En Español
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or (TTY) 1-800-787-3224

Learn about Abuse

UPDATED June 21, 2012

What is prostitution?
How is prostitution harmful to women?
Can a woman in prostitution be raped?
What is a pimp?
Why can’t women in prostitution just leave when they want to?

Where can I find resources and help?

What is prostitution?

Prostitution is the exchange of sexual acts for money, food, rent, drugs, or other material goods. Prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation can include forcing someone to participate in any of the following:
  • street prostitution;
  • massage parlors or brothels;
  • escort services;
  • strip clubs;
  • phone sex;
  • pornography; and
  • domestic and international trafficking.
Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the United States except parts of Nevada.

How is prostitution harmful to women?

Even though prostitution itself is illegal, women who are prostituting can still be the victim of a crime; crimes such as rape and physical and sexual abuse are often committed against women in prostitution. Women in prostitution have the right to report crimes committed against them, though many are afraid to come forward for a variety of reasons: they fear no one will believe them, they fear being arrested, they are ashamed, they don't want anyone to know that they are working as a prostitute, etc.

Prostituted women are often victims of intimate partner violence by pimps and customers, often called “johns.” The methods of control that pimps and johns use are similar to the methods used by abusers. Some examples include:
  • physical violence;
  • sexual assault;
  • economic abuse or manipulation;
  • isolation;
  • verbal abuse;
  • threats and intimidation; and
  • minimization and denial of physical violence.
Women in prostitution have a death rate that is significantly higher than women who are not involved in prostitution.*  One small study of 130 prostitutes found that 68% of the prostituted women interviewed met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture.**

* Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women, Potterat, Brewer, et. al. Am. J. Epidemiol. (2004) 159 (8): 778-785 (2004)
*** Melissa Farley, et al. 2003. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74.

Can a woman in prostitution be raped?

Yes.  When a woman says “No,” it means no – it doesn’t matter if she is a prostituted woman or not. Even if she agrees to do one sexual act, if the john forces her to do a different sexual act against her will, that is still rape.  Prostituted women are much more likely to be raped than non-prostituted women.  A national study found that nearly 1 out of every 5 women in the U.S. has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.*  In comparison, an early study found that about 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape and that prostituted women are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year.**

* National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Center for Disease Control (2011)
** Susan Kay Hunter and K.C. Reed, July, 1990 "Taking the side of bought and sold rape," speech at National Coalition against Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C.

What is a pimp?

A pimp is a person, usually male, who has control over the women who are prostitutes and the money that they earn.  Pimps often exert control much in the same way that an abuser may exert control over an intimate partner - through intimidation, fear, physical and sexual abuse, rape, torture, and other abusive methods.   Although some pimps might “protect” the prostitutes who work for them by making sure that the customers pay or don't abuse , pimps are often more violent to the women than customers are and are motivated by their own desire for money, not . In fact, 85% of prostitutes are raped by pimps.** Also, pimps often threaten the lives of the women who work for them, which may prevent a woman from leaving prostitution.

* http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=pimp
** Council on Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, 1994

Why can’t women in prostitution just leave when they want to?

There are many reasons that women do not or cannot leave prostitution. Ninety-two percent of women who were involved in prostitution said they wanted to leave prostitution, but couldn't because they lack basic human services such as a home, job training, health care, counseling and treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.* A prostituted woman might also be afraid of what her pimp will do to her and afraid for her life if she tries to leave. For many women, prostitution and sexual exploitation might be the only life they know. The average age for girls entering prostitution is between 12-13.** And studies show that 75 to 95% of all prostitutes were sexually abused as children.***

* "People in prostitution suffer from wartime trauma symptoms caused by acts of violence against them," Business Wire, 18 August 1998
** Lois Lee, Children of the Night, Brad Knickerbocker, "Prostitution’s Pernicious Reach Grows in the US," Christian Science Monitor, 23 October 1996
*** Debra Boyer, U. Washington, Susan Breault of the Paul & Lisa Program, "Danger for prostitutes increasing, most starting younger," Beacon Journal, 21 September 1997

Where can I find resources and help?

Because of myths and stereotypes about prostitution, and the fact that prostitution is illegal, prostituted women face many barriers to getting the help they need. Often times, a prostituted woman will not seek help out of fear of:
  • having her children taken away from her,
  • shame, ridicule and judgment,
  • not being able to get a job once people know she has been in prostitution, and
  • arrest and other legal consequences.
However, you should know that there are resources out there for women in prostitution. WomensLaw.org has a list of resources that help women who are being abused in prostitution.

back to top