In this section, you will find information about prostitution, its relationship with domestic violence, and resources for leaving prostitution.
Basic info and definitions
What is prostitution?
Prostitution is the exchange of sexual acts for money, food, rent, drugs, or something else of value. Prostitution can be a form of sexual exploitation and forcing a person into prostitution can be one way that an abuser commits domestic violence against his/her intimate partner. 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. However, in more recent years through statutes and case decisions, many states have moved away from putting the focus of punishment on the prostitute and instead focused on the person who makes prostitution an ongoing business.1
In Colorado, for instance, someone who is a prostitute can at most can face up to 6 months of prison time and/or a $50 - $750 fine, depending on the individual case.2 But in the same state, a pimp (the person who arranges for clients for a prostituted woman) or a “john” (the person who hires the prostitute) can face up to 12 years of prison time and a fine of $750,000.3
1 Wharton’s Criminal Law § 266
2 C.R.S. § § 18-7-201; 18-1.3-501
3 C.R.S. § § 18-7-206; 18-1.3-401
What is a pimp?
A pimp is a person, usually male, who has control over one or more prostituted people and the money that they earn.1 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 them, pimps are often more violent to the prostitutes than the customers are. In addition, any protection offered by a pimp is generally motivated by the pimp’s own desire for money, not concern for the prostituted person’s safety. In fact, an early study (from 1994) found that 85% of prostitutes are raped by their pimps2 – although the numbers may be different if this study were done today. Pimps also often threaten the lives of the prostitutes who work for them or threaten other harm to them or their families, which may prevent a person from leaving prostitution.
1Merriam Webster Dictonary
2 Council on Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, 1994
How is prostitution harmful to women?
Prostitution can be harmful on many levels, posing a threat to a woman’s mental and physical health among many other consequences. 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.1
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 may feel ashamed, they don't want anyone to know that they are working as a prostitute, etc.
Prostituted women are often victims of violence characterized by power and control (much like domestic 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;
- 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.2
1 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 (see page 56).
2Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women, Potterat, Brewer, et. al. Am. J. Epidemiol. (2004) 159 (8): 778-785 (2004)
The connection between prostitution, domestic violence, and sexual assault
Is domestic violence related to prostitution and sex trafficking?
Traffickers and pimps often target people in vulnerable situations, which could include women and girls experiencing domestic violence. Sometimes, abusers will also prostitute their partners as an extension of the abuse the victims are already experiencing. Some victims of domestic violence may turn to prostitution to escape an abuser, but prostitution is often also used as a form of abuse.
Conversely, people in prostitution are often in situations that make them vulnerable to entering into domestic violence relationships. Lack of financial resources, steady housing, or lawful employment may give abusers leverage, power, and control over a person in prostitution. And if the abuser helps the prostituted person to leave prostitution, s/he may, in turn, come to feel that s/he is dependent on the abuser or owes it to the abuser to stay with him/her even though there is domestic violence taking place in the relationship.1
1 See Dorchen A. Leidholdt, Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence: A Primer for Judges, American Bar Association The Judges’ Journal, Vol. 52 No. 1 (2013)
Can a person in prostitution be raped?
Yes. When a person says “No,” it means no – it doesn’t matter if s/he is a prostituted person or not. Even if s/he agrees to do one sexual act, if the john forces him/her to do a different sexual act against his/her will, that is still rape. Prostituted people are much more likely to be raped than non-prostituted people. A national study in 2011 found that nearly 1 out of every 5 women in the U.S. has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.1 In comparison, an earlier study (in 1990) 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 year2 – although the numbers may be different if this study were done today.
1National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Center for Disease Control (2011)
2 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.
Why can’t women in prostitution just leave when they want to?
There are many reasons that women (and men) do not or cannot leave prostitution. In a 1998 survey of 475 women who were involved in prostitution, ninety-two percent of them 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.1 Another reason a prostituted woman might not leave prostitution is that she may be afraid of what her pimp will do to her and afraid for her life if she tries to leave.
In addition, leaving prostitution may be scary for other reasons. For many women, prostitution sexual exploitation and sexual abuse might be the only life they know. Many girls enter prostitution while they are minors2 and various studies reveal that from 60% to 90% of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted in childhood. 3 The thought of leaving prostitution and having to find a new way to support themselves and their family might be overwhelming or scary for some people. However, there are organizations that can help a person go through the process of leaving prostitution. Go to our National Organizations - Trafficking/Prostitution/Sexual Exploitation page for resources.
1Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly Women & Criminal Justice 2000, Vol 11 (4): 29-64, on page 23, citing Farley, et al. 1998
2 Polaris Project, Average Age of Entry Myth, January 5, 2016
3 Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly Women & Criminal Justice 2000, Vol 11 (4): 29-64 , on page 14, citing Harlan, Rodgers & Slattery, 1981, Murphy, 1993; Silbert & Pines, 1983
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
- being arrested 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 adults and children who want to leave prostitution or who are being sexually exploited.