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  • J Behav Addict
  • v.2(4); 2013 Dec

Qualitative perspectives toward prostitution's perceived lifestyle addictiveness

Michael w. firmin.

1Cedarville University, Cedarville, OH, USA *

Alisha D. Lee

2University of Toledo, Toledo, OH, USA

Ruth L. Firmin

3Indiana University – Purdue University at Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN, USA

Lauren Mccotter Deakin

4Richmont Graduate University, Atlanta, GA, USA

Hannah J. Holmes

5Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA

Authors' contribution: MWF supervised each aspect of the study, from conception, through data collection, analysis, and generating the submitted journal manuscript. ADL participated in part of the data collection and contributed to the literature review and other parts of the manuscript. RLF conducted the qualitative research analysis and assisted with writing the methods portion of the manuscript. LMD participated in part of the data collection and some portions of generating the manuscript. HJH wrote the project's literature review and generated portions of the discussion and limitations sections of the manuscript. All authors had full access to all of the data in the study and take responsibility for its integrity and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Background and aims: The aim of the present study was to provide a phenomenological perspective of individuals who actively engage in street-level prostitution and identified a lifestyle addiction associated with their activities. Methods: We interviewed 25 women who were incarcerated in American county jails (at the time of interviews) for prostitution crimes. The transcripts were analyzed for themes that represented the shared consensus of the research participants. Results: Four negative psychological dynamics related to prostitution. First, participants described accounts of physical and emotional violence which they experienced at the hand of clients and others involved in the lifestyle. Second, interviewees explained an extreme dislike for their actions relating to and involving prostitution. These individuals did not describe themselves as being sexually addicted; sex was means to a desired end. Third, participants described how prostitution's lifestyle had evolved into something which they conceptualized as an addiction. As such, they did not describe themselves as feeling addicted to sex acts – but to lifestyle elements that accompanied prostitution behaviors. Finally, participants believed that freedom from prostitution's lifestyle would require social service assistance in order to overcome their lifestyle addiction. Conclusions: The results show that, although the prostitutes repeatedly and consistently used the term “addiction” when describing their lifestyles, they did not meet the DSM-IV-TR criteria for addiction. Rather, they shared many of the same psychological constructs as do addicts (e.g., feeling trapped, desiring escape, needing help to change), but they did not meet medical criteria for addictive dependence (e.g., tolerance or withdrawal).

Spice's (2007) definition of prostitution emphasizes the wide range of backgrounds from which women are lead into illicit sex work, including escort services, brothels, and street-level work. Spice further notes that prostitutes generally hold common values which motivate and often drive their behavior, despite the diversity of ethnicities, personal histories, education levels, and life experiences of these women. While it is hard to estimate the exact number of women working as prostitutes in the United States, the National Task Force on Prostitution (2008) estimated the number to be approximately two million. This staggering level of participation makes research regarding prostitution – including motivations for entry into and continuance in prostitution, effects of prostitution, and best practices for assisting women currently or previously involved with prostitution – a critical matter.

Main (2012) reported that those women who engage in “street-level” contexts of prostitution, one of the most common forms of sex work, have often received the lowest pay. Furthermore, Reid (2011) and Miller (1993) found that women who were “street-prostitutes” encountered higher instances of abuse and violence than did those women who engaged in other contexts of sex work. In light of Miller's (1993) findings, strong underlying motivations seemingly are held by most women who regularly engage in sex work – and particularly street-level prostitution – considering they risk personal health and safety in order to continue in their prostitution behaviors.

While our study focuses on the detrimental psychological dynamics involved with dynamics involved with prostitution, other researchers have explored the experiences and specific actions taken by women engaged in the behaviors. For example, common experiences include health risks and physical harm ( Raymond, Hughes & Gomez, 2010 ). Sanders (2004) reported that sex workers often feel ready to cope with health risks such as sexually transmitted diseases, seeing them as simply “part of the job”. Additionally, sex workers often more readily recognize the risk of physical harm, which Spice (2007) labels the greatest threat to the well-being of women who engage in prostitution. In addition, past researchers also have investigated steps which women have taken in order to protect their physical safety. Both O'Doherty (2011) and Williamson and Folaron (2003) reported that women tend to rely on their intuition when determining the likelihood that a client may hurt them, making exchanges in visible areas, and sometimes carrying a small weapon in order to protect themselves from physical harm. The central focus of most previous research has been on the Potential physical harm that may come to women involved in prostitution and the ways in which the women can maintain physical safety ( Heilemann & Santhiveeran, 2011 ).

Much less research has evaluated the negative impact that sex work may have on the psychological health of these women. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to take practical steps to protect one's psychological health than it is to protect one's physical health. For this reason, we believe it beneficial to investigate the psychological dynamics, including strain, that women experience as a result of prostitution.

Despite the obvious existence of multiple risks that accompany involvement in street-level prostitution, Lucas (2005) reported the women in her sample insisted that their involvement in prostitution was the result of their own, personal choices. Furthermore, the participants seemingly perceived prostitution as something that enhanced their ability to adapt to certain situations outside of the prostitution environment. Belcher and Herr (2005) advance the findings in that women engaged in prostitution often were focused on temporary, short-term rewards. Overall, participants placed high value on more immediate-gratification motivations, such as money. While experiencing some perceived short-term perceived benefit, the women admittedly allowed themselves to be controlled by extrinsic, immediate gratification factors, leaving them feeling hopeless and unable to exit the lifestyle. These results are congruent with Williamson and Folaron's (2003) findings that, as women engaged in prostitution, they became increasingly attached to such lifestyles. In addition, Williamson and Folaron report the social networks that women established within their prostitution-associated circles to be motivating and drawing dynamics that encouraged women to continue in their lifestyles of prostitution.

Given the numerous harmful effects of engaging in a lifestyle of prostitution, some researchers (e.g., Cimino, 2012 ; Sanders, 2007 ) have focused more efforts toward understanding the complex, complicated process of exiting prostitution. Baker, Dalla and Williamson (2010) examined four models that address cognitive and behavioral change processes, two of which specifically pertain to exiting prostitution, and proposed their own integrative model. Their model describes six stages of exiting prostitution, which draw on the strengths of the evaluated theories and seeks to correct the weaknesses: immersion, awareness, deliberate preparation, initial exit, reentry, and final exit. The formulation of these stages provides researchers with a helpful framework for understanding the significance of research on women engaged in prostitution.

The present study sought to further investigate further various dynamics that prostitution had on the lives of participating women. Previous research primarily has focused on the experiences and specific behaviors of women engaged in prostitution, so we desired to advance the research literature in this field by exploring how street-level female prostitutes came to understand the personal constructs involved with their behaviors. We believe that better understanding these dynamics, combined with previous literature regarding the motivations of prostitutes, will aid human service workers who assist this population group and can be used to inform policies and programs aimed toward helping women exit prostitution.

Since surveys fail to absorb the “thick description” ( Damianakis & Woodford, 2012 ) or quality of information to be collected from a sample of prostitutes, we deemed qualitative methodologies to be most apt for the objectives of the present study. Participant observation approaches contained potentially unacceptable safety risks to the researchers, as well as other obvious logistical and ethical issues. Consequently, we pursued a phenomenological, qualitative paradigm as being most prudent for accomplishing the present research aims.


Interviews were obtained from 25 women who were incarcerated at county jails, being arrested on charges of street-level prostitution. Ages of the women ranged from 21–42, with a median age of 29 years old. Sixteen of the participants in the sample were Caucasian, and the others were African-American. Consistent with standard qualitative research protocol, we utilized criterion sampling, selecting individuals who met the condition of interest for the aim of the present research study. Particularly, the sample represented all the incarcerated inmates (who met the standard), being located in two county jails. The prisons were located in medium-sized, Midwest cities and most participants reported growing up within a 100 mile radius or so of the jail where they were incarcerated. Due to the obvious sensitivity of the subject matter, anonymity was assured to the research participants, so we deliberately are choosing to keep demographic information about the participants to a minimum in the present article. Obviously, names used for reading clarity are pseudonyms and the study met university IRB requirements.

Saturation ( Bernard, 2011 ) occurred during the data collection, providing reasonable assurance that the sample size was adequate for the study's objectives. Particularly, after approximately twenty interviews, we were finding that the law of diminishing returns was occurring with the data. As such, adding new individuals to the sample was not adding significant amounts of new insights to the study's overall findings. Consistent with Guest, Bunce and Johnson (2006) and Neuman (2006) , we believe that the sample size was sufficient to the research objectives established for the present qualitative study.

Among the various types of qualitative methodology ( Creswell, 2012 ), we designed the present investigation as a phenomenological research study. As such, our aim in the study was to obtain the perspectives of the participants and to report their perceptions, from the vantage points of their own words, ideology, and constructs ( Denzin & Lincoln, 2008 ). One-on-one interviews occurred in conference rooms inside the jails and were tape recorded for later analysis. The interviewer was always female in order to make the interview situation as comfortable as possible for the participants, due to the sensitivity of the subject. None of the researchers have backgrounds with prostitution, so the interviewers were outsiders to the research construct ( Cohen, 2000 ; Miller & Crabtree, 2004 ), affording potential greater objectivity on the part of the researchers. During data collection, we utilized semi-structured interview formats ( Alvesson, 2011 ). This allowed the participants at times to take the interviews in diverse directions, encouraging them to share with us their own stories, cogent life impacts, and help us understand their worlds as much as they were able to do so ( Potter & Hepburn, 2005 ). We believed that, given the complex nature of prostitution and also the other struggles these women experienced, the semi-structured format would obtain the best and most useful information for the study's objectives.

When analyzing the data, we utilized an open coding process ( Maxwell, 2012 ). This means we approached the transcripts in an inductive manner. We did not have particular pre-conceived constructs for which we were looking. Rather, we used constant-comparison among and within the transcripts in order to identify reoccurring words, ideas, and concepts ( Chenail, 2012 ). These generated codes that were useful in managing the analysis. Sometimes the codes were collapsed or combined, due to evident similarity in the participants' percepts. In other cases, we abandoned some codes since they lacked enough support to be representative of the sample at large ( Creswell, 2008 ). The utilization of the qualitative analysis software NVIVO-8 helped to manage this process. However, consistent with ( Lewins & Silver, 2007 ), we did not let the analysis process become “automated,” removing the human intuitive and subjective element out of the process. In other words, the qualitative software analysis system worked for us as researchers and not vice versa.

From the codes, themes emerged. These were constructs in the findings that were reflected in most of the participant's views ( Ryan & Bernard, 2003 ). Consequently, all of the findings reported in the present study represent the consensus of all the participants in the study. Overall, the findings showed detrimental relational, social, and psychological effects of women in our sample engaging in prostitution activities. Due to limited publication space in the present article, we are reporting only the relational effects here.

Our intent was to generate a research study that possessed robust rigor, by qualitative research standards ( Cope, 2004 ; De Wet & Erasmus, 2005 ). Internal validity for the study was enhanced in a number of ways. One was via meetings among the researchers in order to collaborate regarding potential coding strategies and thematic analysis ( Bogdan & Biklen, 2007 ). Consequently, the results of the present study represent the results of dialogue, thorough discussion, and detailed analysis among multiple researchers who collaborated in a team effort in the present study. Additionally, we employed a qualitative researcher, independent of the data collection and analysis, to provide autonomous feedback to the researchers regarding the research questions, methodology, and analysis ( Grbich, 2007 ). This served as a helpful, independent check on our protocol and assurance that the results we are presenting were aptly grounded in appropriate qualitative methodology and to the actual transcript data collected.

Member checking ( Metro-Jaffe, 2011 ) was utilized in order to garner feedback from the research participants. This involves sharing the general findings with those who provided the interviews. The process allowed us to check to ensure that what we concluded in the study aptly reflected the actual sentiments of the research participants. Consistently, we found that the results presented in the present article did accurately portray what the research participants agreed were their overriding sentiments. Data trails ( Rodgers, 2008 ) were generated in order to enhance the study's internal validity. This involved tying each of the results reported in the present article to particular quotes and citations by the respective research participants. This process has three benefits. First, it helps to ensure that each finding reported aptly represents the consensus of all the participants. Second, data trails allows other qualitative researchers to check our research for independent analysis, if desired, should anyone later suspect fraudulent research occurred. Third, data trails also can aid future researchers who wish further to explore this subject. They provide these researchers with starting points that they can use in order to enhance and further their own research designs and allow for helpful comparisons with the present one.

The study procedures were carried out in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The Institutional Review Board of the Cedarville University approved the study. All subjects were informed about the study and all provided informed consent.

Women in our study reported four psychological dynamics when relating their personal constructs about prostitution. First, participants described accounts of physical and emotional violence which they experienced at the hand of clients and others involved in the lifestyle. Next, interviewees explained an extreme dislike for their actions relating to and involving prostitution. Third, participants described how the lifestyle of prostitution had evolved into something which they viewed as a psychological addiction. However, they used the term vernacularly rather than in a medical sense. Finally, participants shared hopes they had of changing their lifestyles in the future – but also needing intervention and social service assistance to do so.

Harmful view of prostitution

The women in our study shared many disturbing stories in which they were victims of violence and rape during the time they spent engaging in prostitution behaviors. Most participants described experiences of physical abuse, sexual assault, or both. While the details of each woman's story varied, the general theme of victimization was woven throughout the participants' lives as prostitutes. For example, Caroline recollected a time in which she was physically assaulted by a client:

I've been hurt plenty of times. Well for instance, this scar that's on my chin right here [pointing to her chin]. When I asked for my money first, I was punched in the mouth by brass knuckles and forced back into the car. I had a tooth knocked out. I couldn't eat for weeks. I thought I was going to die.

For most participants in our study, the physical violence they experienced was accompanied by sexual violence. This sexual violence may have both emotionally and physically detrimental effects. Not only must women endure the initial humiliation of being sexually assaulted, but they also may acquire sexually-transmitted diseases, sometimes without the opportunity of using protection in order to prevent this from happening. Hope, for example, discussed this risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease as a result of being sexually assaulted:

Yeah, yeah it's [prostitution] very dangerous. Especially because there's girls out there that have HIV and still do it. Yeah, I've been like tied up and threatened to have some stuff shoved up me.

Additionally, Crystal captured the combination of physical and sexual violence that perpetrators sometimes force on their prostitution victims:

I've been raped several, several times. I've been at gun point. Tasered. Uh, I've had a lot of guns thrown on me, held to my head. So I mean, just… yeah. Beat a lot.

Most participants described experiencing some sort of assault on multiple accounts. Among many of the women, physical and sexual assault seemed to be accepted as a part of daily life when engaging in prostitution. This acceptance phenomenon was so widespread that few women expressed feelings of self-efficacy that seemingly would encourage them to prevent future instances of physical or sexual violence.

In addition to the commonality of physical and sexual violence the women experienced, some women noted the fact that the harm they experienced while being involved in prostitution not only harmed them physically, but it resulted in emotional pain as well. Many expressed how the negative treatment of others toward them led these women to develop views of themselves portraying that they were neither good nor worthwhile people. Shannon, for example, confessed the damage she endured to her self-esteem and the shame she felt as a result:

There's some guys that act like they're police officers when you're out there and they force you. They pull knives on you and beat you up and stuff. Or, because you are soliciting and disrespecting yourself, other people, men and women, sometimes just take it upon themselves to degrade you, because you get the look about you or something. Like maybe like, sometimes, every now and then I get the strength to not use and it's like a big flashing sign around me that I'm a prostitute or something and so they'll just speak to you in disrespectful ways. They'll fight you and spit at you and stuff.

Further, participants shared awareness of the risks they were taking and the potential consequences of taking such risks. Dawn, for example, exemplified this awareness:

It's [prostitution] very, very, very, very dangerous. You never know in today's world who you're getting in a car with or if you're going to get out of that car.

Participants continually reiterated the fact that they were aware that each “trick” may be their last. However, there was little evidence that the women perceived any reasonable means of protecting themselves from future harm.

Most participants realized the imprudence of recurrently subjecting themselves to the risk of physical and sexual injury, but admitted the potential hazard was not enough to make them exit the lifestyle. The draw to the exhilaration experienced as part of the lifestyle seemed to outweigh the general concern for the women's personal safety. This caused many women to feel confused and often angry at themselves for making such poor decisions that could result in serious physical injury or death. Kathy, for example, described this incongruence between wanting to avoid harm and to continue in the lifestyle:

Because, I have been to the point where I get out of one trick's car and this is how the, I guess the sickness or the devil or whatever you want to call it or the conscience part of the person: get out, get beat, raped and everything and five minutes later get back in another car and go get high. I mean, we were talkin' the three of us girls were talking the other day about this, and it's really sad – the disease. Because we were all on our deathbed. Guy had a knife to our throat and everything. And when we get out of the one place, you get right back into another car – that's insanity.

