Prostitution Part III: As a form of violence

This is part II in a V part series on my views on prostitution. Please, make sure you have read Why Men Suck, Part I, and Part II before this so that it makes sense.

Many radical feminists see all prostitution, despite freewill, to be oppressive and violence against women. Through the buying and selling of women, men, or children, the individual is commodified. She ceases to be a person, and simply becomes a grouping of body parts: genitals, breasts, and a mouth. A sex worker from Norway described the experience:

They see you as a whore, never as someone they’d want to know… I’m nothing and no one they feel connected to. I’m only the genitals that they use. They could just as well have bought themselves one of those blown-up dolls. I’m nothing. I’m just a piece of shit…I’m no one there’s any reason to know.” (Farley, 2003, p. xiv)

This description is reminiscent of the toilet analogy that I refer to here.

Farley screened prostitutes in nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia) for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and found on average 68% fit DSM IV criteria. Mexican prostitutes seemed to be the least affected by PTSD (54%), while Colombians appeared to be the most (86%). Overall, 89% of the women studied in Farley and company’s (2003) study expressed a desire to leave prostitution; only 34% wanted to see prostitution legalized.

The physical, mental, or emotional duress endured by prostitutes may eventually leave them disabled. Data has shown that one third of prostitutes are disabled due to either emotional or physical injuries. Additional complications may arise from high instances of alcohol or substance abuse. Some prostitutes may use substances to self medicate against the terror their lives or onset of PTSD symptoms. It is also common for pimps to use drugs to make the girls more malleable. One particular research studied found that a staggering 95% of prostitutes abused drugs; however it was not clear what percentage of these women were drug users before entering prostitution and which started as a result. Many conjecture that drug use is the side effect of prostitution and not vis-a-versa in many cases.

To further the argument against prostitution, it is essential to look to countries that have legalized it. In Germany, where prostitution is legal, 59% of prostitutes did not think that legalization made them any safer from rape or physical assault. Furthermore, 63% of German sex workers were raped on the job and 61% have been physically assaulted. This type of violence is not unique to German sex workers, a study conducted in Midwest America showed that 50% of prostitutes reporting to hospitals were beaten by a john. Of these, 22% of the attacks were so vicious that the women had a broken bone; in two cases the women were in coma. This American study has been corroborated, showing that 82% of prostitutes had been physically assaulted on the job, 83% had been threatened with a weapon, and 68% had been sexually abused. Sixty percent of German sex workers met criteria for PTSD. When asked what they needed, 85% of German sex workers stated that they needed to leave prostitution. This may be influenced by the fact that according to Davidson, a mere one percent of women enter prostitution of their own volition. Even in countries where prostitution is legal and regulated, many prostitutes enter the work through coercion or the simple lack of alternatives.

Additional citations and statistics from:

Leidholdt, D.A. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking of women and children from Mexico to the United States. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (pp.147-166). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press.

Please stay tuned for parts IV and V.



  1. I think one of the more useful studies on the violence in sex work, that illustrates how localised violence is and why it should not be thought to be pervasive, is a recent thesis by Tamara O’Doherty from Vancouver:

    I have commented in another part of this discussion as to why Germany has not solved its problems, and even in New Zealand there is still violence since changing the law does not change a culture, at least not overnight. However the police now protect sex workers rather than persecute them, and the situation is being carefully evaluated to see if this will change.

    The emotional issues at least in the commoner indoor markets largely arise from illegality, stigma and the forced separation of private and public life, as Teela Sanders describes:

    The issue at hand is really whether violence is intrinsic to sex work, and therefore is a manifestation of violence against women, as for instance the Swedish Government maintains, or is structured by us in terms of the conditions under which sex workers are forced to operate. Particularly chilling is Hillary Kinnel’s work on violence in which she identifies men who believe it is their civic duty to carry out ethnic cleansing of sex workers. She correlates the actions of the State and Police with outbreaks of violence against sex workers.,%20in%20Sex%20Work%20Now%202006%20(Campbell%20&%20O'Neill%20eds)%20Chap%206.doc

  2. I am intrigued by the prostitute’s mental state. It seems they must ignore any moral restrictions, reducing themselves to a “commodity.”

    “They see you as a whore, never as someone they’d want to know… I’m nothing and no one they feel connected to. I’m only the genitals that they use” (your quote from the Norway prostitute.)

    Do they expect that their johns would have an endearing attitude? If they view themselves as “nothing,” wouldn’t they expect others to view them likewise?

    I think all are subject to moral laws, even if not religious in the traditional sense. In addition to ignoring moral law, the prostitute would have to not expect intimacy. It would be a suspended state of reality, much like transcendental meditation.

    The psychology of a prostitute fascinates me. As I think we have established, not all are coerced into the profession, although a majority are. Is this correct?

    In the case of those where prostitution is a choice, one would have to be able to function outside the realm of normal expectations of society. In the case of coercion, the prostitute would have to adapt to their environment if they wanted to survive. In either case, they would have to mentally divorce their mind from their body.

    If they “devalued” themselves, or were devalued by others, then they might succumb to the “battered wife syndrome” type mentality, where they thought they deserved the violence that came their way.

    An extremely interesting topic.

  3. 1. We seem to have a major problem with long links here! They get truncated.

    For Teela Sanders:
    and download ‘Its just acting’

    For Hillary Kinnell:
    and download Murder made Easy

    2. OK, we have another problem with generalisation here. The majority of sex workers see themselves as doing a job, pleasing clients, and making money. Some see it as providing a service or social benefit. And no, the majority are not coerced. Many have good relationships with their clients over a long period of time.

    I suggest you read Teela’s article above on this.

    They would also challenge your concept of moral law in terms of universality. Not all women choose to be monogamous. As one sex worker put it to me – I get to meet lots of interesting men, have interesting conversations, and great sex – and I get paid for it.

  4. I will read your links. But my first thought here is that challenging moral law does not mean one has to be monogamous.

    Many sex partners would not “challenge moral law.” I’m saying that selling your body would challenge moral law, put you, perhaps, in a given taboo. So, in order to get around that, one would have to mentally divorce oneself from the situation.

    Maybe we need a cultural anthropologist to weigh in here. Would not prostitution fall under the category of taboo? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that extreme.

  5. Michael,

    Teela Sanders’ work is just fascinating. I am going to read it again in detail, as I have just perused it.

    The “manufactured identity” she describes is what I suspected. She also speaks of what I described as a divorcing of the mind and body.

    One interesting aspect is what I would call the “private taboo.” In other words, johns cannot do certain things, such as touching certain parts or kissing, etc.

    I will have to delve into this work. It is very informative and utterly enthralling. Thanks for the link!

  6. Donna,
    morality is often a tricky subject because in its popular meaning it is tied to culture in time and place. For instance if you wore a bikini in 1885 you would be considered ‘immoral’. Sexual immorality is even more subjective, homosexuality was considered immoral by most people in the last century but not this, so ‘moral law’ outside of religious life is hard to define in absolute terms. As it so happens many people, in fact the majority of people in many Western countries, do not consider selling your body immoral, according to opinion polls, today.

    As far as Taboo goes, prostitutes have had a distinct place in society, sometimes more respected than at present, for thousands of years. For a brief history (though rather dated and prejudiced) see:

    It is not so much taboo as stigma that creates so many problems. Stigma forces the divorce of the two realities. From a sociological viewpoint, for instance, see Zelizer:

    there is not a huge difference between prostitution and the place that economics plays in all relationships.

    All sex workers have menus, or lists of service items, like a beauty salon, and are not obliged to perform services that are not being offered.

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