Prostitution: Key Facts and Analysis, in Brief

Thinking about “prostitution” should always begin with the recognition that this one word actually includes three (3) entirely different categories of people: three groups which have almost nothing in common. Writing or speaking about “prostitution,” as if it was a single phenomenon, obscures this very basic fact, which is actually the key to any realistic discussion of how society should respond to the issue.

The three entirely different categories of people involved in the selling of sex are:
(1). the buyers, (2). the sellers, and (3). the young women who are sold, or actually “rented out” to have sex with the male buyers. Below are a few basic facts about each category.

(1). Men who buy sex with women, often termed ‘johns,’ are numerically the largest such group. Nationally, about 16% of all adult men acknowledge having at one time paid for sex with women. It is estimated that there are perhaps 10-15 such male buyers to each woman available to be bought. (Published sources citing these and other facts stated here will appear at the end of this document.) No major demographic or personality variables appear to clearly distinguish these sex buyers from other men. A majority are married. They include billionaires (e.g. Bob Kraft) and movie-stars (e.g. Hugh Grant), as well as average-income men, and very poor and homeless men. Although paying for sex is technically a “crime,” it is only a minor legal misdemeanor, one which is rarely enforced, and usually entirely ignored by law enforcement.

(2). The sellers are all of those who gain financially, by providing the women for sex with the buyers. This is typically not one single man, as the word “pimp” would suggest, but a much larger organization of people, better described as the “pimp sector:” Legally, this includes all of those who “profit financially from the prostitution of others”. This often includes a number of different roles: drivers, guards, procurers, seasoners, madams, brothel owners, complicit landlords, unseen investors, lawyers, and bribe-taking officials. In Los Vegas, cab drivers and hotel doormen are a central part of the pimp sector. Their yearly profit, from prostituting even one young teen-age girl, can amount to tens of thousands of untaxed dollars; thus there is plenty for all in the pimp sector to get a share of the profits. In southern California, one study found pimps who were averaging $670,625 a year. Many who today describe themselves “sex-worker advocates” are in reality, a part of the pimp sector, and are profiting financially in a variety of ways.

The male buyers collectively provide the steady stream of necessary cash, but it is the pimp sector that largely controls and directs prostitution, that actually maintains, organizes, defends, promotes, and perpetuates womens’ use in prostitution. This is essentially true all over the world, whatever the national laws may officially claim or state.

Although the pimp sector is actually in essentially full control, is by far the least visible of the three categories, prudently staying mostly out of public view. It is in fact a common tactic to minimize or even to deny the pimp sectors’ existence, to better promote the illusion that women being prostituted are “self-employed” (and are hot, sex-loving ‘chicks’), and that they can keep the money that the male buyers pay. While nationwide statistics are not available, scientific studies in various U.S. cities and locations have found that 80% – 90% of the women available in prostitution are effectively controlled by the pimp sector.

(3). The third category are the ones who are being sold: the young women and girls whose bodies are to be rented by men for sex. Contrary to the glamorous “Happy Hooker” and “Pretty Woman” illusion promoted by Hollywood and by the sex industry, social scientists have now studied the women used in prostitution in sufficient numbers to establish a number of very telling facts. Some of the facts are hardly surprising:

a. Women in prostitution are primarily from marginalized ethnic groups: black, brown, dark-skinned, native indigenous, or Asian women. African-Americans, 12% of the U.S. population, were 41% of those arrested for prostitution in 2008. In New York City, of 3000 prostituted women interviewed, 50% were African-American, and 25% were Hispanic. In Vancouver BC, where 7% of the local population are indigenous people, 52% of prostituted women there are Native American. Women being trafficked to the U.S. from overseas today are most often from South Korea or the Philippines

b. Women used in prostitution are disproportionally from the poorest and lowest of economic origins, have few job skills (most have never held an actual job), minimal education, and are often from dysfunctional, broken, and seriously neglectful family backgrounds.

c. Prostituted women live far shorter lives than do all other women. They are disproportionally the victims of physical violence, murder, suicide, infection with AIDs, drug addictions, and traumatic symptoms of ptsd. Roughly 90% state that they would like to get out of prostitution, if they could. Other facts about these women, now clearly established, are somewhat astonishing:

d. The age at which a woman first had sex for money with strangers is a fact that she can almost invariably remember well. A number of large studies have found that the modal or most common age of entry was about fourteen years old. The average age of girls first being used in prostitution is around sixteen. A significant percentage were put in prostitution as young girls, at thirteen, twelve, or even younger.

e. Perhaps most astonishing of all was the discovery that 60% to 70% had suffered incest or early sexual abuse while still living at home. Teir abusers were fathers, step-fathers, mothers’ boyfriend, uncles, brothers, or other men who had access to them. Girls in this situation often become runaways, but have nowhere to go, become homeless and hungry, and are soon spotted, approached, seduced, and inducted by lookouts for the pimp sector.

