Raymund Espinosa Narag & Sheila Royo Maxwell. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publication. 2009.

This chapter discusses the many issues and nuances related to prostitution and is divided into five sections. In the first section, a definition of prostitution is provided, and acts that are commonly construed as prostitution are listed. At the outset, it must be noted that there is no one accepted definition of prostitution, and the term is fraught with ideological debates. Prostitution has also had different meanings across different time periods and locations, and the understanding of prostitution continually evolves.

The second section provides a brief background of prostitution. The prevalence of this activity is discussed, as well as a brief historical backdrop of it being “the oldest profession.” The section distinguishes among the different types of prostitution in terms of modus operandi (that is, street versus in-house and other forms). This is followed by a brief discussion of more recent trends linking prostitution in the era of globalization with the dynamics of global sex trade, tourism, and the trafficking of humans for sex purposes.

In the third and fourth sections, the causes and effects of prostitution are discussed, respectively. This comprises the bulk of the chapter. Again, it should be noted at the outset that depending upon ideological perspectives (i.e., whether one views prostitution as deviant, as a legitimate form of work, or as a form of violence that ranks among human rights issues), there are competing versions of the prevalence of prostitution and the nature of its effects. It will be noted that differences in how scholars view prostitution will possibly explain the differences and perspectives seen in research findings.

The fifth section discusses competing views on policies and perspectives to address prostitution that have evolved through the years. For most countries and for most of the modern age, prostitution has been seen as a form of deviance, and many countries have had criminal and civil laws against prostitution. However, this dominant view has been challenged, and in a few developed countries, there have been attempts to decriminalize or legalize prostitution. This will be elaborated more thoroughly in this section. The paper concludes by evaluating the efficacy of some current policies used to alleviate or moderate the potential harmful effects of prostitution, such as the spread of diseases.

What is Prostitution?

Prostitution is a highly debated term. Its common definition is the exchange of sexual services for compensation, usually in the form of money or other valuables (Ditmore, 2006; Edlund & Korn, 2002; Esselstyn, 1968). Yet, there are many activities that can fall into this category, and it can be argued that getting married for the purpose of having a home and livelihood qualifies as prostitution (Edlund & Korn, 2002). Some add that to differentiate prostitution from other forms of nonmarital sexual activities, it must be devoid of emotional attachment between partners (McGinn, 1998). Others, such as Edlund and Korn, argue that an element of promiscuity must also be involved. However, the notions “devoid of emotional attachment” and “promiscuity” are also vague. A young woman maintaining a long-term sexual relationship with a “sugar daddy” may not fall in this category, while others may argue that this is indeed a form of prostitution. There is also difficulty in determining the number of partners one should have to be considered promiscuous. For example, the following was noted:

A woman who had sex with more than 23,000 men should be classified as a prostitute, although 40 to 60 would also do. However, promiscuity itself does not turn a woman into a prostitute. Although a vast majority of prostitutes are promiscuous, most people would agree that sleeping around does not amount to prostitution. (Edlund & Korn, 2002, p. 183)

John Ince, a lawyer and leader of the Sex Party, a Canadian political party, wrote an interesting letter to (an Internet-based organization that provides pro and con discussions on social issues). He argued that the key elements of prostitution are sexual contact and exchange for money. Yet, sexual contact can be defined in myriad ways. For example, if it is defined as genital contact, then he contends that a massage therapist is not a prostitute and neither is a professional dominatrix who spanks and humiliates, but does not touch the genitals. If it is defined as genital contact for pleasure, then a urologist is not a prostitute but an erotic masseur qualifies as one. However, if it is defined as genital contact for pleasure that includes penetration, then erotic masseurs are not prostitutes. Finally, if it is defined as genital contact for pleasure that includes penetration in circumstances where the provider feels shame, fear, pain, or exposes himor herself or others to disease, then escorts who are highly selective about their clients and enjoy their work are not prostitutes (, n.d.).

These differing definitions are an offshoot of the ideological variations in how individuals and organizations view prostitution. One commonly held view is that prostitution is a form of social and moral deviance that individuals fall into. Individuals involved in prostitution are largely seen as lacking self-worth (Ditmore, 2006). This has been the dominant view that, as will be described later, became the basis of the criminalization of the act. Many believe that this view resulted in the stigmatization of people involved in prostitution and made them vulnerable to different kinds of risks.