Disliking prostitution

Participants consistently reported disliking prostitution and the behaviors that accompany the lifestyle. The most popular reason given by women was that engaging in the acts made the women “feel dirty”. Additionally, women described how they were tired of being on the streets and having to endure the cycle of repetitively entering and exiting jail. Dawn, for example, encompassed many women's view of disdaining prostitution:

They say this is the oldest profession in the book but I don't see how anybody – woman, dog, rat, any kind of personc – an even think about doing this [prostitution].

When discussing their dislike for prostitution, a common theme in the accounts of the participants was the feelings of shame and humiliation that are associated with prostitution. Caroline, for example, emphasized the painful feelings she experienced after engaging in the sexual work behaviors:

I hate them [solicitation behaviors] . Very much so. I feel ashamed and I don't feel clean. I feel dirty. People look at me when I'm walking down the street and people look at me; even if I'm not doing it that day, I still feel like people think that things about me. I don't like that no more.

In addition to feeling immoral after taking part in prostitution behaviors, many participants described making an effort to distance themselves, both mentally and emotionally, from potential clients when coming into contact with them. Some women hope to prevent feeling unclean by reportedly exercising a tactic of psychologically detaching themselves during their prostitution behaviors. These women described using mild forms of psychological dissociation in order to protect themselves from the emotional pain that results from turning-a-trick. Crystal, for example, elaborated on her attempts to mentally “check-out” during a date with a client:

No I don't enjoy it. [I] never have. [I] never have enjoyed that part [doing tricks] . I feel low. I feel dirty, I mean. When I trick, prostitute, however you want to put it, I'm in my own world.

Other participants find it difficult to mentally remove themselves from the situation, and therefore employ a different tactic: remaining emotionally disconnected, evidently in order to channel their hatred toward prostitution behaviors. In this method, women described desiring desire to know as little about the client as possible. The women seemingly hope to make no affective connection with the person, so that their behaviors seem less of a reality to them. Kelly, for example, illustrated these simultaneous feelings of hatred and detachment:

Yeah, I hate it [prostitution] . It sucks. I don't like anything about it. You just, you just think, speaking personally… you try not to look at someone. You don't want to know their name. You just want to do what you gotta do and go.

Addiction to prostitution's lifestyle

Although indicating a disdain for street-level prostitution, almost all of the participants described feeling as though they were addicted to the prostitution lifestyle. When using this term, however, they did so in a common-use of the word, not in a psychiatric sense of experience physiological or psychological dependence. Obviously, this finding seems paradoxical, since the women indicated disliking prostitution behaviors and the resultant humiliation it entailed for their lives. This seeming paradoxical principle may be true for any “addicts” who ultimately dislike the effects of addiction on themselves and their lifestyles. In this context, participants expressed feeling somewhat “hooked” on engaging in the lifestyle activities that they seemingly loathed. Two particular sub-themes emerged relating to the women's psychological addiction to prostitution's lifestyle. First, women commonly reported being involved with a fast-paced and unhealthy lifestyle. Amanda, for example, shared the sentiments of most participants in this regards:

I hate it [prostitution], but I like the lifestyle. I feel like that's my family out there. I have [a natural] family, but I don't associate with them because the lifestyle I choose. But sometimes I hate it. I'm tired I want to go to sleep. I come to jail, I hate it but it's like I'm addicted to the lifestyle. So, people think it's just the drug use but it's not. It's an addiction to the lifestyle, too.

Furthermore, participants cited the excitement and flexibility of the lifestyle as contributing factors to what they perceived as being a psychologically addicting lifestyle. The women reported enjoying the ability to work when and where they wanted, choosing their own clients. Additionally, participants reported having the perception that people on the street were their family, although, in reality, the women knew this percept did not square with reality. A combination of these perceived constructs led many of the women to view prostitution as both exhilarating and the rush they feel as part of their activities ultimately works against leaving the lifestyle. Jessica, for example, described the gust she routinely feels as a result of her lifestyle:

What's enjoyable? The thrill. Just, I don't know. After you do it for so long, it's like ‘Hey okay!’

However, they did not describe themselves as being sexually addicted or undergoing tolerance and withdrawal when the participants discontinue prostitution for time periods. Consequently, they did not meet the medical criteria for being addicted to prostitution in the sense of a formal psychiatric disorder.

A second sub-theme that emerged among participants regarding prostitution's psychological addicting lifestyle was that programs should be implemented specifically to treat the problem. Participants shared their beliefs that addictions to drugs (when this occurred) and the prostitution lifestyle needed separate treatment in order to aid in the effective exiting of the lifestyle. Participants indicated the necessity of such programs by sharing that, recovering from various drug addictions would not aid in their ability to overcome their perceived entrapment to the prostitution lifestyle. Kelly, for example, captured many of the women's desire to treat feeling hooked into the lifestyle:

You know, these girls they come in here with just a slap on the hand and go. They're not going to learn that way. I don't know. They have all these, AA/ NA, those kinds of programs, stop programs. “I can get you in a program for people who come in to talk [programs].” I mean they have “recovering alcoholics”, “recovering addicts”, “drug addicts”, but there can't be “recovering prostitutes”? You know what I mean? Does this sound stupid to you?

The women in our study view themselves wedged in a prostitution lifestyle from which they find it very difficult to just walk away. They know that drug addictions are challenging to overcome without special assistance and suggest that a formalized treatment program, with structured behavioral interventions such as AA or NA use, would be beneficial to them.

Need for social services to exit prostitution

Women in this study unanimously conveyed hopes of exiting the lifestyle altogether. Participants described feeling “fed-up” with their ways of life, being exhausted, desiring simply to survive, and wanting to mend relationships with friends, family, and children. These were indicated to be reasons for desiring to change their lifestyles. Participants seemingly did not envision spending the rest of their lives on the streets and engaged in the prostitution. Rather, they aspired to depart from their current lifestyle and live as a functional unit of society. Dawn, for example, conveyed an “I'm done” attitude:

I just hope I can say something to help somebody else. I've had many ass whoopins. I've been hit in the face with a baseball bat, my eye popped out, and I had five reconstructive surgeries… I hope I said something to help someone else. You know, I needed this. I needed to talk. You helped me; I'm done with this [prostitution].

Additionally, most women reported having the desire to change their lifestyles, but they also were unsure whether they could do it alone or even how even to begin the process. Participants shared they did not adequately know how to exist among the rest of society, the prostitution was the predominant lifestyle they had known during their adult years. For this reason, interviewees expressed feeling unable to escape the lifestyle without outsides resources such as family and some type of formal exit program. Donna, for example, shared her great hope, but recognized her need for help from others:

Like my counselors, I feel good spirits with them, so I know they'll probably help me this time. I've been in treatments where every counselor I would get I wouldn't feel good spirits or nothing. You know, they didn't know nothing about me, and they were rude-nasty for real. But I'm going to be alright this time. I want to help people. When I get through with NOVA, I want to do stuff that keeps my mind of drugs. I need to get well first and then I should be able to do it, but I need help. I can't do it by myself.

Other participants, who also wanted to change, did not have as much hope as Donna and explained that they did not know how to accomplish such a mammoth goal as recalibrating their lives. Amanda, for example, captured the uncertainty felt by these women:

I want to [clean up], It's just I don't know where to start. And I want to try, but it's hard.

These participants were not able to picture their lives apart from prostitution, despite the fact that they seemingly possessed cogent desires to exit the lifestyle. Formal programming was indicated to be a perceived need in order to help the women in our sample make the connections needed for achieving their goals. Although social support likely existed around them in various ways, the participants expressed an explicit desire for participation in scheduled planning through social services to help them overcome what they described as besetting habits and lifestyles.

Consistent with previous literature, our findings are congruent with Miller's (1993) finding that women involved in “street-level” prostitution face high levels of danger directly resulting from their work. In fact, participants surprisingly recounted instances of severe abuse with relatively little emotion. Temporary detachment had been implemented by our participants as regular means of coping with their daily stresses. Professionals working with women who are similar to individuals in our sample should give due consideration to those dynamics when writing treatment plans and seeking to amend participants' negative behavior patterns. That is, if women turning from prostitution hope to fully recover, then they likely will need to re-condition themselves against this seemingly ingrained tendency of emotional detachment.

As part of the article's discussion, we note that the prostitution behaviors do not meet a formal psychiatric diagnosis as an “addiction”. The purpose of the study is to provide phenomenological perspectives of the research participants, from the vantage points of their own words, constructs, and perceptions. By way of commentary on the findings, the participants did not describe themselves as being sexually addicted, in the sense of a DSM-IV-TR diagnosis. It is the overall lifestyle that they described as being “addictive,” rather than the actual sexual behaviors. When referencing the “addictive lifestyle” of prostitution, presumably, this entails a manner of enticing dress, locating potential clients, soliciting sales, generating repeat customers, and making fast money that likely is not taxed by the United States IRS. When the participants used the word “addicted”, they seemed to convey a sense of feeling “hooked” or “stuck” in their life situations. They wanted out – but struggled to achieve the freedom they desired. No dependence, tolerance, or withdrawal existed as is common with addiction from a formal medical perspective. Consequently, although we relate the word “addiction” in the present article, we do so since that is the term used by the research participants during the interviews; it is a vernacular use of addiction and not a psychiatric one. The women did not speak of being sex addicts and they generally did not enjoy engaging in the sexual acts for hire. To the research participants, being addicted to their respective lifestyles meant that they felt trapped in a situation that they found difficult to escape.

At the study's outset, we did not approach the research design to explicitly examine the matter of lifestyle addiction with the participants. As previously noted, this was an exploratory study in order to garner whatever perceptions existed and that the women were willing to relate to us. Further consideration should be given to the construct of “lifestyle addiction” as it relates to American female prostitutes. That is, since researchers possess this information, they can examine the construct specifically and in more detail, fleshing out further what we are only able to note as existing at this initial research stage.

Additionally, most women in our sample reported extensive instances of abuse. Consequently, prostitutes who wish to improve their lives and pursue recovery from all forms of addictions associated with the lifestyle will require specific aid in order to address these dynamics. For example, Burgess-Proctor (2008) found that most female victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) are hesitant to seek help, possibly resulting from similar, negative previous experiences. Burgess-Proctor also identifies help-seeking inhibitors and help-seeking promoters that affect the likelihood of women seeking needed aid when endangered, potentially associating these mechanisms with childhood experiences of violence or abuse. As women in our sample recounted their personal experiences of abuse, they admitted their foreknow-ledge of the potential danger involved with each sexual encounter. Congruent with O'Doherty (2011) , intuition exercised by the women in our present study seemingly remained a cogent factor affecting women's decisions.

However, when participants discussed the addiction-feelings they experienced toward the lifestyle of prostitution itself, one dominating aspect of this “addiction” was the perceived sense of control they reported experiencing. Although paradoxical to the reality of their continual recounting of the physical and sexual abuse that results from prostitution, participants nonetheless viewed themselves as being in control of the sexual situations they encountered. Lucas (2005) sheds light on this phenomena by reporting that, not only did most women in her sample regularly engaged in sex work by choice, but they also experienced a sense of temporary psychological satisfaction resulting from prostitution activities and lifestyle variables. Such feelings likely contribute significantly to participants' feelings of addiction to prostitution lifestyles. Identifying the specific elements of sex work that cause women to feel empowered may help females who feel trapped in the lifestyle better understand their own emotional responses and feelings of addiction, as well as recovery solutions that address this particular facet of their addiction. In short, the women must learn new avenues of developing healthy senses of self-efficacy.

Another seemingly contradictory finding in the present study was that women in our sample disliked prostitution, often describing themselves as feeling “dirty” as a result of their behavior. The addiction that participants reported consequently must have had strong, if not deciding, influence on the decisions of women in our study. Work by Blecher and Herr (2005) advance this construct when they report findings that street-level prostitutes generally emphasize short-term rewards, rather than delayed gratification. Similarly, they found that motivational factors which proved to be most powerful and to be linked as the most similar to actual behavioral outcomes were those that centered on more temporary outcomes. Resultantly, as society seeks to aid women recovering from prostitution, programs should be established that specifically address this tendency. That is, the perspectives of such women who wish to change their lifestyles must transition from short-term to long-term goals and rewards if they are to see long-term recovery.

And finally, social support seems to be a cogent psychological variable that transcends our findings. The prostitutes in our study consistently described themselves as feeling disconnected from others in ways that otherwise would promote social and psychological well being. We believe, therefore, that programs designed to assist recovering prostitutes must include social as well as individual interventions. Helping them connect with healthy groups – replacing their unhealthy present social circles – is needed for successful interventions. Likewise, family therapy, in a systemic tradition ( Carr, 2012 ), may be warranted – either in place of individual counseling or at least augmenting it. The psychological well being of these needed individuals, in part, seems tied to their needs for healthy psychological-social connections.


All good research identifies and reports the limitations of a study ( Price & Murnan, 2004 ). The sample for the present study was drawn from women currently residing in a medium-sized city in the Midwest area of the United States. Future research should seek to replicate the study in similar cities located in other regions of the country. Additionally, future researchers should conduct parallel studies in the milieu of larger cities such as New York or Los Angeles, where women may face challenges unique to larger metropolitan environments. Additionally, our sample did not include a significant number of Hispanic or Asian minorities. Conducting the study in locales where the present results can be compared with those from persons reared in wide cross-sections of minority population milieus may prove insightful and will enhance the research's external validity ( Delmar, 2010 ).

Further, interviews with participants in our sample were conducted while women were in jail for prostitution-related activities. We suspect that time spent in jail provided participants with occasions for reflection on personal behavioral choices and resultant effects. While undergoing “reality checks” during incarceration, women may have been more prone to contemplation of life plans, such as raising their own children, than they would be at other periods during their lives. Moreover, the level of reflection, as well as content, may be qualitatively different when prostitutes are being interviewed in jail contexts compared to other interviewing contexts. Consequently, future researchers may wish to compare findings from interviews with prostitutes while in jail with responses of women while not undergoing legal penalties for their sexual behaviors.

As we noted earlier, the present study was designed to be exploratory in nature and, as such, we unearthed a research finding of women consistently noting what they conceptualized to be a “lifestyle addiction” of prostitution. Future researchers should design studies that focus specifically on this construct, having women explain their understandings of the concept, provide additional detail, and compare their behaviors against various diagnostic criteria. As such, we view the present article as reporting initial findings of what potentially could be a fertile research agenda with far more details available than what we are able to report her (given the interview data we collected).

Finally, future researchers may wish to conduct longitudinal studies where prostitutes' percepts are tracked over time. Various dynamics relating to their perspectives and behavior patterns could be more fully studied over the course of months, multiple years, or decades. Such research may obtain insight via longitudinal research designs when studying familial relationships, the effects of prostitution on women's children, as well as the long-term effects of prostitution on women's social relationships. Furthermore, most women in our sample described hopes for re-gaining custody of their children and someday raising them. Longitudinal studies would provide follow-up data regarding whether these aspirations became realties and under what conditions or contexts.

Funding Statement

Funding sources: No financial support was received for this study.

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The Oxford Handbook of the History of Crime and Criminal Justice

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6 Ideas and Practices of Prostitution Around the World

Magaly Rodríguez García is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Leuven.

  • Published: 07 July 2016
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This essay provides a global overview of prostitution from the early modern period to the present. Although the distinction between “premodern” and “modern” prostitution is not necessarily sharp, the profound political, military, and socioeconomic changes from roughly 1600 onward had an important impact on the sale of sex. Worldwide, the practice of prostitution and societal reactions to it were influenced by processes of colonization, industrialization, urbanization, the rise of nation-states, military modernization, nationalism, and war, as well as revolutions in politics, agriculture, transport, and communication. A long historical and broad geographical perspective reveals the continuities and discontinuities in the way commercial sex was practiced, perceived, and policed. This essay paper approaches prostitution from a double (top-down and bottom-up) perspective that integrates criminology and labor theory, presenting the views of authorities, anti-vice campaigners, and society at large while situating prostitution as an integral part of labor history.


This essay provides a global overview of prostitution from the early modern period to the present. The focus on female prostitution in urban settings is justified by the fact that commercial sex has nearly always been a city-based phenomenon involving women servicing men. Although the distinction between “premodern” and “modern” prostitution is not necessarily sharp, the profound political, military, and socioeconomic changes that occurred from around 1600 onward had an important impact on the sale of sex. Worldwide, the practice of prostitution and the societal reactions to it were influenced by processes of colonization, industrialization, urbanization, the rise of nation-states, military modernization, nationalism, and war, as well as by revolutions in the realms of politics, agriculture, transportation, and communication.