Are there any women who are truly self-employed, not controlled by pimps, have other acceptable options for survival, and can quit when they decide to, but are currently earning good money by selling themselves for sex? Yes, such women do exist (they appear on TV shows, etc.); however they amount to a remarkably small percentage of all women being used in prostitution. One researcher found that they comprise just 1%, and a much larger study concluded they are 2%. The overwhelming percentage of women now in prostitution are, in some fundamental, way controlled by the pimp sector. They are essentially unable to quit or to leave. These unfortunate women fall roughly into two groups: those who are not physically confined, but are engaging in “survival sex,” with no other viable way to live and feed themselves, and those who are actually ‘enslaved,’ held captive and under guard by the ruthless pimp sector.

Proposed Laws, Which In Fact Permit Prostitution

Legalization vs. Decriminalization. Once one understands that the word “prostitution” involves three entirely different categories of people, many issues immediately become much more clear. Legalization and Decriminalization, for example, sound far more different than they are in practice. For the buyers of sex, and especially for the pimp sector, there are significant differences in these legal approaches, but for the women being prostituted by the industry, who are rented multiple times daily to have sex with male strangers, the reality is approximately the same.

Decriminalization means the elimination of all laws concerning all aspects of prostitution. This would de facto amount to a total victory and empowerment of the pimp sector, which would be the worse possible outcome. Legalization (now the law in Germany, Netherlands, and a few remote parts of Nevada) still leaves the pimp sector in fundamental control, but allows the government to share in the profits via taxes. The government thus profits from the sale of women, and in effect becomes a junior partner in the highly lucrative pimp sector.

In almost all of the U.S. current state laws makes buying or selling sex a “crime,” technically, but one that is widely ignored, except when seen as a public nuisance. When prostitution is kept “out of sight,” police rarely interfere or arrest anyone. This very minimal constraint however does limit some of most extreme and blatant forms of sex exploitation. When de-criminalization was enacted in one part of Australia, the result was a disaster soaring rates of crime, drug involvement and other social ills, and a huge explosion in the total volume of prostitution. If decriminalization existed in the U.S., with unrestrained capitalism the only guiding rule, there would be large billboards on major highways, offering “Hot Girls!” at the next exit, advertisements on television, and signs in motel and hotel rooms offering ‘girls available at your call’. Decriminalization would be the worse possible response.

“Harm-Reduction” is a reason that is sometimes offered for decriminalization. It would indeed be harm-reduction for all those in the pimp sector, since they would no longer be guilty of a crime. It would also be more safe and convenient for the men buying sex. But it would in no way improve the lives of the women and girls being sold multiple times each day for sex. It might easily allow the pimp sector to exploit, degrade and physically harm them even more, with even less restraint than occurs today.

The unfortunate women now being used in prostitution make up less that 1% of the total U.S. female population. For of the other 99% of women of all ages, decriminalizing and promoting prostitution would instead be clearly “harm-inflicting,” a glaring display and symbol of society’s lack of concern for women. For young girls, especially those in poor and racially marginalized communities, the legitimation and proliferation of prostitution would now be an ominous danger and threat hanging over their young lives.

The Buyers of sex with women, still much less studied by social scientists than the other two groups, have turned out to be the crucial key to a new legal approach to ending prostitution – one which actually works. The pimp sector is of course indifferent to laws. They ignore all laws, understand their (minimal) chances of being arrested, and have been exceptionally difficult to find and to prosecute. But it is the buyers of sex, the hundreds of men who provide the steady stream of cash, who basically keep the industry functioning. If the “demand” for paid sex can be turned off, then the industry supplying the women will have no profits, and no viable future. The elusive pimp sector will then be virtually out of business. This is an approach that has been discovered in several countries to be effective.