Beginning in the 1960s, this dominant view came to be challenged by feminists and other social activists across two ideological variants (Davidson, 2002). On the one hand, liberal feminists maintain that prostitution can be best understood as a form of legitimate work or profession. This view holds that individuals who are involved in prostitution do so freely and it is within their civil rights to do so (Jenness, 1990). Those who concur with this view prefer to call individuals involved in prostitution “sex workers” (Kurtz, Surratt, Inciardi, & Kiley, 2004) in order to convey a sense of professionalism and to remove the stigmatizing taint of the words whore and prostitute (Ditmore, 2006). Taken to its extreme, this view suggests that sex work is within the parameters of self-expression for individuals and an acceptable way of conveying sexual liberation. This viewpoint holds that prostitution needs to be differentiated according to whether it is forced or voluntary. Advocates of this view, as will later be seen, propose that sex work (conceived as voluntary prostitution) should be legalized and decriminalized. Organizations like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) are in the forefront of this campaign to sever prostitution from its historical association with sin, crime, and illicit sex (Jenness, 1990).

On the other hand, a group of radical feminists put forth that prostitution is an act of violence, particularly against women, and is a form of human rights violation (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998). This view holds that prostitution, whether forced or voluntary, is an act that is intrinsically traumatizing to the person being prostituted, and decries attempts to distinguish between forced and voluntary prostitution (Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998). This view also suggests that by artificially delineating between forced and voluntary prostitution, prostitution becomes normalized and provides a mechanism for those who exploit children and women to hide under the cloak of having a business that is “voluntary.” An extreme version of this view maintains that prostitution, especially child prostitution, should be viewed as an economic crime (Bakirci, 2007).

These differing positions on prostitution are a recurring theme and are further examined in the subsequent discussions. The ideological views about prostitution inevitably dictate how its causes and effects are analyzed, as well as the policies recommended to address the issue.

Prevalence of Prostitution

Despite a wealth of literature, it is hard to estimate the prevalence of prostitution. This is because the definitional differences regarding what comprises prostitution make estimations highly variable. It was estimated that the number of sex workers in the United States in 1987, for example, stood close to a million, or 1% of the total population (Alexander, 1987). By limiting its definition to full-time equivalent prostitutes (FTEP), Potterat, Woodhouse, Muth, and Muth (1990) found that the prevalence of prostitution is about 23 per 100,000 population. They concluded that by extending this statistic to the nation, an average of about 84,000 women, or about 59,000 FTEPs, worked as prostitutes in the United States annually during the 1980s. They also concluded that women prostitutes typically remain in prostitution for a relatively short time (about 4 or 5 years for long-term prostitutes).

In a systematic attempt to estimate the prevalence of female sex work (FSW) in different countries (measured as female sex workers in an area over the number of adult women in that area), Vandepitte and colleagues (2006) found huge variations within world regions. This was especially true for countries within Latin America (between 0.2% and 7.4%) and sub-Saharan Africa (between 0.4% and 4.3%.). There was comparably less variation within countries in the other regions of the world. For example, the national FSW estimates prevalence in Asia to range only between 0.2% and 2.6%, in the Russian Federation between 0.1% and 1.5%, in Eastern Europe between 0.4% and 1.4%, and in Western Europe between 0.1% and 1.4% (Vandepitte et al., 2006).

There also appears to be historical variation on the prevalence of prostitution. In documenting the social history of prostitution, Bullough, Bullough, and Bullough (1987) found that in Western societies, prostitution flourished when large numbers of men were concentrated away from wives and families for long periods, when there was a double standard that restricted the movement of women while giving men freedom, and when there were many socioeconomic obstacles to marriage. They contended from this finding that the prevalence of prostitution will be reduced as women are permitted greater sexual freedom and as the socioeconomic conditions that provide fertile grounds for the recruitment of prostitutes are reduced.

Brief History of Prostitution

The history of prostitution is intimately linked with the patterns of tolerance and prohibition leveled against prostitution as a society adapts appropriate policies to address the activity. The notion that prostitution is the oldest profession has some credence, as ancient societies viewed prostitution as an accepted component of religious, social, and cultural life. For example, as early as 2400 BC, documents of prostitution are found in temple services in Mesopotamia (Lerner, 1986). There are also early documents that showed that prostitution was viewed as a legitimate economic activity. In 600 BC, Chinese emperors recognized commercial brothels as a means of increasing state income (Bullough et al., 1987), and a couple of centuries later, Greek and Roman heads of state also established specific mechanisms that detail the economic and social roles of prostitutes (Bullough et al., 1987; Vivante, 1999).

