Choice is a fundamental aspect of the American identity.
One summer, my family and I hosted two foreign exchange students from Europe. We taught them the expression “it’s a free country,” and pretty soon, they were saying it all the time. We’d ask them to help us with the dishes and one of them would shrug noncommittally and the other would say, “Why? It’s a free country.”
I’ve been a few places, and they just don’t say that in other countries. They’ll argue that their country has better health care than yours, but no one feels the need to assert their nation’s inherent liberty in casual conversation. For Americans however, the freedom to make our own choices is a self-evident truth, and we’re very, very proud of it.
The paradigm is this: America is a free society; thus, all members of that society have the liberty to make their own choices. The idea that someone was coerced, misinformed, or driven by their circumstances to make a decision that affects them in a negative way doesn’t fit the paradigm. This is America. You are where you’re at because of the choices you’ve made. If you don’t like the choices you’ve made, make a different choice. No one’s going to stop you, it’s a free country.
If this is true, it holds that the decision to prostitute oneself is an informed choice made by a consenting adult. But, before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a look at the factors behind the prostitute’s choice.
A History of Abuse
65 percent to 95 percent of those working in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. In 1991, The Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, Oregon annual report found that 85 percent of their clients who were prostitutes reported a history of sexual abuse as children and 70 percent reported incest.
Incest is boot camp. Incest is where you send the girl to learn how to do it. So you don’t, obviously, have to send her anywhere, she’s already there and she’s has nowhere else to go. She’s trained.
In a report for the Journal of Social Work titled “Early Sexual Exploitation as an Influence in Prostitution,” Mimi Silbert and Ayala Pines interviewed 200 current and former female prostitutes in the San Francisco Bay Area. The results of the study found high levels of victimization of prostitutes before and after they entered the sex trade. 60 percent of the women were sexually exploited as juveniles by an average of 2 males each, although some were abused by as many as 11. The average age of victimization was 10 years old. When the women were asked how the abuse affected their views of themselves, men, sex, and their mothers, 98 to 99 percent reported being negatively affected. 70 percent said the abuse they experienced as children affected their decision to enter prostitution.
As one girl said, “We’ve all been molested. Over and over, and raped. We were all molested and sexually abused as children, don’t you know that? We ran to get away… We were thrown out, thrown away. We’ve been on the street since we were 12, 13, 14.”
Survival Sex In King County: Report Submitted To King County Women’s Advisory Board
A 2002 study of 100 women aged 25 and under who worked in Chicago’s sex trade found that the average age a woman enters prostitution is 16. Many are runaways from abusive families, high-school dropouts, and teen mothers. Often, these girls have the responsibility of providing for children, siblings, or grandparents. In the face of huge financial pressures, they resort to prostitution because they see no other option.
Many juvenile prostitutes have been or are currently homeless. In a report from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy, the estimated incidence of “survival sex” among runaways and homeless children range from 9 percent to 28 percent, although these estimates are conservative. Field research has indicated that 30 percent of youth who live in shelters and 70 percent of youth who live on the streets engage in prostitution to provide for their daily supply of food, shelter, and drugs.
A study by the WHISPER Oral History Project found that 90 percent of women had pimps while working in prostitution.
Pimps use psychological intimidation to control the women who work for them. To lure women into prostitution, many pimps will pretend to fall in love with a vulnerable woman, often convincing her to leave her home and family, before pressuring her to enter the sex industry.
The hold that pimps and the street culture have over prostituted youth is too powerful to be displaced by traditional social services or brief interventions. There is no curriculum that can provide an abused and frightened 14-year-old girl with the cognitive ability and refusal skills to outthink a 26-year old offering love, money, and to take care of her.
For women new to the sex trade, pimps employ a process of conditioning to destroy a woman’s identity and erase her sense of self through sleep depravation, starvation, protein depravation, verbal abuse, physical violence, sexual assault, and rape. Pimps keep women in an atmosphere of unexpected violence and isolate them from any system of support or validation, fostering in them a state of constant terror.