A long historical and broad geographical perspective permits us to observe the continuities and discontinuities in the way commercial sex was practiced, perceived, and policed. The necessities that accompanied nationalist and imperialist projects from the late eighteenth century onward had a profoundly negative impact on the understanding of prostitution but did not really alter the motivations of women to engage in the sex trade. Evidence derived from classic works on prostitution and studies collected for the project “Selling Sex in the City” 1 proves that while the efforts of authorities to control, repress, or prohibit prostitution crescendoed, more diverse and inventive methods of carrying out the trade were developed by the men and women involved in it. Similarly, the growing involvement of non-state actors in debates on prostitution—particularly whether to condemn it or to redefine it as sex work—led to the development of alternative ways to sell sex and to an increased vocalization of the workers concerned.

This contribution approaches prostitution from a double (top-down and bottom-up) perspective that integrates criminology and labor theory. On the one hand, it presents the point of view of authorities, antivice campaigners, and society at large. As these groups perceived prostitution in terms of sin, deviancy, crime, or victimhood, their responses to commercial sex variously attempted to control, conceal, or repress it. On the other hand, this essay studies prostitution as an integral part of labor history. If we follow Marcel van der Linden’s “very simple definition,” of work as “the purposive production of useful objects or services” ( van der Linden 2011 , p. 27), then prostitution can be defined as work. The trade’s structure and working conditions are therefore included in this analysis. Furthermore, analyses focusing on the women’s profiles and motivations for prostitution are integrated in the narrative, as they are considered essential for a more comprehensive understanding of this type of work. In so doing, this essay attempts to contribute to contemporary debates and to warn against the dangerous generalizations, myths, and gendered misconceptions that often emerge whenever prostitution (and migration for prostitution) is discussed. In particular, the popular image of young females forced into the prostitution milieu by malevolent (male) traffickers calls for a more nuanced analysis.

The essay unfolds in five sections. Section I discusses the legal and cultural definitions of prostitution across time and space. In section II , I examine the societal reactions toward prostitution and de facto or legal regimes governing commercial sex, including tolerance, regulation, abolition, and prohibition. Related to these themes is the real or imaginary link made between prostitution, deviancy, and crime, which constitutes the focus of section III . The spatial organization of the trade and the working conditions of women engaged in it are described in section IV . The final section examines the demography and causes of prostitution. 2

I. Definitions

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines prostitution as “the work of a prostitute,” and the latter as “a person who has sex with someone for money.” 3 Although commonly accepted, these definitions do not permit identification of the immense range of remunerated sex activities that exists. Moreover, if taken literally, these definitions can include practices that have most often been accepted as mainstream and very different from prostitution. Marriages or other forms of intimate relationships, for example, have often involved sexual exchanges for livelihood, but society—except for radical feminists—has never linked them to commercial sex. Perhaps the metaphoric definition of prostitution provided by the online Oxford Dictionary will give us a clearer clue to its symbolic meaning across time and space: here, prostitution is “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for personal or financial gain” (emphasis mine). 4 Indeed, it is the moral or status connotation attached to it, and not so much the exchange of sexual favors for money or in-kind goods or services, that has characterized the understanding of prostitution in most societies.

In Europe and the Americas, common prostitutes were identified with marginality and were arrested under regulations against “disorderly people,” lewdness, and vagrancy until the first half of the twentieth century (Rosen 1982; Svänstrom 2006 ). Slave or pawned prostitutes in American colonies or from African and Asian countries belonged to the lowest rank of society. On the other end of the spectrum, some early forms of prostitution were linked to high prestige and were characterized by a range of entertainment services much broader than pure sexual intercourse. But although commercial sex was legal and regulated in several places in Renaissance Europe and precolonial Asia, high-level courtesans refused to be identified as prostitutes. Furthermore, early regulations always included more than the exchange of sex for money ( Gronewold 2013 ). Premarital sex, adultery, or “indiscriminate availability” ( Karras 1996 , p. 17) were encompassed in the more commonly used term “whoredom.” In Europe and the Americas, a clear distinction between “whores,” “harlots,” “mistresses,” and “prostitutes” was nonexistent. From the mid-eighteenth century onward the terms “prostitution” and “prostitute” became more widely used to differentiate them from fornication and adulterous women, respectively ( Nuñez & Fuentes 2013 ; Laite 2011 ).

The reinstallation of systems of regulation in the nineteenth century required a clearer categorization of prostitution. Henceforth, the monetary transaction became central to the legal definition of prostitution. Sexual barter, however, has remained difficult to categorize. During the twentieth century, the so-called “charity girls” in the United States exchanged sex for entertainment expenses but made a clear distinction between their acts and prostitution, which they considered immoral. The figure of the “cocotte” in Paris and Berlin at the turn of the century also defied easy categorization. In some African and Asian cities, too, sexual bartering for material goods or privileges seems to have been—and to still be—common. As in Europe, the identification of “real” prostitutes was problematic in colonies or countries that had introduced regulation systems in their territories. Often, any suspect woman was registered as a prostitute and exposed to intrusive medical examinations ( Clement 2005 ; Guigon 2012 ; Smith 2013 ; Ekpootu 2013 ).

Colonization brought a radical shift to the conceptualization of prostitution. Women who in precolonial periods had provided more spiritual than sexual services (e.g., temple dancing girls in India and courtesans in China, Japan, and other parts of Asia) became automatically identified as prostitutes by European colonists. In places like Australia or New Zealand, European colonization laid the foundations for prostitution, and although little is known about the sexual practices of precolonial populations in Africa and the Americas, it is clear that prostitution as we know it today took off after the European conquest ( Absi 2013 ; Frances 2011 ; Frances 2007 ; Lauro 2005 ; Levine 2003 ; White 1990 ).

The terms “prostitution” and “prostitute” were commonly used by officialdom during the twentieth century, but more insulting words like “whore” and its foreign equivalents were and still are popular in common parlance. However, with the development of the prostitutes’ rights movement from the 1970s onward, the pejorative names came under attack. A restructuring of the trade’s language took place in which prostitution came to be defined as “sex work.” The new usage of the terms “sex work” and “sex worker” was an important semantic shift that signified the strengthening of a movement that understands prostitution in terms of labor and human rights ( Bindman 1997 ; Delacoste & Alexander 1988 ; Pheterson 1989 ). For their part, radical feminists are virulently against the idea of prostitution as sex work. Instead, they define prostitution as “sexual slavery” and prefer to speak of “prostituted woman” rather than “prostitute” or, worse still, “sex worker,” as the former term “brings the perpetrator into the picture” ( Jeffreys 1997 , p. 5; Barry 1979 ; Barry 1995 ).

II. Societal Reaction and Legal Situation

The definition of prostitution and societal reactions to it have had an important impact on the legal regimes that have aimed to control, repress, or regulate the sale of sex. Nearly everywhere, and during much of the period studied here, legal and cultural attitudes toward prostitution have overlapped. Although some forms of high-level prostitution in earlier times commanded respect and prestige, most societies have despised it ( Stearns 2009 ). Most cultures have at one time or another tolerated or regulated prostitution, but more often than not non-elite prostitutes have been perceived as low status or outcasts. The view of prostitution as “an evil”—a necessary one for some and an unwarranted one for others—seems to be ubiquitous. During most of Chinese history, prostitution was legal and monitored by the imperial or local state. Within a highly patriarchal society, commercial sex was recognized as an occupation, but one that was meant to protect “good” women from those who provided social companionship and sexual services to men ( Gronewold 2013 ). For hundreds of years in precolonial India, common prostitutes formed part of the mainstream labor population but were perceived as “sinners.” Furthermore, the caste-based, hierarchical society accorded them a low social status, placing them just above sweepers ( Frances 2011 ). In medieval Europe, too, the municipal authorities of most large cities (with the exception of London) regulated prostitution and accepted prostitutes because they supposedly served as outlets for male sexual drives and protected “honest” women from rape ( Karras 1996 ; Perry 1990 ; Trexler 1981 ). In cities of the United States, prostitution was quietly tolerated during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but whorehouse riots and violence against prostitutes were common (Rosen 1982).

Cultural, politico-military and socioeconomic changes from the late fifteenth century onward altered the perception of prostitution and, above all, the government responses to it. Parallel to the religious revival of the time, an increased number of unregulated prostitutes became visible. As the early modern state and its large military apparatus developed, independent prostitutes started to follow the armies. The new situation led to a spread of venereal diseases, to which authorities reacted with the adoption of ordinances prohibiting prostitution and confining women in hospitals or prisons. Religious societies became increasingly involved in campaigns against prostitution and in rehabilitation programs for “fallen women.” During much of the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth centuries, prostitution was linked to sin ( Conner 2013 ; Nuñez & Fuentes 2013 ).

But the negative effects of agricultural disruptions, urbanization, and industrialization on the working population led once again to a fairly tolerant attitude toward prostitutes. Parallel to the language of sin, a view of prostitution as a social or pathological condition became increasingly popular. And, as uncontrolled sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases became a constant preoccupation of bourgeois society ( Foucault 1976 ), more and more persons called for the regulation of prostitution. Embryonic forms of regulation appeared in the late 1700s in Berlin and Paris. By the early 1800s, Napoleon had installed a regulatory system that included the licensing of brothels, registration of prostitutes, and compulsory health examinations. In the 1830s, the sanitary engineer Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet developed a comprehensive and virtually carceral system of regulation consisting of legal and regulated brothels, hospitals, prisons, and reformatories. Known as the “French system,” regulation itself spread to cities around the world over the course of the nineteenth century ( Bliss 2001 ; Corbin 1990 ; Guy 1991 ; Schaepdrijver 1986 ). Moreover, amid a period of nationalist fervor, political considerations motivated authorities to regulate the sex trade in many places. State control of brothels and medical examination of prostitutes were seen as ways to protect citizens, the military, the family, and the nation from political threats, disease, and homosexuality ( Bernstein 1995 ; Gilfoyle 1999 ; Guy 1991 ). Among large cities, London and New York remained exceptions, as they never implemented the modern regulatory system. Yet there, too, prostitution was tolerated and informally regulated. Prostitution as such was not illegal, but women could be arrested under laws against “nightwalking,” soliciting, public disorder, or vagrancy ( Gilfoyle 1992 ; Laite 2011 ; Walkowitz 1980 ). In Rio de Janeiro, an extralegal form of regulation, in which the police possess a strong authority but lack a specific legal mandate to control and organize the sex trade, has characterized the history of prostitution ( Blanchette & Schettini 2013 ).

In the colonies, the expansion of prostitution posed a serious threat to the imperial project. Interracial sex and prostitution of white women could undermine colonial power and prestige, while the spread of venereal disease could cripple colonial administrators and troops. The Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s were not meant to regulate prostitution in all British cities, but, as legal instruments designed to protect the empire’s army, were confined to ports and garrison towns and therefore never applied to London ( Levine 2003 ). They created a great controversy, not only because any woman suspected of being a prostitute had to undergo a compulsory genital inspection, but also because they targeted women only. Although men were equally responsible for the spread of diseases, the blame fell on women only. Of the case studies of the “Selling Sex in the City” project, Nigeria was the only country where males (soldiers) were the target of measures against venereal disease. Hence the issue generated an intense debate in Britain on the double standards governing men and women ( Walkowitz 1980 ). But generally, the various forms of regulation that were introduced in the colonies were tougher than the system adopted in England. Colonial legislation of prostitution applied to the whole territory, was more invasive in women’s lives, and was tougher on poorer and nonwhite prostitutes. Regulationist countries like Belgium, France, and the Netherlands also introduced strict methods of control in their colonies. And, while some U.S. states experimented briefly with regulation, moving toward a more muscular repression of brothel prostitution, the Americans in the Philippines took over the official system of regulation that the prior colonial authorities had introduced in the last years of Spanish rule ( Corbin 1990 ; Frances 2011 ; Howell 2004 ; Lauro 2005 ).

But increasingly, public opinion turned against the official regulation of prostitution. As the number of unregistered prostitutes grew and the failure of the regulation system to control the spread of venereal disease became apparent from the 1850s onward, an abolitionist movement became stronger. Abolitionism, the movement to eliminate state-regulated prostitution, appeared for the first time in Great Britain under the leadership of Josephine Butler. Opponents of regulation viewed this form of state control of women not only as morally unacceptable but also as inefficient, because clandestine prostitutes and male clients were not part of the system. Vigorous antiregulation campaigns resulted in the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in England in 1886 and in the annulment of various regulation laws in British colonies in the late 1880s. Yet in several colonies, the authorities refused to repeal their legislation or opted for an unofficial continuation of the regulation system. As in the mother country, regulation in French colonies went undisturbed until deep in the twentieth century (Corbin 1900; Levine 2003 ).

From the end of the nineteenth century onward, a frontal attack on regulation of prostitution and, above all, the obvious failure of the system led to the passage of municipal and national laws against brothel keeping, procuring, and soliciting, as well as stringent migration legislation in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The First and Second World Wars saw a brief revival of regulation of prostitution, but soon after both 1919 and 1945, abolition became more widespread. In countries such as Argentina, China, Japan, and the Soviet Union, abolition or the outright prohibition of prostitution was associated with the construction of a modern twentieth-century state. Latecomers in the official abolition of regulation were Belgium, Japan, Mexico, and the preeminent regulationist country, France, which criminalized brothel keeping in 1946 and procuring, pimping, soliciting, and organized prostitution in 1960 ( Conner 2013 ; Gilfoyle 1999 ; Hershatter 1997 ). In abolitionist countries, prostitution itself is not illegal but the activities surrounding it are. There, prostitutes are not criminalized, but because activities that facilitate the trade are included in the penal code, they become immersed in a criminal circuit.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, calls for the recognition of prostitution as sex work had led to liberalization in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. In Istanbul, too, where the system of regulation existed for most of the twentieth century, prostitution is today legal and regulated. Since the nineteenth century, however, the trend in most countries has been toward a strong moral condemnation of the sex trade. Worldwide, the number of countries where prostitution is outlawed, or where prostitution is legal but procuring and soliciting are not, is much larger than the number of countries that do not criminalize prostitution or activities related to it ( Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2008 ). Yet, in spite of the official position, municipal authorities of many abolitionist countries tolerate and regulate prostitution under public order or hospitality industry laws. This reflects the ambiguity surrounding prostitution, which leaves the persons active in the sector in a legal limbo.

III. Prostitution, Deviancy, and Crime

To varying degrees, the last two centuries have been characterized by a strong identification of prostitution with deviancy and crime. Until the late 1700s, some forms of social disorder like prostitution were accepted as sinful but inevitable or even vital behavior, as they would prevent worse evils. Advocates of regulation of prostitution followed this Augustinian logic. 5 However, the nineteenth-century system of regulation, with its enclosed brothels, compulsory registration, harsh medical treatment, confinement to specialized hospitals for the treatment of venereal diseases, 6 or imprisonment for clandestine prostitutes, handled women not as sinners or fallen women, but as quasi-criminals.

Writing in a period during which public transgressions were perceived as potential threats to the social order and as a problem that called for intervention ( Lee 2013 ), the ideas of Cesare Lombroso, the Italian founder of positivist criminology, reinforced the perception of prostitutes as deviants and offenders. In spite of the contemporary criticism of the scientific validity of his theory of the atavistic, born, or genetic criminal, Lombroso’s book La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale (1893) 7 continued to influence interpretations of female crime until deep in the twentieth century; some of its ideas are still discernable in some contemporary representations of prostitutes. Lombroso and his co-author, Guglielmo Ferrero, were convinced that lawbreakers constituted a throwback to a more primitive form of human being, who could be distinguished from “normal” persons by physical imperfections and abnormalities, the so-called stigmata of degeneration. They classified women into three groups: criminals, prostitutes, and normal. Generally, they found that all women were less evolved than men but stressed that female criminals and prostitutes were more anomalous than “honest women and even lunatics” ( Lombroso & Ferrero 2004 , p. 112; Rafter & Gibson 2004 ). If prostitutes did not show as many anomalies as other criminals, it was because their youth and use of makeup helped them to minimize their degenerative characteristics.