Not until the Middle Ages were there considerable records of prohibition against the practice of prostitution. In 534 AD, Justinian the Great banished brothel keepers from his capital and granted freedom to slaves sold into prostitution (Ringdal, 2004). The Visigoths of Spain also strictly prohibited prostitution in the early Middle Ages, viewing the practice as morally reprehensible and punishable by flogging and banishment (Roberts & Mizuta, 1994). Throughout the centuries, prohibition of prostitution continued at varying intensities, although also interspersed with periods of tolerance and minimal regulation. Prohibition appeared particularly pronounced during times of widespread diseases, such as in the spread of syphilis in the late 1400s (Bullough et al., 1987), especially when it was recognized that the disease was sexually related. In the period from the 15th to the 20th century, the moralistic approach to prostitution resulted in conflicting social policies. In Europe, while religious institutions were vigorously opposed to prostitution, the elite male-dominated social classes discreetly supported its existence. As a consequence, women involved in prostitution were stigmatized and criminalized, yet their customers were not.

The moralistic view held sway throughout most of the 20th century as well. However, with the birth of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, this view was challenged and the alternative view that prostitution is a legitimate form of work was proposed. As mentioned earlier, groups like COYOTE, Friends and Lovers of Prostitutes (FLOPS), Hooking Is Real Employment (HIRE), and Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts (PUMA) campaigned to dissociate prostitution from sin, crime, and illicit sex (Jenness, 1990). These groups also fought for the protection of the rights of the sex workers, and the World Whore Congress that was held in 1985 in Amsterdam articulated many of the groups’ positions (Ringdal, 2004). Largely through these campaigns, some governments decriminalized prostitution, offered services to sex workers, and ensured a safer working atmosphere for those involved.

However, with the advent of globalization, prostitution is caught in the nexus of sex tourism and human trafficking. There is a growing recognition that as an industry, prostitution had been economically and systematically exploited (Leheny, 1995). Young girls and boys from poor rural areas of developing countries are also systematically deceived with offers of jobs and other opportunities, only to end up as prostitutes for local and international customers in the big cities (Flowers, 2001; Lazaridis, 2001). As mentioned earlier, more radical feminists have thus articulated that prostitution is a modern form of sex slavery and it should be viewed as violence against women and a violation of human rights (Farley et al., 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998).

Types of Prostitution

Prostitution can be classified according to modus operandi and gender and age of providers. In their comprehensive review of studies on prostitution, Harcourt and Donovan (2005) identified 25 different modi operandi of commercial sex work in more than 15 countries. In their typology, they identified the name of the activity, how clients are solicited and where they are serviced, and in what world regions certain activities are prevalent. Among the more prominent modi operandi for sex work are street, brothel, and escort prostitution. Street prostitution is the mode where clients are solicited on the street, in parks, or in other public places and are serviced in side streets, vehicles, or short-stay premises. Street prostitution is widespread, particularly in societies where alternative work sites are unavailable (e.g., in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom, Australasia) or there is socioeconomic breakdown (e.g., Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America).

Brothel prostitution is the mode where certain premises are explicitly dedicated to providing sex. Usually, brothel prostitution has better security provisions accorded to sex workers than street prostitution. Brothels are often licensed by authorities. Brothel prostitution is the preferred mode when sex work is decriminalized or brothels are “tolerated.” This type is prevalent in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, India, Europe, and Latin America.

Escort prostitution is the mode where clients contact sex workers by phone or via the hotel staff. This is the most covert form of sex work. It is relatively expensive because of low client turnover (i.e., a higher price is charged for services because the client pool is smaller and more exclusive). The service can be provided at a client’s home or hotel room. This mode of prostitution is ubiquitous. In the United States, escorts and private workers contacted by phone and working from a “call book” are known as “call girls” or “call men.” Other less prominent modi operandi include: lap dancing, massage parlors, and traveling entertainers (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005).

