Sociology of Prostitution Research Paper Starter

Sociology of Prostitution

Prostitution, often called the world's oldest profession, has also been described as the oldest form of oppression. It is widely vilified, but remains an active and thriving market across the globe. The social implications of prostitution are far-reaching and debate surrounding the issue has expanded to moral, ethical, economic, political, and public health forums. Prostitution affords unskilled women one of the best opportunities to make a living wage. While there are economic benefits of prostitution, the less tangible costs are high. Sex workers suffer inordinately from addiction, low self-esteem, and violence. In the eyes of many, prostitution is immoral, degrades women, and contributes to the spread of disease.



Sex, Gender, & Sexuality > Sociology of Prostitution


There are few subjects that draw a wider range of reactions than prostitution. Like its close relative pornography, prostitution is a polarizing issue. By definition, prostitution is the act of engaging in sex acts in exchange for some form of compensation, usually money. It is not entered into with the intent of procreation. As such, one could also consider prostitution "the act of renderingÂ… non- reproductive sex against payment" (Edlund & Korn, 2002, p. 183). The terms "prostitution" and "prostitute" are controversial. Some groups, regarding these terms as stigmatizing and pejorative, prefer the terms "sex work" and "sex worker" (Masenior & Beyrer, 2007).

The sex acts prostitutes perform and the contexts in which they work and survive are far from homogenous. Table 1 illustrates the different types of prostitution and the varying and general conditions and contexts for each.

Is Prostitution Really Lucrative?

Representative data on how much prostitutes earn is not easy to obtain: transactions are mostly made on a cash basis and subject to tax evasion and under-reporting. However, overwhelming evidence shows that prostitution is a lucrative profession, especially when compared to the wages that unskilled women command in the other professions available to them. In general, women who become sex workers would likely be relegated to low-wage service sector jobs if they were to enter the traditional work force.

Research on wages earned from the early twentieth century determined that "no practicable rise in the rate of wages paid to women in ordinary industries can possibly compete with the wages which fairly attractive women of quite ordinary ability can earn by prostitution" (Ellis, 1936, p. 263, quoted in Edlund & Korn, 2002). At the time, prostitution was viewed as easier and less oppressive work than other forms of income available to women. Modern studies--including one of welfare mothers in the late 1990s--showed that prostitutes earned a higher income than other women of comparable levels of skill and education. Some researchers have hypothesized that prostitutes earn higher wages because of the inherent risk of their work. However, though not all types of prostitution carry the same risk, the pay premium remains the same across all types of prostitution (Edlund & Korn, 2002).

Table 1: Types of Prostitution

Street Level Prostitution Brothels-Clubs Escort or Call Girl Services Mistress Very large number of clients Large number of clients Fewer clients, client list is screened One client Work on streets, in cars, or motels - not secure. Work inside a brothel or club - workplace is monitored and more secure Work independently or with an agency - conditions are fairly safe and clean Likely works from her own home Very high rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - condom use is rare High rate of STDs -condom use is optional Lower rate of STDs - condom use more frequent to protect client and worker Low rate of STDs - condom use is likely Workers less healthy, tend to be older Workers not as healthy, tend to be older Workers are healthier and younger Workers may be younger and more educated Services least expensive Services moderately expensive Services can be very expensive Client may contribute to living expenses or rent

Career Longevity

Prostitutes earn more when they are young, an inverse of the usual career progression, which typically rewards experience and tenure. Since earning potential declines with age, prostitution is usually a short-term career when compared to other career choices. However, short-term opportunities in prostitution put women at risk of never acquiring skills that pay a living wage outside of sex work (Edlund & Korn, 2002).

Further Insights


Prostitution is a multibillion-dollar business that employs millions of women worldwide. The profession is low skill, labor intensive, predominantly female, and well paid (Edlund & Korn, 2002). One of the major challenges for sociologists when studying prostitutes is the difficulty reaching such a "hard to access" population. Nevertheless, researchers have taken some steps toward better understand why and how women enter into sex work.

The overwhelming reason that women enter sex work is for economic gain. Prostitution is much more lucrative than the other types of work for which unskilled women are qualified. However, this factor also means that most sex workers will exit the profession when they find alternative means to financial security. For most women, leaving prostitution is rarely ever the result of a single decision. Rather, leaving sex work is usually a process that unfolds over time. The cycle of entry, exit, and re-entry is not an uncommon path for women struggling to overcome many of the factors that have precipitated their entry into prostitution (Dalla, 2006).

Globally, economic conditions and lack of opportunity for women are major factors contributing to women's entering into and remaining in prostitution. Even the threat of disease, such as HIV/AIDS, is not sufficient to keep women out of this work (Dalla, 2006). Violence is also endemic in the sex industry regardless of the type of venue: massage parlors, strip clubs, dance clubs, or escort services all carry risks. The visibility of violent acts is greater at street-level prostitution, but the violence is pervasive throughout the industry. Drug addiction and unemployment are, again, a recurring theme that continues to surface in the lives of these women (Patterson, 2007).

Street-level prostitution poses a different set of challenges for women wishing to exit sex work. Street-level prostitutes contend more often with the following factors:

* Lack of treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems;

* Fewer opportunities to secure legal work that pays a living wage;

* Fewer educational opportunities; and

* A higher risk of re-entry due to a lack of treatment, educational, and employment opportunities (Dalla, 2006).

It is difficult to obtain accurate data about the entry-exit process, but numerous cycles of exit and re-entry appear to be common. Rochelle Dalla's research regarding the exit/entry process of street-level prostitute found that:

* Residential treatment centers were shown to provide a means for sex workers to exit the profession and treat substance abuse issues in a safe, supportive environment.

* Counseling sessions from therapists or parole officers were credited with providing information and direction for women.

* The support received from significant relationships with parents, siblings, and spouses was key to a successful exit, too, as was the studied women's desire to raise their children in a positive environment.

* Achieving distance from destructive influences was also key, as was finding employment that pays a living wage.

* Affiliation with a religious institution (church) emerged as a prominent and positive influence in helping prostitutes leave the profession. As their time out of the sex industry increased, reliance on their church communities for inspiration and support increased and use of formal services slowly diminished (Dalla, 2006).

Dalla's research focused on street-level prostitutes, whose experiences can be very different from those of women engaged in other types of prostitution. Additionally, her research is complicated by the fact that her sample size was relatively small. Because of this, her findings cannot be said to represent the experiences of all street-level prostitutes. Further research on the factors influencing street-level prostitutes' desire to leave sex work will require larger sample sizes and more frequent collection of follow-up data.

The Economics of Prostitution

At the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in New Orleans in January 2008, preliminary results of a study of the economics of street prostitution were discussed. The study, titled An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution, was authored by Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University. Their research combined official arrest records with data on 2,200 transactions that Venkatesh collected in cooperation with sex workers in three Chicago districts. The findings offer a contemporary view of the paid sex market in a major US city:

* Nearly 50% of all transactions happened on 0.3% of street corners. The authors contended that because sex workers and clients need to be able to find each other easily, geographic concentration is likely more important for sex work than for other services where traditional marketing channels are used.

* Sex workers earned $25-30 per hour, or four times what they could expect to earn in a "legal" job.

* A 10% increase in the number of families on public assistance in a given neighborhood increased the number of prostitutes in that neighborhood by 50%.

* Prostitutes were more likely to have sex with a police officer than to be arrested by one. The authors estimated at 3% of the transactions prostitutes engaged in were done for free in order to avoid arrest (Levitt & Venkatesh, 2007).

The average work week for a sex worker was 13 hours and netted her $340.00 on average (Levitt & Venkatesh, 2007). In one...

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