Since Lombroso and his positivist colleagues focused on the physiological traits of criminals, they understood crime as a disease, not as a rational individual choice. Although offenders could not be held responsible for their acts, society had the right to protect itself from them. Incurable born criminals and innate prostitutes were to be incarcerated or locked up in brothels, but occasional offenders were viewed as having the capacity for reform, and, because born female criminals were in Lombroso’s view rare, he proposed alternatives to prison for most female offenders. Furthermore, he distinguished between “born” and “occasional” prostitutes. The former resembled both female and male criminals. Moral insanity characterized the innate prostitute, as well as a lack of maternal and family feelings, aggressive or masculine behavior, a passion for liquor, unrestrained greed, a lack of decency, sexual frigidity, laziness, a passion for dancing, and a propensity for lying. These women were considered “mildly criminalistic” ( Lombroso & Ferrero 2004 , p. 216) but as rarely committing serious crimes because of their physical weakness or intellectual backwardness. Theft and blackmail were the most common offenses among them. Hence Lombroso and Ferrero concluded that, “in women, criminality generally takes the form of prostitution.” Occasional prostitutes showed less degenerative traits but remained “notably abnormal” (pp. 221–22). They were pushed into prostitution by external factors such as early loss of virginity, coercion, poverty, or bad examples.

During the first part of the twentieth century, more sophisticated theories on female crime and prostitution became increasingly popular. Contrary to Lombroso, they embraced psychological and social-structural factors but still relied on implicit assumptions about the “distinct” nature of women ( Klein 1973 ). The concept of “feeble-mindedness” entered the debate as a major cause of prostitution. Whereas Lombrosian practitioners set out to measure cranial and other physical traits of presumed criminals, antivice authorities and reformers who relied on psychiatrists’ and eugenecists’ theories subjected women accused of prostitution to mental tests and humiliating examinations (Rosen 1982). Long and impertinent questioning on their family background, education level, sexual life, habits, and employment history sought to distinguish “normal” from sexually “deviant” women. Even international organizations such as the League of Nations viewed social profiling as a useful tool to obtain indications as to the best methods of rehabilitation ( Rodríguez García 2012 ). Indeed, many persons concerned with the issue of prostitution did not believe in punishment but called instead for rehabilitative and preventive measures that sought in extreme cases to suppress the number of prostitutes through sterilization, or, more often, to control minds through socialization ( Klein 1973 ).

However, benevolent societies provided rehabilitation programs that women often experienced as being similar to or worse than prison terms. In colonial Mexico, so-called Recogimientos (seclusion institutions) attempted to safeguard women from sinful life but turned into virtual prisons for those (suspected of) practicing prostitution. Although Magdalen Homes had already existed in thirteenth-century Europe, asylums aimed at reform and control of women’s sexuality spread after the mid-1700s in England, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. Magdalen Homes’ methods for the reform of prostitutes and other “fallen women” were penitence, hard work, and prayer. The importance of laundry work was emphasized, as it was seen as symbolizing the spiritual cleansing of the inmates. In early twentieth-century American cities, women accused of prostitution were not jailed but were put on probation or sent to reformatories or workhouses. Many women preferred fines or prison sentences in order to avoid officers’ scrutiny during probation. French feminist Avril de Sainte-Croix was a fervent defender of rehabilitation institutions. During a meeting of the Committee of Social Questions of the League of Nations, she reported that in one of the institutions in which she was active, successful rehabilitation of young women had been achieved through “skillful administration of drugs,” which “very speedily brought calm to their souls and bodies.” 8 In general, rehabilitation was not attractive to women because life in a reformatory meant entrapment in programs in which they were trained in feminine “domesticity” and taught low-paid occupations such as sewing, embroidery, scrubbing, spinning, and cooking. What made reformatories even worse was the fact that the individual reform at which they aimed was not sentence-based, meaning that women could be detained for years instead of days or months in a prison ( Nuñez & Fuentes 2013 ; Rosen 1982).

Ultimately, those who focused on the consequences rather than the causes of prostitution prevailed in the United States. During the so-called Progressive era (ca. 1890s–1920s) reformers became increasingly preoccupied with all kinds of “social evils” and their link to politicians and policemen. Like drug consumption or gambling, prostitution came to be viewed as a victimless crime, but one that could harm society through moral degeneration, public disorder, corruption, delinquency, violence, and venereal disease ( Weitzer 2010 ). After many failed attempts to repress prostitution, authorities opted for a frontal attack. A few weeks after the American entrance into the First World War, the Commission on Training Camp Activities was created to repress prostitution and liquor sales among troops; in 1917, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act created a Division of Venereal Diseases; and in 1918, President Wilson established an Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board. In 1919, the latter communicated to the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives that the board had helped to close down more than a hundred red-light districts near military camps and had incarcerated 30,000 women and girls. Whereas the international armed conflict came to an end, the federal, state, and municipal authorities continued to pursue their war against commercial sex. Prostitution has been outlawed in the United States since the Standard Vice Repression Act of 1919, after which every state enacted laws prohibiting prostitution ( Clement 2006 ). Only some counties of the state of Nevada have legalized brothels since the 1970s, with most of them today isolated in rural areas.

Socialist revolution in various countries also led to the (de facto) criminalization of prostitution. In the Soviet Union, for example, prostitution was perceived as a symbol of capitalism and gender inequality. Instead of reintroducing criminal measures or medical supervision of women, the Bolsheviks tried to rehabilitate and educate former prostitutes. But the labor camps that were installed for this purpose became punitive institutions against women. Former prostitutes were regarded as “social parasites” harmful to society, and many were shot in the 1930s under Stalin ( Alexopoulos 2003 ). Also in China after 1949, the Maoist regime sought to completely eradicate prostitution and the sale and use of opium, which were seen as the ultimate symbols of capitalist vice. Prostitution was harshly punished until 1958, when it was (wrongly) considered totally eradicated ( Hershatter 1997 ).

Yet a perception of prostitutes as outright criminals has never been prevalent among the public. The idea of the fallen woman was used to refer not only to sinful or unruly behavior for which she was responsible, but also to situations of vulnerability in which women fell prey to malevolent men. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, women involved in prostitution became increasingly perceived as victims. In Great Britain, feminists and libertarians helped to publicize a series of sexual scandals in the 1880s, which ended with the reporting of Jack the Ripper and the murder of five prostitutes. W. T. Stead’s newspaper publication on the abduction of English girls sold to continental brothels, as well as the media attention given to the Ripper murders rendered all men suspect and strengthened the notions of urban danger and female fragility ( Walkowitz 1982 ). The link between (migration for) prostitution, male violence, and traffic was established then; by the late 1890s, a movement for the suppression of “white slave traffic” had emerged in Britain and spread internationally. From the early twentieth century onward, national and international initiatives to curtail the traffic in prostitution mushroomed 9 ( Limoncelli 2010 ; Rodríguez García 2012 ), in spite of the fact that empirical evidence of widespread trafficking or appropriate tools to measure it are lacking ( Knepper 2013 ).

The idea of prostitution as a harmful activity in which women are the main victims has become increasingly influential since the last decades of the twentieth century. As at the turn of the century, supporters of this interpretation of prostitution are of the opinion that commercial sex fuels human trafficking. In the United States, feminists have called into question the notion of prostitution as a victimless crime. Since they view prostitution as a “blatant example of the sexual oppression of women” ( Bennetts & Carlton 1973 , p. 137), they demand the decriminalization 10 of prostitutes as a short-term solution and the radical transformation of the socioeconomic structure of society to eliminate prostitution in the long run. In Sweden, a similar logic but a different approach has been applied. Focusing on the demand side of prostitution, Swedish feminists called for the criminalization of clients. After a long debate, the purchase of sex became illegal in Sweden in 1999 ( Svänstrom 2004 ). Prostitution is thus viewed as a crime, but one committed by men upon women—strengthening the idea of male clients as predators. With some variations, the so-called Swedish model spread to several European countries. In February 2014, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution that recommends that EU countries reevaluate their sex work policies in order to reduce the demand for prostitution and trafficking by punishing the clients. Since commercial sex is seen as inherently exploitative and as a violation of human rights, supporters of the Swedish model make no distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution. In their view, most women involved in prostitution are forced into the trade by third parties and/or poverty. As the following sections will illustrate, the structure of the trade, its working conditions, and the motivations of women involved in it are more complex than that described by pure harm-based analyses of prostitution.

IV. Trade Structure and Working Conditions

The structure of the sex trade and the working conditions within it are influenced by governmental and societal attitudes toward prostitution, as well as by the (extra-) legal, market, technological, and medical forces that govern female labor in general. Gender segmentation in the labor market in most places during much of the period studied here resulted in a general marginalization of women and led many into full-time or casual prostitution. During the early modern period, brothel and street prostitution were the most common forms of the trade. Brothels entrapped women in a system of financial exploitation, and often physically in enclosed buildings and segregated zones, but they also protected prostitutes from aggressive clients or police extortion. Although women had to divide their earnings with madams, 11 income from prostitution was always higher than in other branches of the economy. Furthermore, women often developed strategies to increase their revenues. In colonial Casablanca, for instance, prostitutes were not allowed to leave the walled brothel district (Bousbir) without permission, but when permitted to go out, they sometimes used their free time to engage in clandestine encounters in other parts of the city ( Kozma 2013 ).

Registered women bore the stigma of prostitution but had more opportunities to use official institutions (e.g., courts) than did independent prostitutes or other females who had to rely on men to have access to public services. In Cairo, state-run brothels did not exist until the late nineteenth century, but prostitutes were taxed, had access to the courts, and were allowed to participate in guild processions—albeit at the end of the parade ( Hammad & Biancani 2013 ). Other benefits of brothel prostitution were the familiar environment and the relative comfort for women who had no ties with kin and friends because of either death, family ruptures, or the ostracism that derived from involvement in the sex trade ( Clement 2006 ; Nuñez & Fuentes 2013 ). Many women scorned the mandatory health controls and treatment of the regulated brothels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they sometimes used the system for their own purposes. While some used the health checkups to solve problems other than venereal disease, others asked medical staff for help when they wished to get out of prostitution ( Absi 2013 ; Frances 2013 ).

The stigma attached to registered prostitutes, as well as accumulated debts or (induced) drug addictions, often impeded women from leaving the bordellos, but their working conditions were also dependent on their position within society. Legal systems that allowed for the sale and pawning of women, such as those in existence in China, India, Japan, Singapore, and Turkey, often led to dire working conditions, as women had little control over the number and kind of clients they received, or the services they were to provide. But young women could also be sold to luxurious brothels or wealthy men. In these cases, services were provided in sumptuous surroundings and in much better conditions, but always at the cost of personal freedom ( Henriot 2001 ; Hershatter 1997 ; Tong 1994 ; White 1990 ).

New spaces and working conditions developed with the politico-military, socioeconomic, and cultural transformations from the 1600s onward. Women wanting to avoid the strict municipal or unofficial brothel rules increasingly opted for independent prostitution. With the development of large armies, independent prostitutes moved to garrison towns to provide soldiers with their services. With the further growth of the entertainment and hospitality industry starting in the nineteenth century, many prostitutes began to work in cafés, restaurants, taverns, massage parlors, theaters, saloons, hotels, and speakeasies, or took their clients to their own rooms and apartments. Until the mid-1950s, London prostitution was primarily street-based. Everywhere, self-employed prostitutes were often better placed than their counterparts in brothels to negotiate their working conditions with clients and the owners of the establishments where they practiced their trade. Also, when working in secrecy, they avoided stigmatization. Yet women working outside the official or de facto regulated system always risked punishment or extortion from authorities. In such cases, the involvement of third parties to help women escape police harassment, provide money for bail or lawyers, and to attract trustworthy clients often became necessary ( Clement 2006 ; Gilfoyle 1992 ; Laite 2011 ).

A particularly interesting case of independent prostitution that developed in colonial times was that of Nairobi. Malaya prostitutes rented rooms and waited discreetly for men to purchase access from the house owner. This method allowed women to avoid arrest and societal condemnation, but with the disadvantage that they could not choose their clients. Like elite courtesans in China or the geishas of Japan, malaya women offered much more than sexual services (conversation, food, baths, cleaning, etc.); they claimed that their work mimicked marriage. In economic terms, malaya prostitution was a form of long-term investment—not a survival strategy, but a way to accumulate capital and to prosper independently. In contrast, wazi-wazi women solicited from the windows, doors, or porches of the houses where they rented a room. They had much more control over the clients that came in and the time they spent with them. Contrary to the malaya prostitutes, wazi-wazi women provided brief encounters and usually sexual services only. Most of them worked only temporarily in prostitution. Typically, they were daughters helping their parents to reestablish themselves in smallholdings or in trade. Finally, watembezi were streetwalkers or prostitutes soliciting in public places like bars or hotel lobbies. They cherished their independence to choose clients and determine the labor time, and mocked malaya prostitutes for their passivity and marriage-like practices. Their profits were used for family support and not so much for independent accumulation, as in the case of malaya women. Like streetwalkers in other parts of the world, watembezi developed strong ties, shared rooms, and helped each other in difficult times ( White 1990 ).

Luise White’s (1990) study of prostitution in Nairobi helps us to rethink the assumptions and myths that often surround prostitution, like strict hierarchies and limited room for agency. In such hierarchies, elite courtesans in Asia, malaya prostitutes in Nairobi, or high-class escorts and call girls are typically placed at the top, with other indoor and outdoor prostitutes being assigned a lower status. However, freedom and the capacity to control working conditions was (and is) in all cases relative and dependent on the locations where and the types of clients with whom women worked. With a much larger pool of middle- or low-class clients, outdoor prostitutes were able to pick and choose. Past and present elite prostitutes, self-employed or not, are in the position to entertain clients in luxurious surroundings and to live in considerably more comfortable circumstances than regular ones, but they probably have less control over the services they provide—ranging from working hours spent in nonsexual entertainment to the provision of extreme sexual favors. A high-class prostitute dependent on a few wealthy men may be less inclined to refuse certain demands than a common prostitute who provides fast and unceremonious intercourse or only manual or oral sex to ten, fifteen, or twenty customers a day ( Laite 2011 ). Whereas upper-class prostitutes are expected to follow patriarchal rules and protocol, common prostitutes often reverse the gender roles. Ethnographic research in Bolivian brothels shows the ways in which men there are humiliated by prostitutes, with clients being robbed or induced to spend more than they have in food and drinks, thereby reversing the traditional roles by making clients indebted to women. By making fun of men’s appearance or way of talking, prostitutes make sure that clients do not view them as submissive women willing to do anything for money ( Absi 2013 ).

The issue of violence and health in relation to prostitution also needs careful reevaluation, as there exists no reliable empirical evidence on the matter. Until the twentieth century, rates of venereal diseases were extremely difficult to determine. Whether prostitutes in the past suffered more from these diseases than other sexually active persons is unclear. Nowadays, HIV/AIDS has replaced syphilis and gonorrhea as the most dangerous sexually transmitted disease, but it remains unclear whether persons active in the sex industry get infected during sexual contacts at work or in private, or whether it is transmitted through intravenous drug use. Julia Laite’s (2013 , p. 15) conclusion with regard to the situation in London can be applied to other cases: “It remains difficult to separate the actual health experiences of prostitutes from their pathologization within criminal justice and social work systems”.

Generally, it has been assumed that prostitution leads to poor physical and psychological health, particularly among low-class prostitutes. The question is whether prostitutes suffer(ed) more than other workers engaged in substandard jobs, and whether brutal clients are (or were) the rule in the commercial sex exchange. Some contemporary case studies point to physical and mental problems as being the result of stigma and state repression, not an outcome of the sale of sex as such. Indeed, ego-documents and other sources containing firsthand accounts testify that prostitutes have been as (if not more) afraid of the police as customers’ or pimps’ violence. The paradox of state repression of prostitution is that it has never succeeded in abolishing the trade, but it has produced sufficient material evidence of the high incidence of official abuse and violence against prostitutes. Execution, drowning, mutilation, compulsory separation from children, flogging, forced sterilization, torture, and forced (sex) labor have occurred in places as varied as Turkey, colonial Egypt, France, England, Sweden, Austria, China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Historical data also sustain the contention that streetwalkers were not necessarily more vulnerable to male violence than were indoor prostitutes ( Frances 2013 ; White 1990 ).

Official and unofficial abuse of prostitutes led to increased protests not only by feminists but also by the affected women. Although formal organizations appeared only in the second half of the twentieth century, prostitutes’ protests took place sporadically in the late 1800s and early 1900s in such places as India, Russia, and Argentina ( Bernstein 1995 ; Guy 1990; Levine 2003 ). With the development of the feminist movement, cultural changes, and new attitudes toward sex in the 1960s, prostitutes from different parts of the world became more vocal and started to organize themselves. The first well-known demonstration was organized by French prostitutes who occupied a church in Lyon in 1975 to protest police harassment and a lack of state protection. The initiative spread to the rest of France and inspired many other women worldwide. Factors that contributed to the militancy and mushrooming of sex workers’ organizations were increased travel opportunities and the growth of the Internet, which facilitated connections between women ( Janssen 2011 ).