Other modes documented by Harcourt and Donovan (2005) are culturally bound and unique to certain countries. For example, in Cambodia and Uganda, a mode called “beer girl” prostitution was documented where young women hired by major companies to promote and sell products in bars and clubs also sell sexual services to supplement their income. Also, in some Japanese cities, a popular mode is the geisha. These are women engaged primarily to provide social company, but sex may ensue. Harcourt and Donovan also found that policing of sex work can change the modus operandi and location of prostitution, but rarely its prevalence. They argued that it is necessary to develop complete understanding of the modus operandi of sex work in a particular area in order to come up with comprehensive sexual health promotion programs. Harcourt and Donovan concluded that there is no one best intervention for prostitution and that interventions must be suitable to the form (modus operandi) of prostitution in a local area to have some impact.

The following typology generally applies to male and transgender sex workers. In one of the few studies on male prostitutes, Luckenbill (1986) identified three modes of operation—street hustling, bar hustling, and escort prostitution—ranked according to level of income and safety from arrest. The author also found that while some male prostitutes developed relatively stable careers within a given rank, others developed ascending careers. Most of the respondents moved from street hustling to bar hustling, and a few ascended to escort prostitution (Luckenbill, 1986). Lately, with the prominence of the Internet, male prostitutes can find customers through their online advertisements (Pruitt, 2005). This has opened a new mechanism for male-to-male prostitution and entailed a more elaborate form of escort prostitution (Bimbi & Parsons, 2005; Pruitt, 2005). Compared to female prostitutes, male prostitutes are more likely to be either in bars or working as escorts. Male-to-female transgender prostitutes generally follow the typology of street and off-street prostitution (Belza et al., 2000; Leichtentritt & Davidson-Arad, 2004). Transgender prostitutes, however, are predominantly based on the streets and compete with female prostitutes for their customers. A recurrent theme for transgender prostitutes is the higher risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease (Risser et al., 2005), which limits their customer base. As such, to be competitive, transgender prostitutes offer more explicit sexual services and engage in unprotected sexual contact more often (Parsons, Koken, & Bimbi, 2004).

Finally, prostitution can also be classified according to the age of providers, namely adult and child prostitutes. Studies indicate that the dynamics of child prostitution are different from those of adult prostitution. Child prostitutes are involved without their consent, and they are usually systematically deceived (Ayalew & Berhane, 2000; Sachs, 1994). Child prostitution is generally condemned by most individuals, organizations, and governments. Nevertheless, some child prostitutes eventually become adult prostitutes, and many adult prostitutes had prior childhood histories of sexual abuse and prostitution (Widom & Kuhns, 1996). In some jurisdictions, the age limit of those who could legally become prostitutes is very low, as young as 16 years old in Singapore (, n.d.).

Causes of Prostitution

Based on one’s ideological stance, there are differing sets of explanations as to why people engage in prostitution. This section describes some causes as delineated by differing ideological perspectives on prostitution. It should be noted that ideological views also influence interpretations of the effects of prostitution and the policies recommended to address the issue.

Prostitution as a Fall from Grace

One of the earliest and possibly most enduring explanations of prostitution is the social and moral deviance perspective. This perspective assumes that prostitution is a crime against the laws of the state and a sin against the laws of God. Studies that assume this position generally find that prostitutes have low self-esteem and low selfcontrol (Greenwald, 1958). If prostitutes maintain that economic circumstances pressured them into involvement in prostitution, this perspective views them as weak, as they should have explored other decent forms of generating income.

Studies that applied this assumption also maintained that prostitution was associated with feeblemindedness and that prostitution could be passed on from one generation to the next. Some studies also asserted that as a deviant act, prostitution could be learned. Individuals who grew up in families or neighborhoods where prostitution was common may likely end up prostituting. This view maintains that individuals who are too weak to control their sexual desires and are too promiscuous have an elevated risk of becoming prostitutes.

With the onset of drug epidemics, studies also often find strong correlations between drug use and prostitution (Graaf, Vanwesenbeeck, Zessen, Straver, & Visser, 1995; Inciardi, Pottieger, Forney, Chitwood, & McBride, 1991; Potterat, Rothenberg, Muth, Darrow, & Phillips-Plummer, 1998). Many studies maintain that prostitutes take drugs to deaden their senses while engaged in prostitution, and many drug-addicted individuals engage in prostitution to maintain their drug habits (Erickson & Butters, 2000). This fortifies the position of the social and moral deviance perspective by arguing that low self-control and lack of attachments to the traditional values of society fuel both the phenomena of drug addiction and prostitution.

