Trafficked Women, Used in Prostitution, Are Not “Sex-Workers”

Robert Brannon, Department of Psychology, Brooklyn College C.U.N.Y.

Panel on Sex Trafficking; International Masculinities Conference;

New York City, March 6, 2015

I am a psychologist and within the field of psycholinguistics there is a familiar observation concerning native-language and thought-patterns, known as the “Whorfian” Principle (Whorf 1956; Lucy 1992). The words which we have learned and absorbed, the language that we daily speak, influences and tends to shape the qualities of our thoughts.  In our recent experience, we have seen the power of political words and labels to shape perceptions of complex social issues, as with beguiling emotional phrases such as “Pro-Life,” and “Partial-Birth Abortion.”

One of the most positive words in the entire English language is “work.”   Freud said that love and work  are the two most important things in life.  Certainly the word “work” has many richly-positive associations. Thus, we almost have to  admire the bold audacity, with which the commercial sex industry has promoted the phrase “Sex Work” (Delacoste & Alexander, 1987).

That term is said to mean:  anyone who earns money, in some way, from sex.  It is used, primarily, to refer to all the women and girls around the world, being used in various branches of the commercial sex industry, whether in brothels, strip-shows, pornography, massage parlors, escort services, or whatever.    But the term also includes all the men, and their profit-making agents, who are exploiting these women:  the pimps, brothel owners, pornography-makers, sex-tourism capitalists, guards, drivers, madams, and all the unseen “investors” in the legal & illegal branches of the global sex industry.

And, to add a cover of respectability, the term is claimed to include all the publishers, of either printed or film material dealing with human sexuality, plus, all professional sex therapists, sex researchers, writers about human sexuality, and many teachers, professors, & and sex educators.  Even Dr. Ruth has been called a “Sex-Worker.”

What the term “sex worker” actually does, most effectively, is to disguise the staggering worldwide abuse of girls and women used in prostitution, by including them as, somehow, part of the same  “occupational category”  as the men who are abusing them.   It is as if we said that the Warden, and the Prisoner incarcerated for life,  are both “engaged in  Prison-Work.”    The crucial issues of power, choice, and ability to leave, are ignored, covered-over, made invisible.

If you are like most Americans, you learned almost all of what you know about prostitution from seeing Hollywood movies:  Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Jane Fonda in Klute, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Melina Mercouri in Never On Sunday, and all the countless fictional prostitutes, created on the screen by Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Charlize Theron, Gretta Garbo, Sigourney Weaver, Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster, Helen Hayes, … most female stars have played an imaginary role  that Hollywood can seemingly never get enough of:   the “Happy Hooker.”

This familiar image, seen in limitless variations, is a strong, sassy, tough, sexy woman, in control of her own life, and making good money.  She’s an adult, knows what she’s doing, is worldly, and often rather wise.   She can quit… if she wants to, but for now, she’s happy to make great easy money this way.   She somewhat likes what she does, or at least doesn’t much mind it.  And a dominating pimp is never a part of this raunchy, titillating scenario.

It has become familiar image to all of us.  But yet, it is an almost total lie, a fabrication.  In the real world, almost all prostitution actually occurs under circumstances totally un-like the Hollywood  version.  Social science research tells us that the women used in prostitution almost never made an informed, adult decision to do this.  The average age of beginning is in adolescence, and the circumstances, usually horrendous.   Some homeless run-aways, on the street with no real survival options, do initially agree to try it, but they are never told the truth, of the life that awaits them.   They are not told that there is effectively no exit, no “quitting,” no turning back.

Dr. Kathleen Barry (1979) was the first scholar to closely examine the idea of “consent to be prostituted”.  Her research revealed that, once begun, there was never a way out, no escape, from the nightmare of prostitution;  hence the impactful title of her landmark book: “Female Sexual Slavery“.   A girl barely out of childhood will now be controlled by a ruthless man, likely working with a network of other men.   She will in truth now become a sex slave.   She will never see the money that they will make, by selling her repeatedly to countless other men.  Her life will almost certainly be devastated by being used for years in prostitution, if she survives.