Indeed, technological developments in communication and transport have had an important impact on the working spaces and conditions of prostitution. Just like the more widespread use of the telephone in the early twentieth century, the Internet and mobile phones have enabled women to engage in full-time or casual prostitution. These technologies have increased the independence and invisibility of prostitutes, but procurers and pimps have not become totally absent. In early twentieth-century New York, for example, the increased use of the telephone facilitated the operations of call girls and of male “bookies” who controlled, booked, and moved women and madams to different houses and flats on a weekly basis ( Clement 2006 ). Nowadays, too, the secrecy of sexual encounters can lead to unsafe situations. And, as in past venues for prostitution, websites for sexual commerce are often constructed on an ethnic basis. Racial segregation of red-light districts was institutionalized in many colonial settings, but an ethnic hierarchy was also common in many other cities of the world. The demand for certain types of women, as well as the socioeconomic factors that led to the further development of the sex industry, has contributed to increased female mobility and a more diversified prostitution population over the last centuries.

Although foreign migration of women was not an unknown phenomenon in the early modern period, the rate of interstate female migration increased with the development of the transport infrastructure from the late eighteenth century onward. Parallel to voluntary migration, a trade in women for prostitution also existed in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian cities ( van Voss 2012 ). This led to a more marked presence of foreign women in the worldwide sex trade, and to the conflation of migration for prostitution and white slavery or human trafficking. But the rates of foreign prostitution are uncertain. Moreover, the demography and causes of prostitution have always been more complex than the narrative of foreign or rural women being forced into the sex trade.

V. Demography and Causes of Prostitution

Estimates of the number of women active in prostitution, as well as data on their backgrounds, are problematic. To nineteenth-century urban observers, prostitution appeared to be a growing problem, although this assertion cannot always be proven. In colonial cities, it is clear that the number of prostitutes increased along with the development of new economic activities and the huge male labor migration that supported them. Women became heavily affected by the breakdown of traditional means of survival and social norms. Because the new urban economies offered few labor opportunities for women, and as human relations became increasingly commodified and commercialized, women turned in large numbers to the sex trade ( Frances 2011 ; van Voss 2012 ).

In noncolonial cities where prostitution had existed for a long time, it is much more difficult to establish the extent to which the sex trade increased as a result of industrialization and urbanization. As Christine Stansell (1986 , p. 173) noticed for nineteenth-century New York, “there were more prostitutes simply because there were more people.” In other cities, too, the amount of prostitution is virtually impossible to establish because of the groups that were often included in (e.g., unmarried, “unchaste,” or “promiscuous” women) or excluded from (e.g., disguised or part-time prostitutes) the category of prostitution ( Clement 2006 ; Laite 2011 ).

For the same reasons, data on the nativity of prostitutes are inconclusive. Past and present reports, popular writings, and media stories often stress the share of foreign-born women in prostitution. Undoubtedly, large capital cities and hubs of international migration have always attracted foreign men and women to the sex trade, but because of its furtive nature, it is not possible to state with certainty how large the foreign population in prostitution was and is in relation to the local one. For instance, a 2009 TAMPEP report on the prostitution population in Europe states that most sex workers are (foreign) migrants. Yet, as its authors admit, these results “should not be considered as absolute ‘data’ or as entirely representative of the actual situation.” As in the past, the quantification of the sex industry and its workers remains extremely difficult, as clandestine or hidden prostitution is not reported, and many prostitutes successfully evade controls ( TAMPEP 2009 , pp. 8–9). Often, migrant prostitutes and women from minority groups become involved in the most visible forms of the sex trade, which possibly explains their overrepresentation in the statistics. This does not mean that the presence of foreign or minority women in prostitution was or is negligible. The available sources do confirm a strong presence among prostitutes of women (and men) of foreign origin or from ethnic minority groups. Particularly during the 1800s and early 1900s, and again from the late twentieth century onward, the growth of the global economy and increased labor migration propelled more women into interstate migration ( Henderson 1999 ; Laite 2011 ; Mechant 2013 ; van Voss 2012 ).

As well, racial discrimination in the labor market pushed many women into the sex trade. In colonial and many noncolonial cities, subordinate women only had access to a limited number of badly remunerated menial factory or domestic occupations. In New York City, for example, where the share of black women in the population was low (2 percent in 1910; 5 percent in 1930), they accounted for 13 percent of the detentions at the state reformatory for women at Bedford Hills in 1910, and for 54 percent of all arrests recorded in the Women’s Court in the second half of the 1930s ( Clement 2006 ; Gilfoyle 1992 ).

But not all racially, socially, or economically discriminated women turn(ed) to prostitution, so the question of what motivates women to become involved in the sex trade remains. Across time and space, prostitution has offered many economic and noneconomic advantages. Although it is impossible to compile and compare the different payments for prostitution in different societies in this study, it is clear that the sale of sex was (and in many cases still is) significantly more lucrative than most occupations available to women. The literature on the history of prostitution contains sufficient evidence of women who appear to have become engaged in the trade to ameliorate their personal living conditions. Many others seem in the first place to have had the maintenance of their underage, ill, or unemployed relatives in mind as a strong motivation to become and stay involved in prostitution. Everywhere, prostitution often formed part of the family economy. Hence, economic hardship is certainly discernable in most cases, and in several instances the fear of starvation or sheer want also appears. As Kingsley Davis (1937 , p. 149) argued, “prostitution embraces an economic relation, and is naturally concerned with the entire system of economic forces”.

Yet the economic motivation does not answer the question of why so many women with similar socioeconomic backgrounds did or do not become attracted to prostitution. The available literature evidences numerous noneconomic motivations for prostitution. A crucial one was the negative perception of conventional jobs available to women. Whereas domestic service, waitressing, peddling, or factory work were considered burdensome, discriminatory, tedious, and/or dangerous, prostitution was often linked to the idea of a more flexible and independent life. Contrary to what former authorities, doctors, social workers, antiprostitution reformers, or society at large often thought, prostitutes do not reveal any particular psychological or physical defect that makes them different from “normal” women ( Corbin 1990 ). Generally, they were not less educated than other working-class women, and although most prostitutes came from the (heterogeneous) laboring classes, not all of them were part of destitute families. Hence, “if there are any discernable patters,” Eileen McLeod affirms (1982, p. 31), they are “an independent stance” and the wish for “distance from family controls.” Case studies of cities as varied as Lagos, London, Moscow, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, and Shanghai provide evidence of thousands of women making use of the sex trade to evade the limitations of the patriarchal order and enter the consumption society independently.

Popular narratives of prostitution also tend to portray the sector as being overpopulated by young girls. Certainly the sex industry has always been dominated by the demand for young women, but empirical studies demonstrate that nearly everywhere the mean age of prostitutes has been between twenty and twenty-five. Child prostitution was already heavily debated in Victorian England by the end of the nineteenth century, but the available literature indicates that extremely young girls were very rare. Children in prostitution also seems to have been infrequent in cities like Amsterdam, New York, Perth, and Sydney ( Mechant 2013 ; Walkowitz 1980 ). 12

This does not mean that exploitative third parties and trafficking were merely the fantasy of moral antiprostitution crusaders. Many women, particularly those from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, were sold, pawned, or led by false promises of marriage or employment to brothels. Often, young women were sold to procurers by parents trying to escape starvation after the social turmoil and socioeconomic transformations of the colonial period. In many cases, however, women seem to have been aware of the situation and to have accepted this as a survival strategy for their families and themselves. Moreover, the traffic in Asian women between the 1850s and the 1950s seems to have been only supplementary to the much larger voluntary migration of seasoned prostitutes ( van Voss 2012 ).

Although an almighty white slave conspiracy and trade has never been satisfactorily proven, some evidence of forceful or deceptive recruitment for prostitution in Western cities does exist. Cases of coercion seem to have been infrequent and unconnected to the larger networks of intermediaries of prostitution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ruth Rosen (1982) estimates that during the first decades of the twentieth century, less than 10 percent of the whole prostitute population of the United States experienced situations that fell under the white slavery label. Findings of the studies collected for the “Selling Sex in the City” project also sustain the contention that cases of women being forced or tricked into prostitution existed but were rare. Most often, third parties did not constitute the main cause of prostitution, but they did play an important part in the recruitment of women and the organization of the trade. The more risky and secretive commercial sex became, the more important a role pimps and other intermediaries played in the management of prostitution from the late nineteenth century onward. As labor migration increased, a diverse range of intermediaries (e.g., procurers; madams; brothel keepers; escort agents; owners of theaters, massage parlours, barber shops, or apartments; and female relatives, friends, or acquaintances active in the sex trade) became involved in arranging the movement of females to overseas brothels or into other forms of prostitution. Their methods included smuggling; fictitious marriages; employment contracts; facilitation of boat, train, or plane tickets; and provision of forged documents ( Clement 2006 ).

The tripartite organization of prostitution seems to have been typical when or where women had (or have) not yet acquired sufficient political and socioeconomic power to work as independent prostitutes. Migratory impediments and labor restrictions, as well as stigma, marginalization, and violence, encourage the involvement of third parties. The available literature and source material for the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide evidence of pimps and procurers moving from city to city to secure recruits, but also of women actively looking for intermediaries to help them out with travel tickets, loans, documents, contacts with clients, and so on, a situation that turns the traditional view of recruiting for prostitution upside down ( Rodríguez García 2012 ; Ekpootu 2013 ). French police and emigration officials interviewed by members of a travel committee conducting an international inquiry on human trafficking for the League of Nations in the mid-1920s stated that recruitment often went in two directions. The recruitment of girls for prostitution was well known to the police of all countries and to the public in general, they said—but “what is not so well known is the influence which professional prostitutes have in the recruitment of souteneurs.” 13 Instances of female agency like this still need to be unveiled for a more comprehensive narrative on prostitution.

The study of prostitution in a long historical and broad geographical perspective permits us to understand commercial sex in terms of labor and to overturn the myths that often surround it. Among the commonalities that can be observed in the history of prostitution are the quasi-universal view of the trade as a substandard activity, a continuous effort by municipal (and later also state) authorities to control commercial sex, and a constant supply of women. Indeed, despite the stigma, thousands of women worldwide have viewed prostitution as a logical option compared to the other work alternatives available to them. Scientific studies that include the points of view of the persons concerned provide sufficient evidence of a large group of women entering prostitution voluntarily and experiencing the activities of the trade as less traumatic than generally assumed. In all the works consulted for this essay, prostitution is linked not only to higher wages but also to flexible hours; freedom from abusive employers or family members; liberation from conventional but monotonous, degrading, and exploitative jobs; and exciting experiences such as contact with persons from different classes or origins whom many women would otherwise never meet. Throughout time and space, prostitutes seem to have been as or more afraid of official repression than of violent clients or pimps. Admittedly, a lot of prostitution in different times and societies remained and remains hidden, but one can assume that independent sex work is easier to conceal than are forced activities involving one or more intermediaries.

Harsh measures to regulate prostitution in some cities and to eliminate it in others stimulated women to hide their activities, a situation that strengthened the involvement of exploitative third parties in the trade. The legalization experiments that have occurred in Germany and the Netherlands have not proven ideal (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this study), but have at least awakened the debate on the best way to provide protection to the persons involved in the sector ( Aronowitz 2014 ). The logic behind the legalization of the sex trade is that every (adult) person has the right to use his or her body and sexuality to make a living. Interestingly, the human rights approach is also used by advocates of the criminalization of clients. In their view, prostitution violates human dignity and human rights, regardless of whether it is forced or voluntary.

The contemporary debate demonstrates that neither the decline in religion nor the spread of secularism has changed societal attitudes toward prostitution. Even in countries where prostitution is legal, the main actors (prostitutes, clients, and intermediaries) continue to be stigmatized. According to Belgian sexologist Alexander Witpas, 14 the reason why the stigma around prostitution is so resilient is because sex—especially female sex—continues to be taboo, even in oversexualized societies. This helps to explain why so many prostitutes in past and present societies have opted to hide the nature of their work, and why misconceptions about prostitution often dictate public policy.

This project was organized by the author in cooperation with Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Wageningen University), Lex Heerma van Voss (Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands), and Marcel van der Linden (International Institute of Social History). A selection of papers has been compiled in an edited volume that will be published in 2016. See http://socialhistory.org/en/projects/selling-sex-city .

In this essay, I use the terms “prostitute” and “prostitution” instead of “sex work” and “sex worker,” as the latter encompass more than the exchange of sex for monetary or material compensation. The negative connotation attached to the former terms reflects the stigma that has characterized most of the history of prostitution and does not imply a judgmental interpretation of it on the part of the author.

For the definition of “prostitution,” see http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/prostitution?q=prostitution ; for “prostitute,” see http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/prostitute_1?q=prostitute .

See http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/prostitution .

The fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo once wrote: “Suppress prostitution, and capricious lusts will overthrow society” (quoted in Meier and Geis 1997 , p. 28).

Most famous were the so-called Lock hospitals, which operated in Britain and its territories abroad from the mid-1700s until the twentieth century.

The book was translated into English in 1895 as The Female Offender . This first translation, however, omitted much of the information on prostitutes and “normal” women. The version used in this study was translated by Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson ( Lombroso & Ferrero 2004 ).

This report can be found in the records of the Committee of Social Questions, Geneva, 27 April 1937, League of Nations archives, United Nations Office, Geneva (hereafter “LN archives”), CQS/A.10.

In 1921, the League of Nations replaced the racialized term “white slavery” with “traffic in women and children.”

Advocates of decriminalization are not in favor of the legalization of prostitution. Many radical feminists oppose legalization because it would normalize prostitution.

Usually 50 percent of the woman’s earnings went to the brothel owner or madam. Interestingly, this rate has remained more or less constant throughout space and time.

The issue of child prostitution in contemporary Asia, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, is an extremely complex one that goes beyond the scope of this essay. To understand this phenomenon, not only the age of the persons concerned should be discussed, but also the various definitions and societal attitudes toward childhood, sexuality, filial duty, and child labor in general.

French report, December 1924–January 1925, pp. 10–11, LN archives, Box S174.

Debate during the international colloquium “Reframing Prostitution: From Discourse to Description, from Moralisation to Normalisation?”, Ghent, University of Ghent, 27 March 2014.

Absi, P.   2013 . “ The Future of an Institution from the Past: Accommodating Regulationism in Bolivia, from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century. ” Paper presented at the conference “Selling Sex in the City: Prostitution in World Cities, 1600 to the Present,” Amsterdam, 25–27 April.

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Researching Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Comparatively

  • Published: 22 August 2014
  • Volume 12 , pages 81–91, ( 2015 )

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  • Ronald Weitzer 1  

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This article examines different types of comparative research designs as applied to either prostitution or sex trafficking. I first present several comparative approaches that are found to be deeply flawed either because of the problematic assumptions of the analysts or because the data provided are insufficient to support the conclusions drawn. I then review research designs that compare two to four cases in depth and have the potential to yield stronger evidence-based findings and richer theoretical insights. The article concludes by discussing a set of methodological issues that face researchers who conduct comparative research on sex work.

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prostitution research paper titles

Does Treatment for Sexual Offending Work?

Commercial sex as valuable policy implications of sex workers’ perspectives on the contributions of their labor.

“Legalization” here means decriminalized and state-regulated. The nature of the regulations vary considerably across legal regimes, from minimal (e.g., New Zealand) to extensive (e.g., Nevada, Queensland, Australia).

The report ranked Cyprus as the “worst” in 2010, with 6.3 victims per 100,000 population. The three “best” nations (0.1 victims per 100,000) were Hungary, Lithuania, and Portugal. Hungary’s rank as one of the best anti-trafficking nations is perplexing because other sources rank it as a major source of trafficking within Europe.

Only sources in these languages were used: English, French, German, and Spanish.

Respondents were asked whether a close family member had travelled to another country and been (1) “offered a domestic or nursing job, but was locked and forced to work for no pay,” (2) “offered a job at an enterprise, on a construction site, or in agriculture, but was locked and forced to work for no or little pay,” or (3) “offered employment, but the passport was taken away upon arrival to the destination country, and was forced to work in the sex business.”

The 2013 French poll specified the “reopening of brothels.” In five polls taken between 2011 and 2013, 70 to 82 % of French respondents disapproved of the idea of criminalizing clients.