Prostitution as Voluntary

Studies that assume that prostitution is a voluntary act usually find that most prostitutes are involved in the activity for the purpose of quick economic and commercial gains (Davidson, 1995). These studies also show that involvement in prostitution is fleeting, and a prostitute may leave as soon as the reasons for working as one are no longer present. Individuals who voluntarily participate in prostitution have also been called sex workers and are part of what many call a “sex industry” (Rickard, 2001)

The assumption that prostitution is voluntary asserts that female sex workers are simply using their free choice regarding what to do with their bodies (Jenness, 1990). Since they view prostitution as a legitimate form of employment, female sex workers are in fact actualizing a civil right inherent in their work. This assumption maintains that prostitution is a legitimate way to explore sexual pleasures, and those who engaged in it are not deviants but rather are normal human beings. Some liberal feminists view prostitution as one of the mechanisms women can use to liberate themselves from male sexual domination (Scambler & Scambler, 1997).

A corollary view maintains that prostitution is inevitable in every society as long as sexual needs are not met or there are repressions of sexual desires (Scambler & Scambler, 1997). Prostitution meets the sexual needs of those currently not served in traditionally accepted institutions. For example, husbands who could not have sex with their wives during periods of pregnancy or long-term separation may solicit the services of a professional sex worker. As such, prostitution is seen to have a legitimate functional role: to support the institution of marriage. Proponents of this view are critical of the deviance perspective because of its inherent double standard: harsh treatment of prostitutes yet lenience toward the customer.

Prostitution as Involuntary and Coerced

Recently, a scathing critique of both the deviance and free choice perspectives has arisen. Both the deviance and free choice perspectives assume that prostitutes have a say in their involvement; in the former, the prostitute is an antagonist and stigmatized, while in the latter, the prostitute is a protagonist and hailed. The third perspective dismisses both modes of reasoning and argues that prostitution, in whatever form, can never be voluntary. Prostitutes are victims of their personal and environmental circumstances and they should be helped (Farley & Kelly, 2000). The mere fact that most prostitutes want to get out of prostitution but cannot and that those who engage in prostitution have few options during the onset of their involvement means that prostitution is never voluntary (Davidson, 2002; Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998).

Scholars who follow this reasoning find a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution (Farley et al., 1998; Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). Many argue that traumatizing experiences during childhood compromise an individual’s sense of being and may drive these sexually abused children to view prostitution as a normal activity. As such, their involvement in prostitution is not based on a rational choice, contrary to the claims of the free choice perspective (Farley et al., 1998), but a consequence of their victimization.

Scholars who subscribe to this view also find that most prostitutes are deceived into joining prostitution. Many prostitutes are in dire economic conditions: they are usually jobless and in a state of poverty. This condition is especially true for many individuals in the developing countries (Bamgbose, 2002). Offers for a job and other remunerations usually lure these individuals to accept invitations for work, which later turn out to be prostitution. As such, the push of poverty and the deception involved usually translate into coerced prostitution (Farley et al., 1998).

Scholars who embrace this perspective identify macroconditions that systematically produce prostitution. This includes the system of patriarchy that treats women as second-class citizens (Davis, 1993), brazen capitalism that commercializes the female body (Kuntay, 2002), and religious-cultural beliefs that offer women as sex offerings (Mensendiek, 1997; Orchard, 2007). For example, the tremendous growth of global sex tourism, where rest and recreational activities are packaged for male business executives in the developed countries to sexually exploit young women in the developing countries, is an example of how patriarchy, brazen capitalism, and perverted sexual beliefs sustain prostitution (Mensendiek, 1997).

Effects of Prostitution

Prostitution as a Fall from Grace

The view that prostitution is a socially and morally deviant act implies that prostitutes are criminals and sinners. One common effect of this perspective is the stigmatization of those involved in prostitution. This affects more than just the prostitute; rather, the stigmatization spreads to individuals associated with the prostitutes like their children and other family members. This negative labeling may also be the cause of long-term involvement in prostitution, as prostitutes who want out may have limited options. For example, employers may not want former prostitutes working for them.