In “From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-Pimps in Chicago,” Jody Raphael and Brenda Myers-Powell interviewed pimps who reported earning an average of $150,000 to $500,000 a year. 52 percent of the pimps reported leaving some of their prostitutes with no money. In other cases, the arrangements varied. Most girls and women who worked for an organized escort system kept 60 percent of the take, but then had to give their pimp at least half of their portion. Some pimps required their girls and women to give them 30 percent of their earnings, and for others it was 40 to 60 percent.
In the process of selling my body, I was shot five times, stabbed more than 13 times, beaten unconscious several times, had my arm and nose broken, had two teeth knocked out, lost a child that I will never see again, was verbally abused, and spent countless days in jail.
Brenda Myers-Powell in ‘Is Paying for Sex Worth It?’
Women in prostitution are at an increased risk of violence, even those who are employed in “safer” escort work. 60 to 80 percent of sex workers have experienced regular physical or sexual abuse. 73 percent of the women in prostitution reported having experienced physical assault; 83 percent of prostitutes have been assaulted with a weapon.
62 percent of those in prostitution report having been raped. In 1991, 78 percent of the 55 women who sought help from the Council of Prostitution Alternatives reported being raped an average of 16 times a year by pimps and 33 times a year by johns. A 1982 study of 200 prostitutes from San Francisco found that 70 percent of the women had been raped by johns an average of 31 times. Most women never report rape or sexual assault to the police. Those who do take legal action are often not taken seriously in a court of law due to a general belief that a prostitute cannot be raped.
As recently as 1991, police in a southern California community closed all rape reports made by prostitutes and addicts, placing them in a file stamped “NHI.” The letters stand for the words “No Human Involved.”
Linda Fairstein in ‘Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape’
All this violence means women in prostitution die young and often. The mortality rate for women in prostitution is 10 to 40 times above the average. In 2004, the American Journal of Epidemiology conducted a comprehensive study of the mortality rate of women in prostitution. The study found that workplace homicide rates for women in prostitution are 51 times higher than the next most dangerous occupation for women, which is working in a liquor store. The average age of death of a woman working in prostitution was 34.
Taking Its Toll
Working in prostitution is akin to living in a war zone. In a study of PTSD in sex workers, 827 people working in several different types of prostitution from 9 countries were screened for signs of PTSD. 68 percent met the criteria for PTSD, with the severity of symptoms falling in the same range as the PTSD of treatment-seeking combat veterans, battered women seeking shelter, rape survivors, and victims of state-sponsored torture. The symptoms of PTSD are acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional withdrawal, and being in a state of emotional and physical hyper-alertness.
Women in prostitution report withdrawing from reality to deal with the horrors of their daily lives, often developing symptoms of psychological dissociation and split-personality disorder. In a study of native women in prostitution, 71 percent had clinically significant symptoms of dissociation, characterized by splitting off the pain and abuse inherent in prostitution from the rest of the self.
The abuse that is constant in prostitution, indeed endemic to it, requires dissociation from yourself and the world to survive. You may create another self, give her another name; she is the one who goes out and does this “work” and may defend doing it… Being subject to constant rape, beaten to stay, prevented from looking into other options, sustaining the trauma of a war zone or a torture chamber, needing drugs to keep doing it—is this what you mean by employment?
Catharine A. MacKinnon in ‘Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality’
The Choices We Make
Choice: the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities.
By definition, choice requires opportunity, power, and possibilities.
America is the land of opportunity, but what opportunities are given to the high school dropout, the runaway, the teen mother? Is it an affordable education? Access to career guidance and job-training? She has a child to support and a little brother, but who’s going to give her a job?
What about power—who gives her that? Was it her father, the one who molested her from the time she was 7 until she ran away at 12? Does her pimp give her power, the one who tells her she’s worthless, never good for anything but the streets? What about her john, the one who beats her and threatens her at gunpoint?
And let’s not forget about possibilities. Without possibilities, it’s very hard to make a choice. But what possibilities are available to the prostitute? What possibilities are given to the 47 year old woman, who’s got one name when she’s on shift and another when she’s off? What possibilities are given to the girl who’s addicted to drugs and hooked on fear, who’s been used from the time she was 10 years old to the day they find her body in a gutter at 25?
85 to 95 percent of those working in prostitution say they want to escape, but feel they have no other choice.
It’s time they had another choice.