Bedford versus Canada , ONSC 4264, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, September 28, 2010. The case was heard by an appeals court in 2012 and culminated in a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 ( Canada [Attorney General] versus Bedford , 2013 SCC 72, Supreme Court of Canada, December 20, 2013).

This section focuses specifically on comparative methods. General issues in researching sex work have been discussed by other scholars (e.g., Dewey and Zheng 2013 ; Sanders 2006 ; Shaver 2005 ).

It is possible to have more cases, but manageability becomes an issue if the study is qualitative. A study where such manageability did not seem to pose problems is participant observation in 37 strip clubs by Bradley-Engen ( 2009 ). She uses her data to construct a typology of three types of clubs.

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the COST conference on Comparing European Prostitution Policies, Athens, Greece, April 2014. I am grateful to Julia O’Connell Davidson and Lorraine Nencel for their helpful comments.

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Weitzer, R. Researching Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Comparatively. Sex Res Soc Policy 12 , 81–91 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-014-0168-3

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107 Prostitution Essay Topics

🏆 best essay topics on prostitution, 🌶️ hot prostitution essay topics, 👍 good prostitution research topics & essay examples, 🎓 most interesting prostitution research titles, ❓ research question about prostitution.

  • Legalizing Prostitution: Arguments For and Against
  • Prostitution Being Deviant: History and Theory
  • Tourism and Children Prostitution in Bahamas and Asia
  • Child Prostitution in Modern Society
  • Prostitution: The Non-Deviant Behavior
  • The Moral Value of Prostitution
  • Theodore Roosevelt Reform Movements on Prostitution
  • Legitimization of Prostitution There are many reasons why people enter prostitution and some of them are age, early home leaving, childhood sexual abuse, drug abuse and poverty.
  • The Chicken Ranch, a Prostitution Facility The Chicken Ranch was a well-known prostitution facility in a small Texas hamlet, managed by a woman named Miss Jessie.
  • Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in Tennessee Similar to any part of the world, sex trafficking in Tennessee is not unusual. Being illegal, it may be provided in places, such as massage and therapy parlors and nail salons.
  • Prostitution as a Social Behavior In terms of social disorganization theory, many women have no possibilities to escape prostitution because of low-class location and lack of education.
  • Prostitution from the Moral System Perspective Prostitution degrades the integrity of women in society, promotes gender-based violence, and increases the risk for sexually transmitted infections.
  • Human Trafficking and Forced Prostitution Human trafficking and its connection with prostitution remain a controversial topic, as do their perception and possible remedies.
  • Prostitution: The Non-Deviant Social Phenomenon The key reason why prostitution should be reclassified as non-deviant is to provide people involved in the job with protection, equality and reduce social injustice.
  • Deviant Behavior and Prostitution This provides an annotated bibliography of the six articles which aim to discuss the topics of deviant behavior and prostitution.
  • Is Prostitution a Victimless Crime or Not? Because victimless crimes involve two contentious issues of morality and liberty, the legalization of this category of crime is always disputed on many grounds.
  • Human Trafficking and Prostitution: Religious Perspective The implementation of an ideal religion is possible in the context of human trafficking and forced prostitution.
  • Prostitution vs. Human Trafficking Many people believe that making prostitution a legal activity will help raise the status of prostitutes and promote their protection.
  • The Damage in Permitting Prostitution There are many risks for women who practice prostitution which include STD and AIDS, unplanned pregnancy, physical violence, rape, and mental trauma, among others.
  • Educational Plan for Prostitution as Health-Related Issue Prostitution is a health issue since exposure to commercial sex often leads to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. This paper discusses this problem in Miami.
  • Prostitution in the United States The paper discusses the causes of prostitution in the United States. Prostitution is a situation whereby a woman decides to practice sex with the aim of being paid in return.
  • Legalization of Marijuana and Prostitution Every state should develop ways of controlling the influence of selling marijuana and prostitution before establishing a conclusion on legalizing it.
  • Radical Feminism Explains Prostitution Radical feminists reject the idea of mental differences but see prostitution as social and economic oppression only.
  • Prostitution Legalization in Canada Although legalization reduces the attractiveness of prostitution, in reality it motivates men to overindulge in the procurement of sex in a socially acceptable setting.
  • Various Dimensions of Child Prostitution in Thailand An in-depth analysis of various dimensions of child prostitution in ‘ Baan Nua’ a slum community of Thailand. Some of the areas explored include economical and social problems
  • Senate Bill 5: Change Penalties for Promoting Prostitution This paper aims at analyzing the Senate Bill 5 that will be enacted in Ohio and discuss its objectives, implications, and main concepts.
  • Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada The paper discusses the negative effects of prostitution and provides an insight into the advantages of decriminalizing prostitution in Canada.
  • The Nature and Characteristics of Prostitution in Ancient Rome and Pompeii
  • Badges and Brothels: Police Officers’ Attitudes Toward Prostitution
  • Causes, Effects, and History of Prostitution
  • Female Prostitution and Women’s Rights in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century
  • Economic Challenges and Drug Abuse as the Main Causes for Women’s Remaining in Prostitution
  • Law Enforcement and the Perception of Prostitution in the United States
  • Human Trafficking vs. Prostitution: Is There a Difference?
  • Gender Perceptions and Prostitution During the Victorian Age
  • Prostitution and Its Long History as a Profession
  • Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health
  • Analysis and Cross-Cultural History of Prostitution
  • Sex and Prostitution Among Troops During the American Civil War
  • Legal Prostitution: Turkey and Thailand
  • Christianity and Prostitution in the Middle Ages
  • Pain and Prostitution: The Evolution of Female Chastity in Ancient and Late Imperial China
  • Explaining Teen Prostitution Using Sociological Theories of Deviance
  • Prostitution and the Social Welfare Program for Children Affected by the Illegal Profession
  • Legalizing Prostitution and the Decriminalizing Illicit Drugs to Benefit All Canadians
  • It’s Time for Society to Accept Prostitution
  • The Ashley Alexandra Dupre Story: A Look at Female Prostitution in the Twenty-First Century
  • Prostitution: The Oldest Profession Known to Humanity
  • Early Sexual Experience and Prostitution
  • Local Community Attitudes Towards the Impact of Tourism on Prostitution
  • Factors Determining Entry Into the Prostitution Lifestyle
  • Child Pornography and Prostitution: A Question of Economics
  • Prostitution: How Do the Current Law and Society Treat Women Who Are Prostitutes?
  • Analyzing Social Behavior: Prostitution
  • Regaining Independence and Power Through Prostitution
  • Social Classes, Prostitution, and Jack the Ripper in 19th-Century England
  • Sociological Theories and the Deviance of Prostitution
  • Historical and Cross-Cultural Controversy About the Issue of Prostitution
  • The Benefits of the Legalization of Prostitution
  • Expanding Global Awareness to Regulate Prostitution
  • Moving Prostitution Through the United States
  • Illegal Drug Use, Illegal Prostitution, and Money Laundering
  • Prostitution: Sexual Intercourse and Strong Religion Conviction
  • Legalizing Prostitution and Other Sexually Oriented Business
  • Causes and Issues Faced by Prostitution
  • Prostitution and Ethical Values Related to It
  • Decriminalizing Prostitution and Legalizing Brothels in the United States
  • Factors for the Increase of Prostitution
  • Child Prostitution and Pornography in Southeast Asia
  • Organized Crime: Profits From Pornography and Prostitution
  • Legal Prostitution and Its Effect on Society
  • Patriarchy and Prostitution: Sex Trafficking in South Korea
  • Human Sexuality and Abstract Prostitution
  • Military Prostitution During Japan’s Imperial Rule
  • Prostitution and Its Effect on Public Health
  • Introspect Into the Lives of Aboriginal Women: Prostitution in Western Canada
  • Feminist Theory and Women’s Prostitution
  • Why Is Prostitution Illegal and Pornographic Films Are Not?
  • What Was the Protestants’ Approach to Prostitution?
  • What Are the Arguments in Favor of Legalizing Prostitution?
  • Is Prostitution a Threat to Marriage?
  • Does the Country’s GDP Change After the Legalization of Prostitution?
  • Do Alcohol and Drugs Affect the Spread of Prostitution?
  • What Is the Status of Prostitution in Us?
  • What Is Society’s Attitude to Prostitution?
  • Is Prostitution Really the Oldest Profession in the World?
  • Should There Be Different Laws Concerning Male Prostitution and Female Prostitution?
  • What Do You Think About Making Prostitution a Criminal Offence?
  • What Are the Dangers to Society of Prostitution?
  • Can Prostitution Be Considered a Profession?
  • What Are the Dangers to Prostitutes of Not Legalizing Prostitution?
  • How Can Governments Stop Prostitution?
  • What Should the World Do to Stamp Out Child Prostitution?
  • Is Prostitution a Matter of Personal Choice?
  • Are There Any Benefits to Society of Prostitution?
  • Why Do So Many Politicians and Movie Stars Get Involved in Prostitution Scandals?
  • What Are the Different Types of Prostitution?
  • Is Prostitution a Victimless Crime?
  • Would Legal Prostitution Better Protect Prostitutes From Violence?
  • What Is the Difference Between the Decriminalization and Legalization of Prostitution?
  • Is Legal Prostitution a Legitimate Business?
  • Should the Government Collect Taxes From Prostitution?
  • Is Prostitution Psychologically Harmful to Prostitutes?
  • Would Legal Prostitution Decrease Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
  • Does Legal Prostitution Lead to Human Trafficking and Slavery?
  • Is Prostitution Immoral or Demeaning?
  • Is Legal Prostitution an Aspect of Sexual Liberation?

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Understanding and Applying Research on Prostitution

National Institute of Justice Journal

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Until recently, female prostitution was a subject that fanned many emotional fires but rarely kindled sound scholarly research. In the past three decades, this situation has begun to change, for three reasons. First, feminist scholars have pushed the door open on studies of this sensitive subject; second, public health concerns regarding the spread of sexually transmitted diseases have intensified in recent years; and third, politicians and policymakers have come to recognize the need for an effective strategy that deals with prostitution and its repercussions.

Recent NIJ-funded research [1] has shed some light on prostitution through studies of data on single and serial homicides of prostitutes. [2] This research reveals that many women enter prostitution as minors and use the income to support a drug habit or to stave off homelessness. Many suffered abuse as children. They have extremely high rates of on-the-job victimization [3] —possibly the highest homicide rate of any group of women studied thus far [4] —and a significant number of prostitute homicides remain unsolved. Researchers have also examined data from a study of prostitutes’ clients to find out who they are, why they solicit sex from prostitutes, and what attitudes they hold toward violence against women.

This body of data can be used to develop intervention programs for prostitutes, to determine the effectiveness of demand-side approaches in controlling prostitution (where officers arrest the clients instead of the prostitutes), and to help law enforcement officers conduct more focused homicide investigations.

The Study: Single vs. Serial Homicide Victims

In 2001, the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crimes (NCAVC), a unit within the Federal Bureau of Investigation that offers investigative support to State and local law enforcement agencies, noted an increase in the number of requests for consultation on serial homicides of prostitutes. In response to this trend, NIJ awarded a grant to researcher Jonathan Dudek to identify empirical distinctions between single and serial prostitute homicide victims. Dudek amassed data on 123 victims, those committing the homicide, and the crime scenes using closed investigative case files and NCAVC’s database.

Dudek found that the motives for a significant number of single homicides were nonsexual in nature, whereas serial homicides were almost exclusively sexually motivated. Despite this difference, there were few variations in the demographics and lifestyle choices of single and serial homicide victims. Most victims were in their late 20’s to early 30’s; 60 percent were African American. Almost all victims worked in high-crime areas and had been victimized both “on the job” (that is, while working as a prostitute) and in their personal lives. The large majority—85 percent—were involved in prostitution to support a drug addiction.

Profile of Single and Serial Murderers

Those who commit single and serial murders, like their victims, appeared to resemble each other on the surface. They both shared violent criminal backgrounds, substance use histories, and lifestyle choices. The sample of those committing the murders consisted of an equal proportion of African Americans and Caucasians who ranged in age from early to mid-30’s.

However, serial murderers differed from single murderers in three areas—sexual aggression, deviant sexual interests, and active sexual fantasies. Serial killers engaged more frequently in planning activities (such as bringing a victim to a preselected area, removing clothing from the victim’s body, and so forth), ritualistic behaviors, body mutilation, and removal of body parts.

Dudek’s findings were significant because they allowed NCAVC to supplement its existing body of knowledge with empirically based data. These data were used to formulate recommendations to help State and local law enforcement officers identify suspects and more efficiently and thoroughly investigate homicides.

The Demand Side—“Johns”

NIJ also sponsored a more extensive look at prostitutes’ clients—commonly known as “johns.” In 1997, an NIJ-funded study conducted by Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland explored the types of sex-related behavior characteristics of men who solicited prostitutes. The study examined the effects of the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) in San Francisco, California, and similar programs in other cities. These programs offered johns an opportunity to pay a fine and attend a daylong seminar. Participants were advised that no further legal action would be taken against them if they successfully avoided rearrest for a year. If there was a subsequent offense, however, the individual was prosecuted for the new offense and the original charge was reinstated.

Monto surveyed 1,291 men arrested for soliciting street prostitutes before they participated in FOPP and in similar johns programs in Las Vegas, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and Santa Clara, California. He compared the data on why these men visit prostitutes, their attitudes regarding violence against women, and the consequences of conceiving of sexuality as a commodity.

Monto found that 72 percent of the men surveyed had attended some college. They ranged in age from 18 to 84 years, with a median age of 37, and were less likely to be married. Although their motives for seeking sex with a prostitute differed, there were similarities among certain groups. Married clients and college graduates were more likely to want a different kind of sex than they had with their regular partners. Steady or unmarried clients and non-college graduates reportedly felt shy and awkward when trying to meet women but did not feel intimidated by prostitutes.

Monto also explored the clients’ attitudes toward “rape myths”—that is, attitudes that have been used to support sexual violence against women. [5] Less than one-half of 1 percent of those surveyed indicated acceptance of all eight rape myths. On the other hand, 20 percent indicated acceptance of four or more items. Researchers believe that this latter group may be responsible for perpetrating violent acts against women for hire.

Next, Monto measured the degree to which clients regarded sexuality as a commercial commodity. [6] Monto found that the greater a client’s belief that women and sex were commercial products, the more frequently he would visit prostitutes. This mindset was also a strong predictor of the acceptance of rape myths, less frequent condom use with prostitutes, and a disinclination to view prostitution as a demeaning profession for women.

Researchers also conducted a limited recidivism study of those clients who participated in the San Francisco and Portland programs. Although both programs had a recidvism rate of about 2 percent, researchers acknowledge that conclusions about the programs’ efficacy in reducing recidivism were hampered by a lack of available baseline data for comparative purposes. The recidivism rate was not computed for men who were arrested but did not attend the program.

What the Future Holds

Since 2000, NIJ has funded two other studies that examine prostitute clients and the San Francisco FOPP more closely. The goals of the first study [7] are two-fold: to compare the recidivism rates for FOPP program participants and nonparticipants, and to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the diversion program. It is anticipated that the savings in prosecution costs, probation administration and monitoring time, and jail time will be substantial even if the recidivism effect is low. The goal of the second study is to ascertain the deterrent effect of arrest on street prostitute patrons. [8] If the study’s preliminary findings hold true—that arresting the clients of women prostitutes has a deterrent effect—this may provide evidence for a shift in law enforcement strategy.

NIJ’s research portfolio on prostitution will help build a body of knowledge that can be used by a wide range of professionals—public health officials, social workers, and law enforcement officers. Understanding the forces that drive a woman into prostitution and the drug dependencies that keep her there will go a long way toward developing intervention strategies for prostitutes and will help to stave off the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Additional data on the types of clients who solicit prostitutes and their attitudes toward them will also help to formulate more effective deterrence programs for johns and may help police identify potential suspects in prostitute homicide cases.

For More Information

  • Dudek, J., When Silenced Voices Speak: An Exploratory Study of Homicide, final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: 2001 (NCJ 198117), available at https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/198117.pdf .
  • Monto, M., Focusing on the Clients of Street Prostitutes: A Creative Approach to Reducing Violence Against Women, final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: 1999 (NCJ 182860), available at https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdfhttps://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdfhttps://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdf .

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 255 , November 2006.

[note 1] NIJ’s research portfolio centers on women involved in street prostitution, not on “call girls” or other off-street forms of prostitution, such as that found in massage parlors, exotic dance clubs, hotel bars, or escort services.

[note 2] A single homicide involves one victim; a serial homicide involves two or more victims who are murdered by the same individual.