The stigmatization associated with prostitution also makes prostitutes vulnerable to physical attacks. Words like “whore” and “hooker” provoke extreme reaction on the part of some individuals who may take a vigilante attitude of ridding the streets of prostitutes (Lowman, 2000). Likewise, considering that prostitution is illegal in most places, prostitution exchanges may be done in the streets, usually in the dark, where the security of the prostitutes against aggressive clients is compromised (Kurtz et al., 2004). In addition to this, some prostitutes are also dependent on illicit substances, thereby increasing their vulnerability. Thus, cases of homicide, mutilation, harassment, and rape are elevated among those involved in prostitution (Erickson & Butters, 2000; Lowman, 2000).

The deviance perspective also normalizes police misconduct against prostitutes. Since the prostitutes are seen as criminals and “sinners,” the reasoning goes that it is best for the police to handle them with discretionary decisions. Police officers can abuse this discretionary power and may turn it to their personal advantage. There is then little option for the prostitutes, given their marginalized states.

Prostitution as Voluntary or Free Choice

Those who view prostitution as voluntary do not deny that prostitutes are stigmatized. In fact, they decry systematic efforts to stigmatize sex workers because they believe that involvement in prostitution has substantial positive effects. Among these positive effects is the support provided by the sex workers to their families and other dependents. In developing countries, for example, sex workers in the urban areas send their earnings to sustain the needs of family and relatives in the rural areas. Related to this, prostitution as an industry provides income for the state. When properly regulated, sex workers, pimps, and brothel owners can be taxed on their incomes. It also reduces the number of unemployed people and thus stimulates economic activity.

Those who freely engage in prostitution are also found to have relatively high self-esteem (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). This is especially true for those involved in highend prostitution, like the escort service providers who have control in choosing their clients (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). Generally, studies that assume that individuals willingly chose this trade find that sex work enhanced the workers’ self-worth.

Others argue that due to its functional role (Goodall, 1995), prostitution sustains traditional institutions like marriages. Many adolescent males who explore their sexuality employ the services of professional sex workers. Without these readily available services, adolescent sexual pressures may translate into sexual aggressions like rape and other sex crimes.

Prostitution as Involuntary and Coerced

Studies that subscribe to the perspective that prostitution is involuntary emphasize the mental, psychological, and physical harms inflicted on prostitutes. For example, they indicate that prostituted women experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depressive symptoms, and other forms of trauma (Farley, 2000; Farley et al., 1998; Surratt, Kurtz, Weaver, & Inciardi, 2005). Anecdotal accounts of young prostitutes show that they have sleepless nights and that their experiences of assault hound them in their sleep. Women saved from prostitution were also found to have difficulty assuming normal lives. Scholars who use this perspective also found that prostitutes often have low self-esteem and exhibit suicidal tendencies (Kidd & Kral, 2002; Risser et al., 2005).

Another negative effect of prostitution is the elevated risk of acquiring HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Surveys from different locales estimate that positive testing of HIV run from 20 to 80% of all identified prostitutes (Farley & Kelly, 2000). The prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is higher for those who use drugs (Graaf et al., 1995) and for transgender prostitutes. Studies also show that despite efforts to educate prostitutes to use condoms for protection, most prostitutes report that they do not often use condoms (Farley & Kelly, 2000). One of the common reasons mentioned is that customers are unwilling to use them.

Other studies have documented the physical violence inflicted on prostituted women who run away from sex dens. These women are usually victims of organized syndicates and are imprisoned in their place of work. Usually coming from rural areas of developing countries and exported to urban areas in a different country (Bamgbose, 2002; Mukhopadhyay, 1995), the prostituted women rarely get any social support. Worse, they may run into police systems of the host country, which may be part of organized crime groups.

Views on how to Deal with Prostitution

Given the differing views on the causes and effects of prostitution, there are also competing views on how to deal with prostitution (Phoenix, 2007). This is one arena of major contention among scholars, social activists, and policymakers. Each group has compelling arguments.

Outright Criminalization

Outright criminalization is often the policy position of those who view prostitution from the social and moral deviance perspective. By adopting a strict policy against prostitution, the government is sending a strong deterrent message to would-be prostitutes, organizers of prostitution, and their customers. This policy position holds that by keeping the streets clear of open solicitations of prostitution and other forms of street social deviance like drug peddling and panhandling, other forms of criminality can be eradicated as well.

