt like rape. It was rape to me.”
Alice Glass says that all the prostituted women she met during her ten years in prostitution, “carried with them the same bundles of neurosis, addiction and melancholy. Without exception.”
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops in response to traumatic or life-threatening experiences, such as war, sexual assault, or accidents. Symptoms can be physically and emotionally crippling and are sometimes delayed for months or even years. And they’re usually worse when the trauma is deliberately inflicted by a human being or repeated over time.
In one study, 68% of women in prostitution met the criteria for PTSD. This is a similar prevalence to that seen in combat veterans.
A German study based on medical examinations of 1,000 women in prostitution found that:
- Most suffer from chronic lower abdominal pain caused by inflammation and mechanical trauma.
- Most show signs of premature ageing, a symptom of persistent stress.
- Most had injuries caused by the overuse of their delicate sexual organs and orifices.
- Most had injuries deliberately inflicted by punters.
These things make women more vulnerable to infections. Condoms don’t protect them from any of it. Financial or other pressures meant that most of the women had to continue in prostitution even when they were in severe physical pain.
So let’s look at that category of “injuries deliberately inflicted by punters.”
In this study women reported experiencing a staggering amount of physical violence from punters. Nearly two thirds had been threatened with a weapon, nearly three quarters had been physically assaulted, and more than half had been raped (which, in this context, means unwanted sex for which they weren’t paid). Of those who’d been raped, nearly 60% had been raped six or more times.
Other studies have found similar results and the testimony of survivors tells the same story.
Brenda Myers-Powell who was in prostitution for 25 years, was shot five times, stabbed more than 13 times, was beaten unconscious several times, had her arm and nose broken, and two teeth knocked out.
Prostituted women also have an increased likelihood of being murdered. Mostly by punters and pimps.
This figure shows the numbers (as at April 2016) of known recorded murders of prostituted women over differing time periods in four EU countries, three of which (Germany, Spain and The Netherlands) have some form of legalised prostitution, and one, Sweden, has the Nordic Model.
While the Nordic Model doesn’t make prostitution safe – because nothing can – it does reduce the amount that takes place, and therefore the number of new women being drawn into it; and it provides genuine routes out for those already involved. If we look at the murder statistics in these different countries, we can see strong evidence that this approach works.
But many murders of prostituted women go unreported.
Rebecca Mott, a survivor of indoor prostitution and campaigner for the Nordic Model says:
“It’s normal that the bodies of prostituted women and girls are made to disappear by the sex trade profiteers. They get away with it because they assume no-one cares about their safety. The prostituted are made to be isolated, and their disappearances often go unreported.”
But it’s not just murder. Women in prostitution have a very high mortality rate. One study in Canada estimated it to be 40 times higher than women in the general population. Women in indoor prostitution in particular have a very high rate of suicide. In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted it.
This should not surprise us, because in study after study, most women say they want to leave prostitution but have no other options for survival. In one study, 89% of the women interviewed said this.
Most of the time, women continue because of an absence of viable alternatives. Let’s look at why it’s so hard to get out. Common factors include: having no training or qualifications, being dependent on drugs or alcohol, being coerced by a “boyfriend” or pimp, having debts, and a criminal record.
Much unskilled women’s work requires a criminal record check. A criminal record therefore rules out much potential work. This is one reason we’re not just campaigning for the decriminalisation of those in prostitution, but also for the removal of their criminal records for soliciting, and for high quality services that provide a genuine route out. And an end to the structural inequality that leaves so many women in dire poverty.
And when women do manage to get out, the effects continue. Angel, a survivor of prostitution, says:
“I’m still dealing with the aftermath of being in prostitution. I suffer nightmares, flashbacks and am triggered by numerous things. I find it difficult to trust people, particularly men, and still struggle massively around sex. I still dissociate, and feel like I split off from myself. I still define myself by these experiences and it tears me apart when programmes like, ‘Diary of a call girl’ are on TV. It makes me feel hopeless and utterly and wretchedly alone, drowned out by the vast noise of the sex industry and its all-powerful lobbying.”
So there we have it. For the women involved, prostitution brings a very high risk of long-term, serious, psychological and physical health problems, suicidal despair, being beaten up, raped, and even murdered. No other occupation brings such high risks.
It is time for the perpetrators – the pimps and punters – to be held to account for this mayhem they cause.
So who are the punters?
They’re men of all ages, races, religions, and backgrounds. They’re rich and they’re poor. No one knows exactly how many men do it. Estimates vary from about 10% to about 80% of the adult male population.
To give a flavour of their attitudes we’ll look at a couple of quotes from punter forums where they can enter reviews of the women they buy.
“She was just like a piece of meat… I thought I’ve paid so I better fuck her hard! I decided to put the legs on my shoulders and I was pumping hard!”
Notice how he refers to her legs as if they’re disembodied.
Here’s another one:
“When I asked about anal I was told, not available on first meeting! Well I ain’t starting a relationship with you, love. I just want to fuck you up the arse!”
Studies of punters find that they enjoy the lack of emotional involvement, and see the women as commodities. One punter said:
“Prostitution treats women as objects and not human beings.”
The punters often voiced aggression towards women, and were nearly eight times as likely as non-punters to say they’d rape if they could get away with it. Asked why he bought sex, one man said he liked “to beat women up.”
Punters commit more crimes of every kind than non-punters, and commit every kind of violence against women.
Let’s think about this for a minute. We saw earlier that prostitution involves sex with a woman who doesn’t actually want it. Isn’t that the essence of rape? Does paying actually change that? … Is it any wonder then that prostitution buying makes men more likely to rape?
The results of the punter studies are borne out by studies that start by looking at violent men. For example, here is a chart that shows the relative significance of different factors in the lives of rapists. The bigger the circle, the more important the factor is.
Not surprisingly, “transactional sex,” i.e. prostitution buying, (which is highlighted in yellow) is the second-biggest factor and it dwarfs things like men having been victims of childhood abuse.
The results for men who are violent to their partners were similar.
As we can see, this shows a very high correlation between purchasing sex and raping women – so it suggests that prostitution buying itself makes men more violent.
There are generally few consequences for punters. But occasionally men in the public eye are exposed. Here are a few of them. They include senior politicians, financiers, celebrities and sportsmen. These are the types of men who have power, who control our culture and laws. So perhaps it’s not surprising that prostitution is normalised, trivialised and glamorised, everywhere.
The second article in this two-part series is called Prostitution Policy and Law: What are the Options? and looks at legal and policy options and why the Nordic Model is the human rights and equality-based approach. The two articles are also available as a downloadable presentation (slideshow).
For an Italian translation of this article, see Cosa c’è di Sbagliato nella Prostituzione?