Does Consensual Prostitution Exist?

By Robert Brannon, PHD, Chair

NOMAS Task Group on Pornography and Prostitution,

Should there be any legal (or any feminist - political) objection to a mutually consensual agreement, between two adults, to exchange money for sex?

 

Before answering, one must think a little more about the meaning of the word  consensual.“   If we say that a person (e.g. a woman) is consenting to have sexual intercourse with a stranger, what actually do we, or should we, mean?  Minimally, it should include that:

            -She made a conscious decision, which was more-or-less free and self-chosen;

            -She understood what she was consenting to;

            -She had some reasonable & accessible alternative (other than homelessness, hunger,

                   deprivation, etc.);

            -She had the right, after agreeing, to change her mind at any time.

 

In the great “Hollywood” (think of “Pretty Woman”) and traditional-American vision of prostitution, all of those aspects of consent are usually portrayed as...  true.  In this familiar scenario, she’s an adult, who knows what she’s doing, is in charge of herself, can quit if she wants to, but has chosen to make good $$$ money this way.   A controlling, dominating, brutal pimp or john is never a part of this scene.

 

So then, what would be the feminist perspective on that sort of voluntary prostitution?   Well, it would likely be rather muted.  Something like... a shrug.  Probably no one would ever be pleased to learn that their own daughter, mother, sister, or partner had been involved in prostitution.  Feminists certainly (and most other Americans) would not want prostitution to be promoted on “Career Day” at the local high school.   But on the other hand, adults do generally have the right to make their own decisions, bad or good, if they aren’t hurting anyone else.   And given all the other pressing issues there are to deal with, feminists would probably have little or no energy for confronting what was truly consenting sexual behavior.  There would certainly be no worldwide feminist movement to abolish prostitution and trafficking.

 

The reason that there IS a movement against prostitution is that in the real world of today, almost all prostitution actually occurs under circumstances that are totally un-like the Hollywood, consensual version.  Research has found that women used in prostitution did not make an informed, adult decision:   the average age of entering prostitution is 14, and the circumstances, usually horrendous.   Those recruited overseas are virtually never told the full truth of the life that awaits them.  And there is, effectively, no exit, no “quitting,” no turning back allowed.  A girl will be controlled by a ruthless man who works with a network of many others, mostly men; she is in truth a sex slave.   She will never see the money they make by selling her repeatedly to countless other men.  Her life will be devastated by being used for years in prostitution, if she survives.

 

These facts may sound sensationalized, but have all been amply documented.  Reliable facts about prostitution are indeed hard to obtain, but there has been enough independent research by social scientists to establish some significant facts.  Three published studies of prostitution each independently found that the average age of entering prostitution was fourteen  (Weisberg, 1984;  Silbert & Pines, 1982;  Gray, 1973).   A more recent 2001 government study put the average age of entering at thirteen (www.justice.gov/criminal/ ceos/prostitution.html).  Some of these little girls had been used in prostitution at nine, ten, and eleven years of age (Silbert & Pines, 1982).  With their youth and inexperience, few have any other resources for survival.  Most have not completed high school, and most have had zero employment experience (Farley, 2007;  Giobbe, 1990, p.72).

 

An especially telling finding is that an astonishing percent of these girls had already been the victims of sexual abuse at home.  This has now been reported by so many researchers that it cannot be doubted.  Many scholars have independently reported that between 60% and 70% of prostituted women had been previously sexually abused as children (Widom & Kuhn, 1996; Murphy, 1993; Belton, 1992; Simons & Whitbeck, 1991; Weisberg, 1984, p. 4; Silbert & Pines, 1983; 1982, p.479; Papery & Deisher, 1983; James, 1980; James & Meyerding, 1977).  Abuse by older male family members - usually fathers, stepfathers, and foster-fathers - is the most common.  Not all victims of childhood sex abuse end in prostitution, or vice versa; but there is such a strong statistical relation that it is clear that childhood sex abuse has catastrophic effects.  In fact, it is the major predictor of becoming a runaway and being used in prostitution.

   “We’ve all been molested, over and over, and raped.  We were all molested and sexually abused as children, don’t you know that?  We ran to get away.  We were thrown out, thrown away.  We’ve been on the street since we were 12, 13, 14.” (Boyer et.al., 1993, p.16).

 

Thirty-eight percent of these girls in one study were also used as models” for pornographic photographs before the age of 16, and 10%, before the age of 13 (Silbert & Pines, 1982).  Pornography is a branch of the sex industry which merges indistinguishably into photographed prostitution, although it also harms a much wider circle of women and men in the culture, indirectly, through eroticizing woman-abuse and making it “feel sexy”  (Brannon, 1991;  Russell, 1993;  Linz & Malamuth, 1993). 