Proponents of outright criminalization argue that decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution will encourage it. This will simply promote idleness, promiscuity, and risk of infections of sexually transmitted diseases. They also echo the arguments (of those within the prostitution-as-violence camp) that there is a fine line between forced and voluntary prostitution and that those who orchestrate involuntary prostitution (pimps and businesses) hide under the cloak of voluntary prostitution. Thus, this position calls for harsh penalties for prostitutes, clients, and third parties.

Outright Legalization and Decriminalization

Outright decriminalization and legalization is the policy position of those who view prostitution as a legitimate form of work and believe that sex between consenting adults is perfectly acceptable. This policy position argues that treating prostitutes as criminals is a failed and hypocritical social policy. It assumes that, instead of solving the problems associated with prostitution, criminalization has simply corrupted the political and police systems. Proponents note that even the most repressive governments could not eradicate prostitution. This policy position also holds that criminalization simply stigmatizes sex work, thus creating tremendous physical, medical, and health risks for its workers. As such, it is simply pragmatic to openly recognize the existence of prostitution.

Proponent’s is of decriminalization and legalization dichotomize between voluntary and involuntary prostitution and concede that their position does not apply to child prostitutes and victims of human sex trafficking. They generally concur that those facilitating involuntary prostitution must be punished (Bullough et al., 1987). However, they argue that, recognizing that some individuals pursue sex work out of their own free will, the best way to deal with them is through regulation (Goodall, 1995). By placing sex workers in safe environments like inspected brothels, by keeping track of the registered workers, and by mandating regular physical checkups for HIV and other STDs, sex workers and their clients in particular, as well as society in general, will be protected. As mentioned in the Effects of Prostitution section, one of the benefits of a regulated sex industry is the stimulation of the economy. Eleven counties in Nevada, and some cities in Europe, for example, have economies benefitting from regulated sex work.

A Combination Approach

A combination of punishment and decriminalization, depenalization, is advocated by those who view prostitution as a form of violence and a human rights violation. This policy position assumes that all kinds of prostitutes, whether voluntary or forced, adult or child, are victims and are in need of help. Thus, they advocate for depenalization of the victims of prostitution (the prostitutes themselves) (Farley et al., 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Robinson, 2006). They also advocate for the provision of psychological, emotional, and financial support to the survivors of prostitution.

However, this policy position takes a very strong stance against customers and facilitators of the prostitution industry. They are against any effort to legalize the so-called voluntary prostitution, as this will only normalize the sex trade. They argue that clients sustain the markets of the sex industry and that police efforts should be centered around them and not the victims. These policy arguments are often presented to international regulatory bodies, as they see the mechanics of prostitution to be cutting across national borders. They press for strong penalties from countries that supply clients and advocate for assistance from countries where prostituted women and children are coming from. They also argue strongly that child prostitution should be considered an economic crime so that children used for sex work can be protected by the international treaties agreed to by different countries.


From the preceding accounts, it appears that prostitution as a social issue is here to stay. With the advent of globalization, particularly, new forms of prostitution appear to be cropping up and are posing new challenges to moral entrepreneurs, scholars, and policymakers.

While the debate about what policies to adopt toward prostitution rages, its harmful effects loom large. Moralists, liberals, and radicals are all agreed, though in varying degrees, that prostitution facilitates the spread of diseases. As such, short-term stopgap measures have been introduced. In many places, sex workers have been provided free condoms in the hopes that they will not be transmitters of infectious diseases. Some sex workers have also been trained to acquire social skills in order to successfully persuade their clients to engage in protected sex. In some areas that regulate prostitution, prostitutes are required to have weekly medical checkups for STDs.

While these initiatives at the individual and local levels are helpful, they will not be enough to significantly impact the spread of infectious diseases. In most countries in Africa and Asia, for example, the spread of HIV had been intimately linked to the dynamics of prostitution. Success of efforts to distribute condoms and to educate prostitutes on how to use them pale in comparison to the new cases of HIV-AIDS that are reported monthly. It takes more than an individual and localized effort to solve a problem that has economic and social roots.

The ideological differences in how to view prostitution must be transcended, given the need to more proactively effect safe prostitution practices. Not to trivialize the positions of those who view prostitution as work, but their agenda should also include policies to curb the spread of diseases through prostitution. Likewise, the policy positions of either criminalization or decriminalization should also reflect a recognition of this socio-medical reality and not so much the unbending dictates of an ideology.