Although prostitution cannot be said to be a new phenomenon, the current scope of the $16 billion global industry is unprecedented. The vast majority of the women and girls meeting this current worldwide demand are those whose low-income, race and ethnicity, and other status (such as being victims of childhood sexual molestation) make them receptive to the recruitment strategies the industry employs. The fact that the overwhelming majority of women in prostitution regularly begin to sell sex for money when they are teens means that the industry rests on child sexual exploitation. The abuse women and girls experience from customers, managers, recruiters, pimps, and other middlepersons indicates the degree to which the sex trade industry serves as a facilitator of violence against needy girls and women. This essay will focus on the sexual exploitation and violence experienced by girls and women in prostitution rather than on decriminalization.
All studies of prostitution worldwide find that the women begin in the sex trade as young girls or teens, making the question of consent or voluntariness problematic. Routes into prostitution are varied. Managers, recruiters, and other middlemen offer poor and needy girls promises of glamour and money; traffickers using these blandishments arrange for their transport to countries throughout the world where they are placed in the sex trade industry, but where the girls are, to their surprise, held against their will. In poorer countries and neighborhoods throughout the world, the parents of young girls may sell them to the industry or “put them out” into prostitution to help support the family. Teen girls who run from home due to the harm they have experienced there often rely on the sex trade to survive and are also easy prey for industry recruiters. Research demonstrates that the majority of the girls and women who are so recruited or coerced in North America are already victims of childhood sexual assault.
In the beginning, the attention from the men, their own desirability, and the relatively large sums of money to be made may give the girls a heady sense of power and control. But however they become involved in prostitution or the sex trade industry, girls and women soon find themselves experiencing some degree of violence in both indoor and outdoor prostitution venues because almost all stripping now involves tactile contact and backroom sex and because women in prostitution, including those in strip clubs and escort service work, are in private areas isolated from the public. Research with women in the sex trade industry reports numerous instances of predators who are looking for opportunities to violently assault the women; for example, it is common to hear of automobiles whose door handles have been removed so that the women are unable to escape assaults. Inebriated customers, commonplace in strip clubs and escort services, also may be difficult to control. Newspaper stories report rapes and gang rapes experienced by exotic dancers at stag, fraternity, and athletic team social events. These stories may lead some to conclude that many men believe that if a woman or girl offers her body for money that she is also agreeing to be sexually assaulted.
In addition to experiencing violence from customers, girls and women also are subject to violence and threats of violence from managers, recruiters, or pimps, people who are living off their earnings on a regular basis. The violence used to keep the women in the industry makes it difficult for these girls and women to exit the industry safely.
Research worldwide has also demonstrated the degree to which women in indoor and outdoor sex trade venues are plagued with alcohol and drug problems. In addition to addiction, they also suffer mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis describing psychological symptoms and adverse effects resulting from violence including difficulty concentrating, flashbacks or reliving the trauma, and disassociation or feeling emotionally numb. The women and girls suffering from these problems are less likely to be able to resist violent coercion and also more likely to become victims of violence.
Whether the women enter willingly as teens, use the sex trade to survive on the streets, or are actually sold into sex slavery or abducted or recruited by traffickers, ultimately they end up in the same place, whatever part of the world they are in. Then they are often demonized as strange, deviant, and hopeless drug addicted, burnt-out cases, unworthy of our attention and in need of being swept off our streets. Where prostitution is illegal, as in the United States, the women and girls are also subject to arrest and incarceration, compounding the harm. Where the sex trade has been legalized, as in parts of Europe and Australia, the women’s plight as violence victims receives little attention, concern, or resources. The large profits to be made in the sex trade industry make its elimination difficult. In addition, police departments have higher priorities, such as ending homicides or shutting down the drug trade.
The fact that mostly poor and needy girls and women in societies throughout the world can be found in the sex trade industry should be cause for concern. As the facts of the sex trade industry become known, tolerance for this kind of exploitation is lessening. However, rooting out and dismantling the industry will take huge resources, which may be beyond any government to achieve.
- Miller, J. (2006). Global prostitution, sex tourism, and trafficking. In C. Renzetti, L. Goodstein, & S. Miller (Eds.), Rethinking gender, crime, and justice: Feminist readings (pp. 139–154). Los Angeles: Roxbury.
- Raphael, J. (2006). Compensating for abuse: Women’s involvement in the sex trade in North America. In C. Renzetti, L. Goodstein, & S. Miller (Eds.), Rethinking gender, crime, and justice: Feminist readings (pp. 125–138). Los Angeles: Roxbury.
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