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Prostitution involves the exchange of sex for money or other material compensation. The most common type of prostitution involves women who provide sex to male customers.
Prostitution has a long history, and is sometimes called “the oldest profession.” It has not always been condemned and stigmatized. In ancient times, some forms of prostitution were viewed positively. Sacred prostitution, where a temple priestess had sex with men, was a way of worshiping the deity. In ancient Greece, prostitution was an accepted part of life. The highest-status prostitutes, the hetaerae, were valued for their intellect and companionship, and at their salons they entertained politicians, artists, and scholars. The hetaerae enjoyed much more freedom and mobility than other Greek women of the time.
Prostitution and Gender Relations
For most of history, however, prostitution has been condemned, and gender bias has been marked: Prostitutes have been blamed for a large number of social problems, but male customers and profiteers were rarely chastised. This double standard continues to this day.
Prostitution reflects larger, traditional gender relations between men and women. First, for the most part, it is men, not women, who typically pay for sex, which is an outgrowth of the broader worldwide pattern of objectification of women. Customers’ motives for buying sex differ, including satisfying a “need” for sex, inability to find a conventional partner, desire for a certain type of sex or sex with a certain type of woman, fulfilling a fantasy, or engaging in risky behavior (Monto 2004). Second, reflecting women’s subordinate status in society, gender inequality is pervasive in prostitution. Female prostitutes are paid for their services, but often not under conditions of their choosing. For those who have male managers (pimps, brothel owners, etc.), the women have little if any control over their working conditions and are subject to significant economic exploitation.
Third, prostitutes are vulnerable to victimization, and this victimization is gendered. Male customers, pimps, and other men sometimes engage in violence and other types of abuse. A significant number of prostitutes report that they have been robbed, raped, or assaulted at some time in their career, and serial killers prey on streetwalkers. Because no study of sex workers is based on a representative sample, it is impossible to tell how frequently they experience violence, but it is clearly an occupational hazard. Customers are sometimes robbed and assaulted as well, but most of the victimization is directed at female prostitutes. Fourth, gender inequality is also the norm in the criminal justice system’s treatment of prostitution. Where prostitution is illegal, prostitutes continue to be arrested much more often than their male customers. Unequal justice is less pronounced in some cities than in others, and some cities periodically target customers but, overall, the police tend to focus on prostitutes (Weitzer 1999). Fifth, gender bias is apparent in portrayals of prostitution in the mass media. Films, television shows, popular music, and literature usually depict prostitution negatively, although it is occasionally romanticized. There are, of course, some realistic or sympathetic portrayals in popular culture, such as Sting’s 1999 song, “Tomorrow We’ll See,” but such depictions are rare exceptions to the rule.
Indoor Prostitution, Street Prostitution, and Male Prostitution
There are exceptions to this general pattern of gender inequality. Not all prostitutes are exploited or victimized. Indoor workers who sell sex in brothels and massage parlors, as independent call girls, or as employees of escort agencies are less likely to be abused by customers than street prostitutes, and the indoor workers are also less economically exploited, express greater job satisfaction, and have higher self-esteem than their street-level counterparts (Vanwesenbeeck 2001; Weitzer 2005). Research shows that some indoor workers have quasi-romantic encounters with customers—not limited to sex but including conversation, cuddling, emotional support, and intimacy (Lever and Dolnick 2000). Indoor prostitutes are also less likely than streetwalkers to use addictive drugs and are at significantly lower risk of sexually transmitted diseases (Plumridge and Abel 2001). There is one important exception to this portrait of indoor prostitution: Women who are recruited by force or fraud and trafficked to work in brothels are at high risk for subsequent exploitation and victimization.
Gender inequality is absent in the case of male prostitutes, who sell sex to other men, who comprise a significant minority of the sex trade. Male prostitutes may be sexually objectified in the same way as female prostitutes, but compared to female streetwalkers, male prostitutes have greater control over their working conditions (few males have pimps); are less likely to have been abused as children, to be forced into prostitution, and to experience violence from customers; are more likely to enjoy their work overall and to derive sexual gratification from it; and are less susceptible to arrest or harassment by the police (Aggleton 1999; West 1993).