Are these facts difficult to believe?   They may sound exaggerated, sensationalized;  and yet, they have all been amply documented.   I have the honor of Chairing a National Task Group on Sex-Trafficking, Pornography, and the Commercial Sex Industry, which is a division of NOMAS, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (   We have prepared, and are releasing for the first time today, a 14-page listing of some 40 key issues and topics concerning prostitution and sex-trafficking, supported by almost 100 social-science and other research references, and citations.   This new resource is available, for a suggested donation to NOMAS of $1.00 .  These are some of the key issues we address:

Age of Entry.  Women can virtually always remember at what exact age, what moment of life, they were drawn into a life of prostitution.   Among the most important facts established by research is the startlingly young age, at which girls are first deceived or forced into prostitution, or driven to it, by homelessness and desperation.  This is usually in adolescence, often around the age of 14, 15, or 16.(1)  Nothing more clearly refutes the “happy hooker” stereotype than this tragic fact of such a very early age of entering prostitution.

Childhood Sexual Victimization.   Another key fact uncovered by researchers is that  60% to 70%  of the women being used in prostitution had previously been victims of sexual abuse or incest in childhood, while still living at home.(2)  The magnitude of this relationship astonished those who first discovered it.  Sexual abuse was often the direct cause of becoming a run-away, which in turn had led quickly to entrapment in prostitution.

Control by Pimps.  Overall percentages are not available, but many careful studies in various locations have determined that  80% to 90% of the girls and women being used in prostitution are not independent free agents, but are controlled by pimps. (3) Throughout the world, the pimp-sector is basically in daily functional control of prostitution.


 (1).  Results differ from one sample to another, and reported statistics are not always comparable.  Nonetheless, the basic finding   –   of a very early age of entry into prostitution   –   is generally consistent.  Nadon reported that 89% of the prostituted women they studied had begun before the age of 16.  Silbert & Pines (1980, 1982) reported that of 200 women being prostituted in San Francisco, 68% had begun at age 16 or younger.  Some of these girls had been 9, 10, 11, or 12 years old.   Three studies each reached the same conclusion:  an average entry-age of 14:  Boyer et al. (1993); Weisberg (1984); Gray (1973).   A U.S. government study put the average age of entering prostitution at 12-13 (Spangenberg (2001);

Researchers in Seattle (James ,1980, n=136) and in Norway (Høigard & Finstad,1992)  each calculated a mean age of entry of 15;  James states that 36% of these girls had been 14, or younger.  Bagley & Young (1987) found that 51% of prostituted Canadian women they studied had begun at age 15, or younger.  A government study of 229 prostituted youth In Canada (1984) determined that they all had entered prostitution between the ages of 8 and 19.  Most had been15 to 16, and many had begun at 13 or14.

(2).  Many studies document a strong association between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution, usually beginning in adolescence (Abramovitch, 2005).  Ninety percent of the prostituted teenagers studied by Newton-Ruddy & Handelsman (1986) had been sexually abused by care-givers, or neighbors.  Some 70% of the prostituted women studied by Silbert and Pines (1982, 1983) said that childhood sexual abuse had played a direct role in their entry to being used in prostitution; 96% of them had been run-aways.

Bagley (1987) reported that 73% of the prostituted women studied had been sexually abused as children.  Widom and Kuhns (1996) calculated that girls who are sexually abused are 28 times more likely to later be used in prostitution than are other girls.  In a study of children being prostituted in California, most said they had been coerced into prostitution by pimps posing as boyfriends, by friends, classmates, and by men who were strangers to them (Carr, 2009).  Girls being prostituted in New York City told researchers they feared and hated the johns, and 87% said they wanted to escape prostitution (Curtis, 2008).  Many additional studies verify the  startling 60%-70% magnitude of early sexual abuse of women now being used in prostitution:  Murphy, 1993; Belton, 1992; Simons & Whitbeck, 1991; Weisberg, 1984;  Papery & Deisher, 1983; Farley,1998;  James, 1980; James & Meyerding, 1977.  Abuse by older male family members  –  usually fathers, stepfathers, and foster-fathers – is the most common.

(3). The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre found that 86% of women rescued from Phnom Penh brothels by police had been tricked or sold into prostitution, and did not know they were going to be prostituted, when they left home (Brown, 2000, 66, 89).