 

The great majority of women used in prostitution appear to be under the control of (take orders, live in fear of violence, surrender all money) one or more pimps.   Several studies of street-walking prostitutes” have concluded that over 90% are controlled by a pimp (Barry, 1979).  One study of women prostituted out of hotels estimated that over 80% of them were controlled by pimps (Prus & Irini, 1980).  Of the women who have left prostitution and then contacted the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Oregon, 84% had been directly controlled by pimps (Hunter, 1994).   This letter, received by Michele Clark of the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins, states some of the reality behind these statistics:

 

        Dear Michele,   I wanted to talk to you, to impress upon you that there are a lot of American women who are also in the same predicament as women who are trafficked from overseas.   I tell you these things from my own experience.  I was bought and sold between men in the US.  I am a white female, born here. My daughter was held hostage, so that I could ‘work’.  One year, I saw her for one day.  My mother, who is now 77, was beaten several times because of me.  I have seen many of my girlfriends killed.  It is often easier to kill yourself than to know you will be tortured all night when you get home and are not able to sleep before you must go back to work.  I have had 81 broken bones, including my nose being broken three times, my jaw fractured, my ribs have had 28 separate breaks.  I have had my feet broken so that I could not leave...      The “houses” (in Nevada) are used by pimps to train girls they do not want to deal with. They take girls there for months at a time.  The girls are not allowed to leave without the pimp coming to get her.  When he does, the house gives him her cash... Just please do not forget the American girls.  There are girls here who have no one to turn to either. 


 

A Few More Facts.  About 16% of adult men in the United States acknowledge having at some time been johns (Monto, 2004).  A woman controlled by a pimp and used in street prostitution will likely be sold to ten or more men a day, 1,500 men a year (Baldwin, 1989, p.123).  In interviews conducted with 785 prostituted women, in nine countries, 89% said they would like to escape prostitution immediately (Farley et.al., 2003).   In one study 65% of prostituted women had been beaten and physically abused by johns (Silbert & Pines, 1981).  In one year in New York City two hundred prostituted women were reported murdered (Rosen, 1981).  Seventy five percent of the "call girls" in one study had attempted suicide at least once.  Public hospitals have stated that about 15% of all suicide victims are women apparently being used in prostitution (Erbe,1984 ,p. 618-19).   For a fuller examination of the realities and legalities of prostitution, see “Taxing Prostitution?   Please Think Again... and a bit Deeper,” elsewhere on Nomas.org.

 

But Are There No “Happy Hookers”?

 

But aren’t there exceptions?  What about truly, genuinely consensual agreements between adults, to have sex for money?  Are there not ANY “happy hookers,” women who are genuinely willing to have intercourse for money, at least under safe circumstances?   Women who could do something else to survive, who do have choices, but prefer to do this?

 

It would be hard to deny that there are at least some, since they write books, and show up on TV shows.  Author and Ph.D. Carol Queen boasts in print of working as a prostitute (and also expresses an interest in sex with animals).  Another “Sex-positive” California author and Ph.D., Wendy Chapkis, was so enamored of prostitution that she wrote of paying $75 for sex, but felt she would have liked it more if she were paid.  Someone called “the scarlet harlot” gives speeches and issues press releases.  Such individuals do exist.  But this group is so few in number that the vast commercial sex industry would collapse overnight if it had to rely on women willing to prostitute themselves.  And, this small, radical-chic circle is very far from the life-destroying reality of what actually happens to the overwhelming majority of young women and girls who are swept into prostitution. 

 

Here then is our answer to the question of truly-consensual prostitution, and, the policy implications which should follow:

 

            Yes,  there are undoubtedly at least some women who do have other life options, but still choose to engage in prostitution.  (We estimate there are between 100 - 300 women in this category, today in the United States.)  Public policy and laws however should not be based on these situations, because they are highly atypical of the horrific, non-consensual ordeals of the huge majority of women, girls, and boys being used in prostitution.

           

And in a fascinating contrast, here is what the sex industry and its allies say:

            There undoubtedly are some women who are coerced, or enslaved by pimps and traffickers, and that is terrible, and should not be allowed.   Public policy and laws however  should not be based on such situations, because they are so unusual and atypical.

 

Each side concedes that there are “some” cases of the opposite scenario, but there is a total disagreement about the relative percentages.   Here is one striking example: We separately asked two professional “experts” on prostitution a question that goes right to the heart of the two differing perspectives:  “What percentage of the women (used in) prostitution are controlled by pimps?”   One answered thoughtfully, “About... 98%.”  The other, in a separate interview about a month later, answered the same question:  “About... 2%.”)

 

The two “experts” obviously could not both be correct.  (One directed a program for survivors escaping prostitution; the other worked for a prostitution-advocacy group.)  But since this is a factual question, it should be possible easily to determine the truth. 