What is called the “Nordic” model was first developed in Sweden. It criminalizes the buying of sex, creating significant penalties for “johns” who would buy sex. But it de-criminalizes the behavior of the women being used in prostitution. The result has already been a dramatic diminution of prostitution in Sweden. A similar legal approach is now being adopted in France, Israel, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and other nations. It is the best approach found thus far to combat prostitution.

The Nordic model goes even further to support the women and girls who have survived prostitution. It not only removes the threat of incarceration, but additionally offers these women health and social services for healing, survival and rehabilitation. (A 2007 New York state law defining and punishing Sex-Trafficking incorporated most of the basic ideas of the Nordic model.) Decriminalization for the women being used, but not for all the men who exploit them, is the proper legal and moral response to these women and girls who have been so grievously harmed

“Sex-Worker” is a clever and very misleading phrase, a sanitizing, ‘white-washing’ label that portrays being used in prostitution as “a job,” just like any other job, as regular work, as a profession. It is illogical however to claim that something is “a job” if one is unable to quit and to leave. Roughly 90% of the women say they would very much like to leave it, if they could, but cannot. The sex-worker term sounds more respectable than “prostitute”, and partly for that reason, many in the journalistic media and on the political left have adopted the phrase “sex-worker”. Even captive and prostituted six-year old girls (in Cambodia) have been described, by U.S. financed bureaucrats, as “sex-workers.” Working as topless waitress, or a “phone-sex” provider, etc. might arguably be called “sex work,” because one can presumably quit those activities. It is cruel and deceptive however to apply that misleading term “work” to the women trapped and being used in prostitution.

Success in Ending Prostitution A common argument often heard is that prostitution “always has, and always will exist” and can never, ever be ended. This contention is factually untrue. In two different countries in modern history, the government worked seriously to end it. For ideological reasons, prostitution was completely eliminated for a period of years in China after the Maoist revolution, and it was also dramatically and effectively reduced later in Viet Nam. In Viet Nam especially, the prostituted women were seen as victims, and were helped and “rehabilitated,” while pimps were “severely punished.” More relevant to modern democracies is what happened in the city of Malmo in Sweden. Between 1977 and 1983 there was a concerted effort in Malmo to offer to women trapped in prostitution very practical assistance in escaping it, if they wished. The women were offered economic support, housing, employment, medical aid, counseling, and importantly, protection from pimps. There was also a mass media campaign, publicizing and celebrating women who had been able to leave prostitution. As a result, 73% of the women formerly in prostitution there had escaped from it by 1981. Of those who remained in prostitution, a majority were thought to be severely drug-addicted. This very successful campaign was sadly ended in 1983. (These details all appear in Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, pp. 223 & 248-249.)

The take-away point is that if a modern society is very seriously determined to end prostitution, that actually can be done. Sadly, the U.S. has not yet arrived at that determination.

Facts & Resources

Many “sources” found on the web are actually operated and financed by the sex industry, offering false information and clear propaganda, so that it is wise to locate trustworthy sources. The following are reliable on-line sources of current information on prostitution: Prostitution Research and Education (PRE) is the largest single source of up-to-date information on prostitution, with hundred of current and classic articles, books, and videos. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW) has a wealth of Reports, Articles, Research, Prostitution Law Reform, Declarations, and United Nations Statements Sanctuary for Families is New York’s leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. A search for “prostitution” on this web-site leads to forty-five relevant articles. NOMAS, the National Organization of Men Against Sexism, offers discussions and research citations for over 50 different issues connected with prostitution, including language, basic facts, political approaches to control, etc. We at NOMAS are willing to document all the statements in this article. SPACE is an international organization of survivors of prostitution who strongly favor its abolition;

The following are among the most useful books examining prostitution:

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

Bindel, J. (2017) the Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raymond, J. (2013) Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Sex Trade. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books.

Barry, K. (1995) The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York: N.Y.U. Press.

Stark, C., and Wisnant, R. (2004) Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinfex Press.

Farley, M. (Ed.) (2003). Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Press.

Jeffreys, S. (1997) The Idea of Prostitution. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinfex Press.

Barry, K. (1979) Female Sexual Slavery. New York: N.Y.U. Press.

Dr. Robert Brannon, Chairperson
NOMAS National Task Group on
The Commercial Sex Industry