[note 3] Kurtz, S., H. Surratt, J. Inciardi, and M. Kiley, “Sex Work and ‘Date’ Violence,” Violence Against Women 10 (4) (2004): 357–85; Davis, N., Prostitution: An International Handbook on Trends, Problems, and Policies, London: Greenwood Press, 1993; Hogard, C., and L. Finstad, Back Streets: Prostitution, Money, and Love, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992; Silbert, M.H., “Occupational Hazards of Street Prostitutes,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 8 (1981): 395–99.

[note 4] Potterat, J.J., D.D. Brewer, S.Q. Muth, R.B. Rothenburg, D.E. Woodhouse, J.B. Muth, H.K. Stites, and S. Brody, “Mortality in a Long-Term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women,” American Journal of Epidemiology 159 (8) (April 2004): 778–85.

[note 5] The eight rape myths Monto identified are: (1) A woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man on their first date implies that she is willing to have sex; (2) When women do not wear bras or wear short skirts and tight tops, they are asking for trouble; (3) In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation; (4) If a girl engages in necking or petting and she lets things get out of hand, it is her own fault if her partner forces sex on her; (5) Women who get raped while hitchhiking get what they deserve; (6) A woman who is stuck-up and thinks she is too good to talk to guys on the street deserves to be taught a lesson; (7) Women who report a rape are lying because they are angry and want to get back at the man they accuse; and (8) Women who report rape after they discover they are pregnant invent a story to protect their reputation. Monto, M., Focusing on Clients of Street Prostitutes: A Creative Approach to Reducing Violence Against Women,  final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: 1999 (NCJ 182860): 63, available at https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdf .

[note 6] Prostitution is the offering of something of value in exchange for sexual activity. By definition, prostitution is a form of commodification, which in this context is the belief that women generally and/or sexual activity specifically are commercial products.

[note 7] NIJ award no. 2005–IJ–CX–0037. Evaluation of Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention FY 2003 Discretionary Funds Projects: The First Offender Prostitution Program. Findings are expected in late 2007.

[note 8] NIJ award no. 2003–IJ–CX–1036. Clients of Prostitute Women: Deterrence, Prevalence, Characteristics, and Violence. Findings are expected in late 2006.

About the author

Marilyn C. Moses is a Social Science Analyst at the National Institute of Justice.

Cite this Article

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Prostitution is simultaneously a sexual and an economic institution, and it is also highly gendered. The majority of prostitutes are female, and an even larger majority of customers are male. While men’s prostitute use is widely tolerated, female prostitution is popularly viewed as a form of social and sexual deviance, and mainstream social scientists have traditionally reproduced such attitudes in their research on the topic. Feminist theorists, by contrast, have long been concerned to explore parallels between marriage, prostitution, slavery, and wage labor, as well as the sexual, political, and economic relations that underpin these institutions. They do not speak as one on the subject, however, and the division between feminists who are concerned with prostitution as a sexual institution and feminists who approach it first and foremost as a form of economic activity is particularly sharp. This research paper provides a brief overview of prostitution in the contemporary world and highlights the theoretical and actual problems it poses for gender scholarship.

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Get 10% off with 24start discount code, 1. prostitution: a stigmatized and criminalized activity.

A profoundly negative stigma is almost universally attached to prostitute women. Religious thinking on men’s prostitute use varies, but there is no major world religion that actively sanctions female prostitution and, in secular societies, ‘scientific’ thinking has done little to displace traditional attitudes. Mainstream medical, psychological, psychoanalytic, and sociological research on the topic has generally assumed that while men’s prostitute use is based on natural, biologically determined sexual drives, women who prostitute are somehow abnormal, unnatural, a threat to public health and order. Prostitution law varies from country to country and even within individual nation states, but typically enshrines this kind of stigma by treating female prostitutes as a distinct class of persons, separate from other workers and/or women in terms of their rights to protection, privacy, and/or self-determination (Walkowitz 1980, Bindman 1997).

Law enforcement almost invariably focuses upon female prostitution, ignoring men’s prostitute use (often also male prostitution), and is generally informed by one of two basic models: prohibition/abolition, or regulation/registration. The prohibitionist model has historically led to an emphasis on controlling public manifestations of prostitution through the criminalization of (usually street working) prostitute women. The regulation/registration model, which legalizes prostitution providing it takes place in licensed brothels or designated geographical zones, has been associated with a variety of civil rights violations, such as requirements for prostitute women to register with the police and/or other authorities, have compulsory health checks, and so on. In some countries, there have been moves to deregulate prostitution either explicitly or by default, a shift which is taking place largely for reasons of ‘financial exigency, prosecutor indifference, court deadlocks, and resistance to the overreach of the criminal law among some social sectors’ (Davis 1993, p. 8).

2. The Economic Significance Of Prostitution

Because female prostitution is ideologically and legally construed as a form of deviance, states do not officially recognize or regulate prostitution as an economic sector like any other. It is therefore extremely difficult to obtain accurate data on the size and earnings of the sex trade. However, research indicates that sex commerce is a significant feature of economic life in many nations, regardless of their overall level of economic development. Studies suggest that, for example, in London, prostitution generates around £200 million annually (Matthews 1997); that in New Zealand, almost one in every 150 women aged between 18 and 40 is employed in some form of sex work (Lichtenstein 1999); and that in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the sex sector accounts for between 2 percent and 14 percent of gross domestic product (Lim 1998). Research further suggests that a fairly consistent set of factors underpin prostitution labor markets. Gender discriminatory social practices are structural ‘push’ factors in economically developed and underdeveloped nations alike (Davis 1993).

As part of an unofficial and often criminalized economic sector, prostitution is frequently connected with corruption, organized crime, and drug abuse, but it is often simultaneously integrated into mainstream economic structures, such as the entertainment and the tourism industries (Lim 1998). This draws attention to the increasingly international nature of the sex industry.

3. Global Politics And Markets And Prostitution

Prostitution is affected by global politics and market trends in three main ways. First, there are countries in which the development of the sex sector has been directly shaped by the military and economic interests of external powers. Thailand, for example, was used for ‘Rest and Recreation’ by the US military in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and a highly sexualized entertainment sector developed to meet demand from legions of young men. Western financial institutions and businesses soon recognized that such an entertainment industry was also suited to serve one particular segment of the long haul tourist market, and economic initiatives based on a 1975 World Bank report ‘led to what is routinely described today as a $4billion-a-year business involving fraternal relationships among airlines, tour operators, and the masters of the sex industry’ (Bishop and Robinson 1998, p. 9). Similar developments have occurred elsewhere in South East Asia, as a result of either US or Japanese military or economic interventions in the region.

Sex commerce in poorer countries has also been affected by a set of linkages between international debt, price fluctuations in global commodity markets, economic development policy, and prostitution. Since the 1970s, world financial institutions have encouraged indebted nations to respond to economic crisis by developing tourism and/or ‘nontraditional’ export industries such as gold, diamonds, and timber. One side effect of such development policies is the creation of highly concentrated, effective demand for prostitution: affluent tourists seeking ‘entertainment’ and predominantly male, migrant workers in isolated mining and logging regions with cash to spend on ‘recreation.’ Meanwhile, structural adjustment measures have expanded the prostitution labor market. It is women and children who have been most adversely affected by the sudden introduction of cash economies into what were formerly subsistence economies, currency devaluations and concomitant falls in the price of labor, and the redirection of subsidies away from social spending and basic commodities towards debt servicing. In such climates, prostitution has often become the best or only economic alternative for large numbers of women and teenagers (Chant and McIlwaine 1995, Clift and Carter 1999, Kempadoo 1999). Third, the sex trade is international in the sense that many of those working in prostitution have either voluntarily migrated in order to prostitute or have been trafficked by third parties for that purpose. Migrant prostitutes are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by third parties and, as both illegal migrants and prostitute women, particularly likely to be denied legal protection and civil rights (Bindman 1997).

Ideological, as well as economic and political factors underpin the globalization of sex commerce. Racist discourses, which typically construct the ‘Other’ as sexually debased and/or exotic, have long fueled desire for ‘racially’ Other prostitutes and continue to shape demand today (Shrage 1994).

4. The Diversity Of Prostitution

Prostitution varies enormously in terms of its social organization and the power relations it involves. In virtually every country of the world, hierarchies exist within both female and male prostitution (West 1992, Aggleton 1999). At their apex are independent, self-employed adult prostitutes who exercise a relatively high level of control in transactions with clients and whose earnings are relatively high. At their base are individuals who gain little or no financial reward from their prostitution and exercise little, if any, control over it (including control over condom use). This may be because they are physically forced into a given work regime by a third party pimp or brothel-keeper, but it may also be because extreme economic and social marginalization, and/or youth and/or drug addiction renders them horribly powerless within transactions.

Between the two extremes are prostitutes who either work independently or enter into some form of employment relation with a third party. The degree of control they exercise over whether, when, how often, and on what terms they prostitute varies according to a range of factors, including their level of economic desperation; the contractual form of the prostitute– client exchanges they enter into; and the specific legal, institutional, social, political, and ideological context in which they prostitute. There are, for example, settings in which prostitution law so heavily penalizes independent prostitution that it effectively operates as a pressure on prostitutes to enter and remain in third party controlled prostitution no matter how exploitative the third party may be. Equally, in contexts where certain social groups (for instance, women, children, homosexuals, migrants, particular ‘castes’ or racialized minorities) are generally devalued, and/or denied full juridical subjecthood, and/or denied independent access to welfare support, their vulnerability to prostitution and to third party exploitation and abuse within it is increased. It should also be noted that people come to prostitution as individuals of a certain age and with particular personal histories and experience, and this leaves some more open to exploitation and at higher risk of violence and sexually transmitted disease than others (O’Connell Davidson 1998).

5. Conceptualizing Prostitution

One approach to the task of conceptualizing prostitution is to examine how it simultaneously resembles and differs from other social institutions. In prostitution, as in the institution of marriage, the sexual and the economic are conjoined. Unlike marriage, however, prostitution does not construct long term, mutual, or diffuse relations of dependency between individuals and their kin. Instead, sexual interaction between prostitute and client takes place on the understanding that some immediate economic benefit will accrue to either the prostitute or a third party as a result, and the client’s obligations are thus discharged by payment in cash or kind. To this extent, relations within prostitution resemble market relations.

However, prostitution does not involve any ordinary commodity exchange. The client does not wish to purchase the disembodied means to an orgasm, a ‘thing’ that can be detached from the prostitute’s person. Rather clients part with money and/or other material benefits in order to secure certain powers of sexual command over the person of the prostitute. Thus, although prostitution is often thought of as the exchange of sex or sexual services for money and/or other benefits, it is better conceptualized as an institution which allows certain powers over one person’s body to be exercised by another. In this sense, prostitution has something in common with slavery, wage labor, and relations between buyers and self-employed sellers of services. All are institutions through which certain powers of command over the person are transferred from one individual to another, conferring a right upon the client/slave holder/employer/buyer to require that the prostitute/slave/worker/seller acts in ways that she/he would not otherwise choose to act.

Yet the relationship between prostitute and client differs from that between slave and slave holder or worker and employer in crucial respects. Not only is it generally brief and transitory, but also, clients enter into it as consumers, not producers. Clients do not depend upon prostitutes for their economic well being in the way that slave-holders and employers depend upon slaves and workers for their material existence. And even where the prostitute is self-employed, the prostitute–client exchange is made unlike other exchanges between independent sellers and purchasers of services by the social meanings that are popularly attached to sexuality.

In monetary economies, sexual and economic relations are typically imagined, explained, and justified in very different ways. The products of human labor, human labor power, sometimes even human beings themselves, have been and are imagined as commodities to be bought and sold on the basis of rational economic calculation and/or in pursuit of status and social prestige. Human sexual interaction, by contrast, is generally regulated and given meaning through reference to premarket or nonmarket ideas, such as those pertaining to honor, shame and duty, and/or romantic love, and/or recreation, pleasure, and desire. Prostitution thus occupies a troubled and troubling space between two quite different symbolic domains. It does not readily fit into popularly understood categories of ‘sex’ or ‘work,’ and this tension has been central to much feminist debate on the subject.

6. Feminist Debates On Prostitution

Though sharing a common concern with the welfare of prostitute women, feminists are often deeply divided on the question of whether to view prostitution as a sexual or an economic institution. For ‘radical’ feminists, who foreground the sexual domination of women by men in their analyses of women’s political subordination, prostitution is the unambiguous embodiment of male oppression. In this view, as a sexual institution, prostitution reduces women to bought objects, allows men temporary, but direct, control over the prostitute, and increases their existing social control over all women by affirming their masculinity and patriarchal rights of access to women’s bodies. For such commentators, prostitution is always and necessarily damaging to women, there can be no distinction between ‘forced’ and ‘free choice’ prostitution, and in tolerating, regulating, or legalizing prostitution, states permit the repeated violation of human rights to dignity and sexual autonomy (Barry 1995, Jeffreys 1997).

Feminists who adopt a sex workers’ rights perspective generally reject the idea that prostitution is intrinsically or essentially degrading, and view links between prostitution and patriarchal domination as contingent, rather than necessary. Treating prostitution as an economic institution, they make a strong distinction between ‘free choice’ prostitution by adults and all forms of forced and child prostitution. While they believe the latter should be outlawed, they hold the former to be a type of paid work, a job like any other. Since sex workers’ rights feminists view free choice prostitution as a mutual voluntary exchange, they see state actions which criminalize or otherwise penalize those adults who make an individual choice to enter prostitution as a denial of human rights to self-determination (see Nagel 1997).

Because hierarchies exist within prostitution in terms of earnings, working conditions, vulnerability to violence and exploitation, and autonomy as regards specifying, limiting, and retracting from contracts with clients, these two very different interpretations of prostitution can each be partially supported empirically. Radical feminists point to research which indicates that around the world, the average age of entry into prostitution is very low (often under 18 years); that it is often precipitated by the experience of rape, sexual assault, and/or incest; and that the experience of prostitution can be extremely damaging psychologically, as well as associated with drug and solvent abuse, various forms of sexual and physical violence, and suicide (Hoigard and Finstad 1992, Kelly et al. 1995). Radical feminism’s emphasis on a link between prostitution and systems of patriarchal domination is supported by the strong historical and contemporary association between the military and organized prostitution, while the persistence of highly abusive and slavery-like practices within prostitution and the significant presence of children aged between 12 and 18 in mainstream prostitution, even where prostitution is legally regulated rather than proscribed, lends further credence to a view of prostitution as a hugely problematic institution (Ennew 1986, Enloe 1989)

Sex workers’ rights feminists point out that slavery- like practices and child labor persist in other industries, and that historically, such abuses have been most successfully addressed through collective struggle for workers’ political representation, international conventions guaranteeing minimum rights to various groups of workers persons, national employment laws outlawing abusive practices, and so on. They cite research which suggests that prohibitionist legislation increases, rather than reduces, prostitutes’ vulnerability to violence, third party coercion, and extortion, and emphasize empirical studies in which adult women and men in prostitution describe themselves as perfectly content with their chosen occupation (Bindman 1997, Kempadoo and Doezema 1998).

Though certain feminist commentators remain rig- idly wedded to a view of prostitution as either work or sexual violence, many theorists and activists (including some feminist abolitionists and sex workers’ rights feminists) place a growing emphasis on the need to develop analyses of prostitution which can embrace its diversity and its particularity as both a sexual and an economic institution (see, for example, Shrage 1994, Chapkis 1997, O’Connell Davidson 1998).