In sum, workers in different sectors of the sex trade, as well as male and female workers, experience different kinds of working conditions and varying degrees of victimization, exploitation, freedom, and job satisfaction. The type of prostitution is extremely important.
Today, the sex trade is a huge business worldwide, with numerous providers, customers, and third-party profiteers. Since prostitution is illegal in many places and stigmatized everywhere, it is impossible to determine exactly how prevalent it is or whether it is increasing, but a significant number of men admit to having bought sex from a prostitute. According to a 2000 survey, 17 percent of American men have paid for sex at some time in their lives, compared to 16 percent of Australian men (in 2001) and 9 percent of British men (in 2000). The real numbers are likely higher, given the tendency to underreport disreputable activity.
The Internet offers unprecedented new opportunities for sex workers to communicate with clients and set up appointments. Several major Web sites contain message boards that offer a wealth of information for customers: what to expect in terms of services and prices; “reviews” of a certain worker’s appearance, demeanor, and performance; and the offerings of specific establishments (e.g., a massage parlor, an escort agency). Customers’ chat rooms and message boards provide a fascinating window into the reasons why men buy sex, what they are looking for in a provider, norms regarding appropriate treatment of workers, and clients’ general views about paid sex and the sex industry.
Another trend is the growing internationalization of the sex trade. Sex tourism involves persons who travel from one country to another for the purpose of having sex with a prostitute in the destination country. Most sex tourists are men, but a small number of female tourists buy sex from local men in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Travel companies around the world promote sex tourism, providing information to prospective customers and offering package tours.
In some places, such as Holland, sex tourism accounts for a significant share of the country’s tourism revenues. One study found that the sex industry accounted for between 2 and 14 percent of the gross domestic product in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines (Lim 1998). Customers pump a substantial amount of foreign currency into these economies, which explains why these governments tacitly support the sex trade. In Thailand alone, prostitution earned $23 to $27 billion from 1993 to 1995 (Lim 1998).
Among the reasons why international travel for sex is seen as attractive, compared to buying sex in one’s own country, are anonymity and low risk of detection, low prices, and a desire to have sex with a member of a particular racial or ethnic group. In Thailand, for example, most of the foreign customers are affluent and come from Australia, Germany, the United States, and Japan, and most of the workers are Thai or Filipino women, many of whom originally came from poor rural areas and sell sex to support their families back home. There is, therefore, a striking class disparity between most workers and most foreign customers.
Some sex tourists travel to other countries with the specific purpose of having sex with minors. Doing so in certain foreign countries is seen as far less risky than engaging in such conduct in a customer’s home country. Some nations, including the United States and Canada, have passed laws prohibiting their citizens from buying sex from minors outside the home country, though these laws are difficult to enforce.
- Aggleton, Peter, ed. 1999. Men Who Sell Sex: International Perspectives on Male Prostitution and HIV/AIDS. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Lever, Janet, and Deanne Dolnick. 2000. Clients and Call Girls: Seeking Sex and Intimacy. In Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, ed. Ronald Weitzer, 85–100. New York: Routledge.
- Lim, Lin Lean. 1998. The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia. Geneva: International Labor Office.
- Monto, Martin. 2004. Female Prostitution, Customers, and
- Violence. Violence Against Women 10: 160–168.
- Plumridge, Libby, and Gillian Abel. 2001. A Segmented Sex Industry in New Zealand: Sexual and Personal Safety of Female Sex Workers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 25: 78–83.
- Vanwesenbeeck, Ine. 2001. Another Decade of Social Scientific Work on Prostitution. Annual Review of Sex Research 12:
- Weitzer, Ronald. 1999. Prostitution Control in America: Rethinking Public Policy. Crime, Law, and Social Change 32:
- Weitzer, Ronald. 2005. New Directions in Research on Prostitution. Crime, Law, and Social Change 43: 211–235. West, Donald. 1993. Male Prostitution. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.
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