The European Union provides data on the extent of pimp-control in a number of European countries (Details in Scelles Foundation, 2012).  In Spain, more than 90% of women in prostitution were found to be victims of trafficking by pimps (p.268).  In Poland, 90% of prostitution along roads was said to be controlled by organized criminal groups (p.233).  In Bulgaria, RiskMonitor estimates that more than 95% of those in prostitution have pimps linked to organized crime (64).

In Germany, a policy analyst estimated that 80%-95% of women in prostitution there have pimps (Barry,1979, p.130).


Percent who Want to Escape From Prostitution.    In interviews conducted with 785 prostituted women, in nine different countries, 89% said that they would like to escape prostitution immediately (Farley, 2003).

Suicides, and Femicides:   In one study, 65% of all prostituted women had been beaten and physically abused by johns (Silbert & Pines,1981).  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in survivors is massive and pervasive; an entire book is devoted to documenting this (Farley,2003).  Murders are commonplace.  In one year here in New York City, two hundred women being used in prostitution were reported murdered (Rosen, 1981).  Such kinds of murders of women can be termed femicides (Russell & Harmes, 2001; Russell & Radford, 1992) .  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).

Boys in Prostitution.   Boys are also widely available in prostitution, but less is known, and caution is advisable in generalizing across categories.  Homeless boys have been reported to suffer lower levels of sexual trauma than do homeless girls  (Gwadz, 2007; Tyler, 2001).  Some evidence suggests that boys involved in prostitution may be less often controlled by a pimp than are minor girls or women.   For both boys and girls used in prostitution, the buyers are alway adult males, so the situations are not identical.  There is a small but growing literature on the use of boys in prostitution.(4)

Pornography.   Another surprising finding was how deeply intertwined use in prostitution was with making pornography.(5)  These two branches of the sex industry overlap indistinguishably, in many ways.  Often the same men are involved, using many of the same women.  Video pornography is made of girls being used in prostitution, to “prove” their consent, and for blackmail, using a threat of send the films to her parents and relatives (Schwartz, 2007).


A more recent study in Germany found that 95% to 99% of women now in prostitution are under the control of others (Paulus, 2014).  In Italy, the EU estimates that 80% of those in prostitution are being trafficked (p.173).  In Ireland, 80% of women in prostitution are reported to be under pimp control (Benson / Ruhama agency, 2014).

(4).(Bimbi, 2007, Kaye, 2003, Flowers, 2001, Van Der Poe 1992, Boyer, 1989, Coleman, 1989, Earls & David,1989).

(5). In one study 38% of women being used in prostitution said they had been used in child pornography before the age of sixteen, 10% of them before the age of thirteen (Silbert & Pines,1982).  Pornography in addition harms many other women and men, indirectly, through eroticizing woman-abuse and making it “seem sexy”  (Russell, 1991,1993; Brannon, 1991; Layden, 2010; Einseidel, 1991; Brannon & Frank, 1990; Brannon et al., 1996).


But:   Are There No “Happy Hookers” ?     Aren’t there any exceptions?  What about truly, genuinely consensual agreements between adults, to have sex for money?    Women not struggling to survive, who could do something else, who do have other options, but prefer to engage in prostitution?

It is impossible to deny that there are at least some, since they show up on TV talk shows.  One ‘sex-positive’ California sociologist was so enamored of prostitution that she arranged to actually work as one, for just one ‘date.’  (Sadly, it did not go well).  But another California woman, who calls herself “The Scarlet Harlot,” issues regular press-releases.  So such individuals do exist.

But research reveals that they are remarkably rare, and unrepresentative.  One social scientist found that prostitution “in which a woman with apparent options, enters of her own volition” accounted for only about 1% of the total (Davidson,1998) .  A much larger international study, of women used in prostitution in nine countries, including the U.S., found that approximately 2% of the women were free agents, making some money, had other options, and could quit at will (Farley, 2003).  About 48% were found to be prostituting out of severe economic desperation, some but not all of them controlled by pimps.  The remaining 50% were truly enslaved, guarded, and confined by their pimps, or sold to other pimps, unable to escape for years, if ever.

So It is true, that there are some women engaged in prostitution, perhps 2%, who are genuinely free to choose, and do have other options, and so, might be fairly described as ‘voluntarily prostituting’.   However, the vast national and global industry of sex-for-sale would collapse overnight, if it had to rely on the few women willing to be prostituted.  And this tiny, media-seeking clique lives in a world very distant from the life-destroying reality of what actually happens to the vast majority of girls and young women dragged  into prostitution.