 

Yet... as noted already, on the issue of prostitution there are still few reliable statistics.   There is much social science evidence, of course, but almost all is localized and limited.  There have been no high-quality national investigations.  The web is full of supposed “facts” about prostitution, but they are wildly at variance, depending on the group that is sponsoring them.   A recent resource that references most of the empirical social science work on prostitution is Dr. Melissa Farley’s Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada:  Making the Connections (2007, available on Amazon). 

 

One must also weigh the meaningfulness of social science “data” and the context in which it was likely gathered.  Suppose that we could somehow locate and “ask” every single person being used in prostitution today, whether they are willingly consenting or not.  What would they say, and why?  How many would be free to tell the whole truth?  What are the psychological costs of saying “no,” or “yes”?    The concept of true “consent” is multi-layered, but a person may feel that they’ve consented, because they came to accept what had happened to them.  Caution must be used in understanding the statements of people being used in prostitution, even were it possible - and it is not - to obtain a representative sample.

 

To most academic scholars, the preponderance of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that prostitution today in the United States is overwhelmingly  -  85%-95%  -  of the devastating, no-exit, variety.   (In the absence of real, broad-based data, there is still of course some room for argument.)

 

Prostitution and the Law in the United States

 

Whatever one may think of the exchange of sexual intercourse for money, consensual or not, it is a criminal act.  In all 50 states - except a few rural counties in Nevada - the exchange of money for sex is legally a crime for both the buyer and the seller.  Feminists are not responsible for these state laws, and in fact are highly critical of them.  Existing state anti-prostitution laws are deeply and hopelessly flawed.   They define buying and selling sex as exactly equal offences, and make both a low-level ‘misdemeanor.’   Their enforcement is even worse:   state laws are routinely enforced only against women being used in prostitution, and very rarely against either johns or pimps. (For a discussion of the very different kinds of laws that feminists would favor for dealing with prostitution, see “The Fight Against Sex Trafficking: Still An Uphill Struggle” elsewhere on Nomas.org.)

 

But in a realistic, “de facto” sense, truly consensual prostitution can occur almost anywhere in the U.S., without any major impediment.  It is neither a legal nor a moral “right,” but if it remains out of general public view, there is little likelihood that anyone will interfere.

 

There is hypocrisy in the current OK-but-keep-it-out-of-sight approach, certainly.  And doubtless even these current laws are an inconvenience to men who would like to “explore their sexuality,” or enjoy variety without relationship, without having to skulk around or be secretive.  But that is not an injustice that remotely approaches the magnitude of what we know is happening to the thousands of people, mostly women and children, whose lives are destroyed by being deceived and coerced into sexual slavery.    It is to those millions of victims of patriarchal sexual predation that feminist activists feel responsible, not to men who would like to buy sex more conveniently.

 

Laws on Prostitution in Other Countries

 

It is sometimes said that legalized, or regulated, prostitution is now “successful” in some European countries.   What are the facts?   Probably the best comparative source on prostitution internationally is Ostshoorn’s collection, The Politics of Prostitution (Cambridge University Press, 2004), with separate chapters on France, Netherlands, Britain, the United States, Australia, Israel, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Austria, and some others.  Kathleen Barry’s book The Prostitution of Sexuality (NYU Press, 1995) also examines the effects of several different governmental policies on prostitution, including in China and Viet Nam.

 

One can read these and other sources and draw one’s own conclusions, but this is what we believe all the evidence shows.    There are a number of different governmental policies on prostitution (prohibition, legalization, regulation, decriminalization, and sub-types) that seem, legally, quite different.  In effect however, they were all amazingly similar, in day to day reality.  Pimps and traffickers basically operated and profited hugely from the legal “business.”   Customers or johns were able to buy sex conveniently.  The prostituted women were exploited, paid little, abused, and had no real control of their lives.  

 

Countries like Netherlands, France, and Germany, with various kinds of legal prostitution, are indeed “successful.”   They are successful from the viewpoint of the government, successful for the male customers, and (especially) successful for the pimps and all their investors, employees, and allies.  But they are far from “successful” for the young women being used in prostitution, the human commodity being sold and often destroyed, for the pleasure and enrichment of others.

 

Other countries, in other eras, have done much better.    In Constantinople in about 535 AD, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium issued a decree making it punishable by death to entice a woman into prostitution.  She further converted one of her great palaces into a shelter, where women who had been used in prostitution could go to start new lives (Chicago, 1979, p.72).   In the fourteen centuries since, governmental intelligence, decency, and compassion has never again quite approached that level.

