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, and other material goods. Prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation also includes:
  • 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, crimes such as rape, abuse, and murder can still be committed against women in prostitution. Women in prostitution have the right to report crimes committed against them, though many are afraid to come forward because they will be judged and perhaps arrested.

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.
Sexual harassment, verbal abuse, stalking, rape, battering and torture are all types of violence that prostituted women regularly experience.*

Women in prostitution have a death rate that is 40 times higher than women who are not involved in prostitution.**

Sixty-eight percent of prostituted women meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture.***

* Melissa Farley, Prostitution Is Sexual Violence, Psychiatric Times. Vol. 21 No. 12, October 1, 2004
** Chris Grussendorf, "No Humans Involved, Part One", http://www.catwinternational.org/factbook/usa2_prost.php
*** Melissa Farley, et al. 2003. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic 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. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.* In comparison, about 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape. Prostituted women are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year.**

* Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey, National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998
** 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 arranges sexual acts between johns and the person in prostitution.* Although some pimps might “protect” the prostitutes who work for them by making sure that the customers pay, pimps are often more violent to the women than customers are. 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