A few ‘Happy Hookers’ no doubt do exist, but they should not be our first concern, or the focus of public policy.   Most importantly, this distracting, perhaps titillating,  sideshow should not be in the foreground of our  thoughts, when the subject of prostitution is raised.   It should not blind us, as it so often seems to have done, to the overwhelming numbers of women and girls being abused and exploited in the sale of sex.

Let us return now to the term “Sex-work” The phrase “sex work” has often been used carelessly.  It is grossly inappropriate, and cruelly misleading, to ever speak of most of the girls and women being used in prostitution around the world as “sex workers”.

It is striking how innocent-sounding language  can hide and obscure the realities of power, and of dominance;   of who is free to leave at will, and who is not. When you’re not allowed to quit or leave, it is not “work”;  it’s enslavement.

In light of the ability of our language to shape our thoughts, consider the differing images that come to your mind, when you hear these two phrases:   A.  “A girl being used in prostitution”,  versus…    B.  “a Sex-Worker“…

Promoting the “sex work” term has been an acknowledged tactic, of those who promote and profit from selling women in prostitution.  They are so proud of the term, there is a dispute, over who thought of it first.  And yet, how often have we ourselves heard it, used by friends   –  especially in progressive circles    –   by people who did not want to say the word…  “prostitute”, because it didn’t sound nice.  “Sex-worker” sounded better.

Well, yes, it does sound better.  That’s exactly what’s so misleading, and harmful about it.  It’s a verbal and mental white-wash, which obscures the ugly truth.  Employing it can affect one’s judgement and ethics adversely.

Children in Cambodia

Here is one telling example of this insidious term having a clearly harmful effect, on some very vulnerable children.  These events in the Asian nation of Cambodia were first noted by courageous feminist scholar Dr. Donna Hughes (Wall Street Journal, Feb.  27, 2003).   There were a number of little rural villages there, consisting largely of brothels, with many young girls from the villages being used in prostitution there, for global sex-tourism.  Girls as young as 10 or 11 were being used by local men, and by affluent men from overseas.  Occasionally girls as young as five were being prostituted.

Workers funded by the United States Agency for International  Development, the USAID , arrived in these remote villages, and began HIV / AIDS prevention projects.   They wrote, and clearly also thought , of these little exploited girls as “Sex Workers.”   The project’s stated approach was that these girls needed to be:  (quote) “Empowered in Their Work”,  and, “to assume more responsibility in their own lives.”   The official goal was not to help the children get out of sexual slavery, but to give them AIDS-prevention education.  The techniques they worked to teach included  “assertiveness training,”   and    –   note this new-age goal   –    “Self Esteem” Training.   The children could show “assertiveness” it was explained,  by saying :   “Please wear a condom.”

A second group in Cambodia,  also funded by USAID, conducted research on 750 girls and women who were being held captive in 22 different brothels.  The researchers acknowledged that “half or more” of them were under 18.   And although they knew that these girls were confined, and were in fact imprisoned, they were invariably described in official reports as:  “Sex-Workers”.   One of the reports flatly acknowledges their captivity:     “Brothel managers retain strict control over sex workers.    Each sex worker is considered to  ‘belong’  to her brothel, with severe limitations on her mobility.”

What was the stated over-all goal, of this (U.S. taxpayer-funded) USAID project?   It was:   “to reduce competition  and mistrust  between Sex Workers and their brothel owners.”  and, “to build solidarity among sex workers”.

That’s correct.  The stated goal was to create  better relationships,  and more “trust,”  between the children who were trapped in sexual slavery, and their captors.  In their final report, the officials even criticized the prostituted Asian girls for:  “being unwilling to spend time building community.”

Huge amounts of government money were lavished on these misguided, harmful, and even cruel efforts.   The cost feels even more tragic, when we read that just $300 was the average amount  –  the “debt” supposedly owed  –  that could have bought each of these little girls their freedom.

Both instances described, of cruel, stupid official actions in these Asian brothel-villages, were influenced by a distorting psychological mind-set, by the insideous nice-sounding phrase or term “sex work”, which facilitated seeing hideous sexual abuse as…  “Work.”    And work always sound good.

Being used in prostitution is not “sex-work”.


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