  • Aggleton P (ed.) 1999 Men Who Sell Sex. UCL, London
  • Barry K 1995 The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York University Press, New York
  • Bindman J 1997 Redefining Prostitution as Sex Work on the International Agenda. Anti-slavery International, London Bishop R, Robinson L 1998 Night Market: Sexual Cultures and the Thai Economic Miracle. Routledge, London
  • Clift S, Carter S 1999 Tourism and Sex: Culture, Commerce and Coercion. Pinter, London
  • Chant S, McIlwaine C 1995 Women of a Lesser Cost: Female Labour, Foreign Exchange & Philippine Development. Pluto, London
  • Chapkis W 1997 Li e Sex Acts. Cassell, London
  • Davis N (ed.) 1993 Prostitution: An International Handbook on Trends, Problems and Policies. Greenwood, Westport, CT
  • Enloe C 1989 Bananas, Beaches, Bases. Pandora, London
  • Ennew J 1986 The Sexual Exploitation of Children. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
  • Hoigard C, Finstad L 1992 Backstreets: Prostitution, Money and Love. Polity, Cambridge, UK
  • Jeffreys S 1997 The Idea of Prostitution. Spinifex, Melbourne, Australia
  • Kelly L, Wingfield R, Burton S, Regan L 1995 Splintered Lives: Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Context of Children’s Rights and Child Protection. Barnardo’s, Ilford, UK
  • Kempadoo K (ed.) 1999 Sun, Sex and Gold: Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean. Rowman and Littlefield, Boulder, CO
  • Kempadoo K, Doezema J (eds.) 1998 Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition. Routledge, New York
  • Lichtenstein B 1999 Reframing ‘Eve’ in the AIDS era: The pursuit of legitimacy by New Zealand sex workers. Sexuality and Culture. 2: 37–60
  • Lim L 1998 The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia. International Labor Organization, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Matthews R 1997 Prostitution in London: An Audit. Middlesex University, London
  • Nagel J (ed.) 1997 Whores and Other Feminists. Routledge, London
  • O’Connell Davidson J 1998 Prostitution, Power and Freedom. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
  • Shrage L 1994 Moral Dilemmas of Feminism. Routledge, London
  • Walkowitz J 1980 Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  • West D 1992 Male Prostitution. Duckworth, London


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Prostitution in the Philippines

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The article analyzes the main approaches to the interpretation of prostitution from the legal, economic, sociological, psychological, sexological and religious points of view. The author formulates its own definition, in which prostitution is considered as a form of entrepreneurial activity for the provision of sexual services on a paid basis, aimed at meeting sexual needs. The basic preconditions that are necessary for the prostitution to become the signs of entrepreneurial activity are presented: availability of commodity-money relations; religious and social tolerance; sexual freedom; sexual need. It is offered to allocate three main groups of mutually conditioned motives to engaging in prostitution: psychological-emotional, image and socio-economic. It is noted that for today's Ukraine socio-economic motives are dominant.

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Prostitution is the business or practice of engageng in sexual relations in exchange for payment[1][2] or some other benefit. Prostitution is sometimes described as commercial sex.

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Prostitution is the system that commodifies and dehumanizes the bodies of the woman for the use and profit of the man. The term serves as an adjective for any sexually transgressing woman, seen as sexual beings representing uncontrolled sexuality. Prostitution is understood as a sexual act involving women. Today it is an object of intense mainstreaming campaign that is working for social and political acceptance of the highly profitable industry of sex. Prostitution right groups in India however argue that prostitution is the exchange of sexual favors between partners within a relationship for earning money, which is one of the various ways of expressing and carrying out human sexuality.

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Prostitution - Research Paper Example


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Extract of sample "Prostitution"

This paper analyses the religious and cultural dimensions of prostitution. It is easy for people to judge the goods and evils when they consider topics such as global peace or agitations in Libya. SARA MACKENZIE (1992) has pointed out that people possess vastly different views as to whether it is a “Good Thing” or a “Bad Thing” when they consider sex and prostitution. In her opinion, sex and prostitution are morally neutral topics (MACKENZIE, p.1). In other words, SARA MACKENZIE like feminists argue that sex is a profession rather than any divine activity.

In her opinion, prostitution is just another profession like nursing, management or teaching. In my opinion, the above argument seems to be meaningless. Sex is a divine act, given to the human by God in order to make his life and reproduction procedure more enjoyable. The intrusion of commercialization is visible in every aspect of human life. Sara’s arguments seem to be the outcomes of such intrusion of commercialization in human life rather than any logical thinking. If sex is performed in a professional manner, then it will become mechanic just like other professions in this world.

A person loves his wife mainly because of the emotional attachment strengthened through their sexual life. A person will consider his wife as a special entity mainly because of the psychological pleasure she is providing to him though their sexual intercourse. If a person allowed having sex with females other than his wife, his emotional attachments with his wife will be damaged or decreased. Such decrease in emotional attachment will affect the cohesion and strength of family relations. In other words, the traditional concept of family, husband, wife, children etc will undergo drastic changes, once we accept prostitution as a moral act.

A prostitute is not a commodity and neither is sex. Prostitution is a service and a prostitute sells her companionship and sex as a service. Her body is present at the time of transaction as the vehicle for these services as is the body of any other professional at the time of selling a service (MACKENZIE, p.3). The above argument also seems to be illogical. Converting sex into another product and the prostitutes as just service providers are dangerous acts. Sex is not a product, but a process.

Generalization of sex as a product will destroy the uniqueness of this process. If sex is a product, then it can be purchased from anywhere, even from the family. In other words, we should justify the sexual relations with a brother and sister, mother and her son etc, if we consider sex as a product. It should be noted that mothers and sisters are also sources of this product and how can we justify purchasing sex from mothers and sisters. In other words, the arguments of MACKENZIE seem to be illogical.

If we consider sex as a process, then we can assume certain conditions for this process. A process will take place only in suitable conditions. For example, water will be boiled at 100 degree Celsius when it is heated in normal atmospheric temperature and pressure. In other words, water will never boil at 100 degree Celsius if the normal atmospheric pressure is altered. Same way sex is enjoyable only when it is conducted in a suitable environment between the suitable people. In other words it is better to consider sex as a process rather than a product.

“Prostitution causes venereal diseases, social immorality,

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Conferences, 2024 financial stability conference – call for papers.

Published: June 4, 2024

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The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Office of Financial Research invite the submission of research and policy-oriented papers for the 2024 Financial Stability Conference on November 21–22, 2024. The conference will be held in person in Cleveland, Ohio, and virtually.

Markets and institutions, increasingly interconnected, are being challenged by the dizzying pace of changes in the financial system, accelerating the buildup of risk and threats to solvency. Regulatory adaptations add another layer of complexity to the issue. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms and the rise of generative artificial intelligence may create new vulnerabilities across the system as banks, nonbank financial institutions, and financial markets exploit nascent opportunities. The twelfth annual conference will explore how firms and markets can become resilient or even antifragile and how regulators can encourage and accommodate needed changes.

Conference Format

The conference will bring together policymakers, market participants, and researchers in two types of sessions:

  • Policy Discussions These sessions include keynote addresses and panel discussions in which participants from industry, regulatory agencies, and academia share their insights.
  • Research Forums These forums follow the format of an academic workshop and comprise sessions to discuss submitted papers.

We welcome submissions of research on topics related to potential financial stability risks faced by financial markets and institutions, sources of financial system resilience, and related public policy. Conference topics include but are not limited to the following:

Emerging Risks

As the financial system continues to evolve, new risks emerge along with new businesses, new strategies, and new technologies. Old problems take on new dimensions as fiscal and monetary policies adapt to new economic and political realities, thereby adding new stresses to regulatory frameworks that themselves struggle to adapt. As information technology moves risk out of closely regulated sectors, it also creates new vulnerabilities from cyber-attacks. A rapidly changing physical environment and the prospect of nonhuman intelligences add even more uncertainty.

  • Financial stability concerns related to faster payments and equity transactions such as the implementation of t+1 settlement
  • The financial stability implications of generative AI and deep learning
  • Cryptocurrencies, smart contracts, and blockchain
  • Cyber-attacks
  • Climate risk
  • Interaction of monetary policy with macroprudential supervision
  • Sources of resilience in the financial sector

Financial Institutions

A riskier macroeconomic environment poses challenges for financial institutions and their supervisors. Risk management tools and strategies will be tested by fluctuations in inflation and output and by new regulations designed to mitigate vulnerabilities. Network effects, including interactions with a rapidly evolving fintech and crypto sector, may lead to further risks at a systemic level. How are institutions adapting to these risks and associated regulatory changes? How prepared are regulators and policymakers? Are existing microprudential and macroprudential toolkits sufficient?

  • Bank lending to nonbank financial institutions (NBFI)
  • Insurance markets
  • Banking as a service (BaaS)
  • Regional banks
  • Interest rate risk
  • Risks of rapid growth
  • Unrealized losses on balance sheets and mark-to-market accounting
  • Impact of reforms to lenders of last resort, deposit Insurance, capital rules, and the FHLB system

Financial Markets

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The Concave Phillips Curve

This paper derives the curvature properties of the short-run Phillips curve in a class of canonical models of price-setting frictions. Contrary to conventional thinking, the Phillips curve is asymptotically horizontal for high levels of economic activity and asymptotically vertical for low levels of economic activity. Moreover, it is globally concave for a wide class of models, including many in which average real marginal cost is an unbounded convex function of economic activity. Intuitively, when economic activity is very high (low), substitution effects within the model-implied true price index imply that inflation behaves as if prices are nearly fully sticky (flexible). Using (conventional) measures of inflation that understate the relevant substitution effects may lead to misleading conclusions about the curvature of the Phillips curve, and to corresponding errors in the formulation of monetary policy.

I thank David Baqaee and Eugenio Gonzalez Flores for many thoughtful comments. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.


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Title: hallucination-free assessing the reliability of leading ai legal research tools.

Abstract: Legal practice has witnessed a sharp rise in products incorporating artificial intelligence (AI). Such tools are designed to assist with a wide range of core legal tasks, from search and summarization of caselaw to document drafting. But the large language models used in these tools are prone to "hallucinate," or make up false information, making their use risky in high-stakes domains. Recently, certain legal research providers have touted methods such as retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) as "eliminating" (Casetext, 2023) or "avoid[ing]" hallucinations (Thomson Reuters, 2023), or guaranteeing "hallucination-free" legal citations (LexisNexis, 2023). Because of the closed nature of these systems, systematically assessing these claims is challenging. In this article, we design and report on the first preregistered empirical evaluation of AI-driven legal research tools. We demonstrate that the providers' claims are overstated. While hallucinations are reduced relative to general-purpose chatbots (GPT-4), we find that the AI research tools made by LexisNexis (Lexis+ AI) and Thomson Reuters (Westlaw AI-Assisted Research and Ask Practical Law AI) each hallucinate between 17% and 33% of the time. We also document substantial differences between systems in responsiveness and accuracy. Our article makes four key contributions. It is the first to assess and report the performance of RAG-based proprietary legal AI tools. Second, it introduces a comprehensive, preregistered dataset for identifying and understanding vulnerabilities in these systems. Third, it proposes a clear typology for differentiating between hallucinations and accurate legal responses. Last, it provides evidence to inform the responsibilities of legal professionals in supervising and verifying AI outputs, which remains a central open question for the responsible integration of AI into law.

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Modular, scalable hardware architecture for a quantum computer

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Quantum computers hold the promise of being able to quickly solve extremely complex problems that might take the world’s most powerful supercomputer decades to crack.

But achieving that performance involves building a system with millions of interconnected building blocks called qubits. Making and controlling so many qubits in a hardware architecture is an enormous challenge that scientists around the world are striving to meet.

Toward this goal, researchers at MIT and MITRE have demonstrated a scalable, modular hardware platform that integrates thousands of interconnected qubits onto a customized integrated circuit. This “quantum-system-on-chip” (QSoC) architecture enables the researchers to precisely tune and control a dense array of qubits. Multiple chips could be connected using optical networking to create a large-scale quantum communication network.

By tuning qubits across 11 frequency channels, this QSoC architecture allows for a new proposed protocol of “entanglement multiplexing” for large-scale quantum computing.

The team spent years perfecting an intricate process for manufacturing two-dimensional arrays of atom-sized qubit microchiplets and transferring thousands of them onto a carefully prepared complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip. This transfer can be performed in a single step.

“We will need a large number of qubits, and great control over them, to really leverage the power of a quantum system and make it useful. We are proposing a brand new architecture and a fabrication technology that can support the scalability requirements of a hardware system for a quantum computer,” says Linsen Li, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student and lead author of a paper on this architecture.

Li’s co-authors include Ruonan Han, an associate professor in EECS, leader of the Terahertz Integrated Electronics Group, and member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE); senior author Dirk Englund, professor of EECS, principal investigator of the Quantum Photonics and Artificial Intelligence Group and of RLE; as well as others at MIT, Cornell University, the Delft Institute of Technology, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and the MITRE Corporation. The paper appears today in Nature .

Diamond microchiplets

While there are many types of qubits, the researchers chose to use diamond color centers because of their scalability advantages. They previously used such qubits to produce integrated quantum chips with photonic circuitry.

Qubits made from diamond color centers are “artificial atoms” that carry quantum information. Because diamond color centers are solid-state systems, the qubit manufacturing is compatible with modern semiconductor fabrication processes. They are also compact and have relatively long coherence times, which refers to the amount of time a qubit’s state remains stable, due to the clean environment provided by the diamond material.

In addition, diamond color centers have photonic interfaces which allows them to be remotely entangled, or connected, with other qubits that aren’t adjacent to them.

“The conventional assumption in the field is that the inhomogeneity of the diamond color center is a drawback compared to identical quantum memory like ions and neutral atoms. However, we turn this challenge into an advantage by embracing the diversity of the artificial atoms: Each atom has its own spectral frequency. This allows us to communicate with individual atoms by voltage tuning them into resonance with a laser, much like tuning the dial on a tiny radio,” says Englund.

This is especially difficult because the researchers must achieve this at a large scale to compensate for the qubit inhomogeneity in a large system.

To communicate across qubits, they need to have multiple such “quantum radios” dialed into the same channel. Achieving this condition becomes near-certain when scaling to thousands of qubits. To this end, the researchers surmounted that challenge by integrating a large array of diamond color center qubits onto a CMOS chip which provides the control dials. The chip can be incorporated with built-in digital logic that rapidly and automatically reconfigures the voltages, enabling the qubits to reach full connectivity.

“This compensates for the in-homogenous nature of the system. With the CMOS platform, we can quickly and dynamically tune all the qubit frequencies,” Li explains.

Lock-and-release fabrication

To build this QSoC, the researchers developed a fabrication process to transfer diamond color center “microchiplets” onto a CMOS backplane at a large scale.

They started by fabricating an array of diamond color center microchiplets from a solid block of diamond. They also designed and fabricated nanoscale optical antennas that enable more efficient collection of the photons emitted by these color center qubits in free space.

Then, they designed and mapped out the chip from the semiconductor foundry. Working in the MIT.nano cleanroom, they post-processed a CMOS chip to add microscale sockets that match up with the diamond microchiplet array.

They built an in-house transfer setup in the lab and applied a lock-and-release process to integrate the two layers by locking the diamond microchiplets into the sockets on the CMOS chip. Since the diamond microchiplets are weakly bonded to the diamond surface, when they release the bulk diamond horizontally, the microchiplets stay in the sockets.

“Because we can control the fabrication of both the diamond and the CMOS chip, we can make a complementary pattern. In this way, we can transfer thousands of diamond chiplets into their corresponding sockets all at the same time,” Li says.

The researchers demonstrated a 500-micron by 500-micron area transfer for an array with 1,024 diamond nanoantennas, but they could use larger diamond arrays and a larger CMOS chip to further scale up the system. In fact, they found that with more qubits, tuning the frequencies actually requires less voltage for this architecture.

“In this case, if you have more qubits, our architecture will work even better,” Li says.

The team tested many nanostructures before they determined the ideal microchiplet array for the lock-and-release process. However, making quantum microchiplets is no easy task, and the process took years to perfect.

“We have iterated and developed the recipe to fabricate these diamond nanostructures in MIT cleanroom, but it is a very complicated process. It took 19 steps of nanofabrication to get the diamond quantum microchiplets, and the steps were not straightforward,” he adds.

Alongside their QSoC, the researchers developed an approach to characterize the system and measure its performance on a large scale. To do this, they built a custom cryo-optical metrology setup.

Using this technique, they demonstrated an entire chip with over 4,000 qubits that could be tuned to the same frequency while maintaining their spin and optical properties. They also built a digital twin simulation that connects the experiment with digitized modeling, which helps them understand the root causes of the observed phenomenon and determine how to efficiently implement the architecture.

In the future, the researchers could boost the performance of their system by refining the materials they used to make qubits or developing more precise control processes. They could also apply this architecture to other solid-state quantum systems.

This work was supported by the MITRE Corporation Quantum Moonshot Program, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Research Office, the Center for Quantum Networks, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program.

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This graphic depicts a stylized rendering of the quantum photonic chip and its assembly process. The bottom half of the image shows a functioning quantum micro-chiplet (QMC), which emits single-photon pulses that are routed and manipulated on a photonic integrated circuit (PIC). The top half of the image shows how this chip is made: Diamond QMCs are fabricated separately and then transferred into ...

Scaling up the quantum chip

MIT researchers have fabricated a diamond-based quantum sensor on a silicon chip using traditional fabrication techniques (pictured), which could enable low-cost quantum hardware.

Quantum sensing on a chip

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