Prostitution Part I: A quick intro

So my post on Why Men Suck continues to create a stir and some wonderful dialog. Recently I was pointed to and read an article called Let’s call a whore a whore by Winslie (thanks!) to help continue the dialog. Overall I think that the article oversimplifies the reasons someone enters prostitution, the experience of a prostitute, and the complexity and power of language. Having said this, I should probably elaborate.

I thought maybe it would help to put up some info on prostitution in general, the debate to legalize, the view of prostitution as violence, how human trafficking inter-relates with prostitution and the Swedish solution (which is the most unique and effective, in my estimation, to date).

Commercial sex, pornography, and prostitution are a multi-million dollar business. Views and understandings of the three topics are contradictory, full of judgment, and stigma. People involved in the sex trade are at higher risk for intimate partner violence (both physical and sexual), infection with HIV or other STIs, and substance abuse. Numerous people argue that prostitution and pornography lead to, cause, or increase violence against women. Others argue that in some instances, the women are making an active choice and enjoy their work. For many women (and some men), prostitution is the only viable economic option they have; market forces, lack of education, and lack of access leave them no other opportunities. For others, it was never a choice or a final option; many victims of human trafficking are unknowingly forced into the sex trade.

Prostitution is all around us no matter where we are; some estimate that currently around two million prostitutes are working in the U.S. In the United States, prostitutes working on the street only constitute 10% of the sex work population. The other 90% can be found in strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors, phone sex, dance clubs, etc. In other countries, those percentages may change, for example a survey of sex workers in Vietnam showed an almost 50-50 split. Prostitution is a huge and lucrative business both for individual pimps and for countries. For example, 60% percent of tourist visas granted to Thailand are for the purposes of sex tourism. On an economic level, it is estimated that 70% of a prostitutes earnings are controlled by her pimp. Moreover, 90% of all prostitutes are controlled by pimps; therefore, little of the economic wealth makes it into the hands of the women. Prostitutes are not just women; children and men can also be prostituted. According to the UN, in 1996 over one million children entered the sex trade each year. The prostitution of children throughout Southeast Asia continues to increase by 20% per year.

Citations and stats from:

Carroll, J.L. (2005). Sexuality now: Embracing diversity. Ontario, Canada: Thompson Wadsworth.

Kuo, M. (2000). Asia’s dirty little secret: Prostitution and sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. Harvard International Review, pp. 42-45.

Minh, T.T., Nhan, D.T., West, G.R., Durant, T.M., Jenkins, R.A., Huong, P.T., Valdiserri, R.O. (2004). Sex workers in Vietnam: How many, how risky? AIDS Education and Prevention, 16(5), 389-404.

Please stay tuned for parts II, III, IV, and V.



  1. Clare
    I sense the passion in your writing and “good on you” and love references.
    You are doing a much better job than I would and as you have started a 5 part series on the subject it would be a lot easier for me, as time is a premium, to comment here rather than try to do it on my own.

    Assuming that is acceptable to you.

    This is an extremely difficult issue you are trying to unravel as it encompasses unrelated walks of life and levels of society indirectly associated with “prostitution”.

    I do not like the phrase “sex worker” because it legitimises the seedier side of the industry.

  2. Greta points Clare, and I think they are incredibly important. I think this is a great way to talk about an aspect of our society that we either want to ignore or believe the “Pretty Woman” Julia Roberts version. Its hugely complex, so good luck!!

    I would also point out, in terms of economics, people often cite that prostitution is a great way for women and men to earn money. And to back this up they quote very high numbers. This is partly true. You can earn a ton of money off of prostitution. The false part is assuming that the prostitutes get to keep it.

    As you mentioned, pimps and brothel owners are thought to be behind most of US prostitution. All money a prostitute earns must be turned over. Often, the pimp will buy the prostitute very nice things, they might provide an “allowance”, but here is the important point

    All assets and bank accounts are in the pimp’s name only.

    In other words, if the prostitute wants to leave (and on the off chance the pimp will allow it) they lose everything. I mean everything. I like to call this economic coercion.

    P.S. Winslie, I’m glad your hanging around. I look forward to your comments!

  3. Winslie–

    Thanks for your comments and for sticking around. Also, thanks for the plug over at your blog. It would be great to have more voices in on the conversation– or at least more people starting to think about the complexities.


    Your points on economics are well taken. I would also like to point out that in some places around the world the women in prostitution really make next to nothing and then that is taken away by their pimps.

  4. Understand that when you quote statistics, like 90% of prostitutes have pimps, you’re quoting research done on street prostitutes. Very little research has been done on indoor prostitution and it’s quite different from street prostitution.

    I’m not saying the research is wrong, only that it is not the full picture.


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