 

The country that is leading the world today in intelligently addressing prostitution and trafficking is Sweden.  This progressive nation has offered services and assistance rather than jail or harassment to people being used in prostitution, and instead has penalized Johns as well as pimps.  As a result, Sweden now has the lowest level of sex trafficking of any nation in Europe.  The Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden said it all, quite clearly:

 

     “Far too many men see women as objects, as something that can be bought and sold.   According to Swedish law, it is no longer permitted to buy another human being for prostitution purposes.  A woman's body is not the same as a glass of brandy, or an ice-cream after a good dinner.  Women and girls are... human beings, and therefore they are not for sale.  Prostitution and trafficking in women touch upon the issues of human rights, gender inequality, sex and racial discrimination, and economic depravation, as well as the rule of law, crime control, law enforcement and corruption...   Women are not for sale.    Stop the prostitution and trafficking in women and children.”     (Winberg, 2/24/2003, Washington D.C.)

 

 

 

References

 

Baldwin, M.  (1989)  Pornography and the Traffic in Women:  Amicus Brief,  Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 1, Fall.

Barry, K.   (1979)  Female Sexual Slavery.  NYU Press, New York.

Barry, K.  (1995)  The Prostitution of Sexuality.  NYU Press, New York.

Belton, R.  (1992)  Prostitution as traumatic reenactment.  8th Annual Meeting of International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Los Angeles, CA, October 22.

Boyer, D., Chapman, L., & Marshall, B.  (1993)  Survival Sex in King County:  Helping women out.  Report Submitted to King County Women’s Advisory Board, March 31, 1993, Northwest Resource Associates, Seattle.

Brannon, R.  (1991)  Torturing women as fine art:  Why some women & men are boycotting Knopf.   On The Issues, Fall, 18-21.

Chicago, J.  (1979).  The Dinner Party:  A Symbol of Our Heritage.  Anchor/Doubleday, Garden City, New York.

Erbe, N.  (1984)  Prostitution: Victims of men’s exploitation and abuse.  Law and Inequality, 2, 609.

Farley, M.  (2007)  Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.   San Francisco:  Prostitution Research and Education.  ISBN 0615162053  (Available on Amazon.com)

Farley, M, et.al. (2003) Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries.  In Farley, M. (Ed.)   Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress.  The Haworth Press Inc.

Giobbe, E.  (1990) Confronting the Liberal Lies About Prostitution.  In Leidholt, D., & Raymond, J.  (Eds.),   The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism.  Pergamon, New York.

Gray, D.  (1973)  Turning-Out:  A Study of Teenage Prostitution.  Urban Life & Culture,   1, 401.

Hunter, S. K. (1994)  Prostitution is cruelty and abuse to women and children.  Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, 1, 1-14.

James, J.  (1980).  Entrance into Juvenile Prostitution.  Final Report 48, National Institute of Mental Health.

James, J., & Meyerding, J.  (1977)  Early sexual experiences and prostitution.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 1382-1385.

Linz, D., & Malamuth, N.  (1993).  Pornography.   Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA.

Monto, M.A.  (2004)  Female prostitution, Customers, and Violence.  Violence Against Women, 10 (2), 160-188.

Murphy, P.  (1993)  Making the connections:  Women, Work and Abuse.  Paul M.  Deutsche Press, Orlando, FL.

Ostshoorn, J. (Ed.)  (2004)  The Politics of Prostitution.   Cambridge University Press.

Papery, D, & Deisher, R.  (1983)  Maltreatment of adolescents.  Adolescence  18, 499-506.

Prus, R., & Irini, S.  (1980)  Hookers, Rounders, and Desk Clerks.  Gage Publishing, Toronto.

Rosen, R.  (1982).  The Lost Sisterhood.  Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore. 

Russell, D. E. H. (Ed.),  (1993)   Making Violence Sexy.   Open University Press, Buckingham, United Kingdom.

Silbert, M., & Pines, A.  (1981) Sexual child abuse as an antecedent to prostitution.  Child Abuse and Neglect  5 , 407-411.

Silbert, M., & Pines, A.  (1981)  Occupational Hazards of Street Prostitutes,”  8,  Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Silbert, M., & Pines, A.,  (1982) Entrance Into Prostitution. Youth and Society, 13 (4), 471-500.

Silbert, M., & Pines, A.,  (1983)  Early sexual exploitation as an influence in prostitution.  Social Work,  28,  285-289.

Simons, R., & Whitbeck, L.  (1991)  Sexual abuse as a precursor to prostitution and victimization among adolescent and adult homeless women.  Journal of Family Issues  12 (3), 361-378.

Weisberg,  (1984)  Children of the Night:  The Adequacy of Statutory Treatment of Juvenile Prostitution, 12 American Journal of Criminal Law 1, 5-6.

Widom, C., & Kuhn, J.  (1996)  Childhood victimization and subsequent risk for... prostitution and teenage pregnancy.  American Journal of Public Health,   86(11), 1607-1612.

Winberg, Margareta, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden.  Conference: Path-breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking, Monday, February 24 , 2003, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Washington D.C., U