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Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.
Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.

Getting Enlightened About Prostitution

Let's think about what it means to buy sex.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the movie Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. It was a movie I loved at the time because I really knew so little about prostitution—"the life" that Roberts' character was a part of. Then, I had no opinion about prostitution, or if I did, I would have sided with the idea that a "woman can do what she wants with her bod"’ and leaned toward a pro-legalization stance. I have since been enlightened to the error of that view.

My enlightenment arose from learning about the data around prostitution—that a majority of adults in the life entered as teenagers, that a majority of those prostituted have had a history of sexual violence, neglect, or abuse, and that most often participation is seen as the last viable means of survival. As Rachel Moran—a survivor of prostitution and founder of SPACE, a survivor led network—describes it, “When you are fifteen years old and destitute, too unskilled to work and too young to claim unemployment benefit, your body is all you have left to sell” (Moran, 2013).

I learned that when laws legalize prostitution, as is the case of some parts of the U.S. (Nevada), the Netherlands, and other countries, it doesn’t help the health of those in the trade, rather, it leads to an increase in trafficking, especially that of underage girls, a drop in the age of first entry, and an increase in violence against women—not only those in the sex trade but also against those in the communities surrounding it.

I discovered the data supporting an alternative legal structure—often called the “Nordic Model” because it was first adopted by Sweden, Norway, and Iceland and has also begun to be established in Ireland, Canada (with variation), and is being discussed in other countries throughout Europe. Under this approach, the sellers of sex are never punished or criminalized while the “buying of sex” is a crime. The effect of this legal structure is that prostitution decreases, violence against women decreases, and trafficking is curbed as well (Source: Equality Now). Along with this law, the Swedish government invested in "exit programs" to aid those wishing to leave prostitution by providing social services, such as education, job training, etc. Changing laws is not enough. There must be alternative options available, a social service exit strategy. Since the introduction of the law, street prostitution decreased and attitudes changed. For example, the purchasing of sex dropped from 13.6 percent in 1996 (before the law was enacted) to 7.9 percent in 2008. (Source: Equality Now).

The U.S. has a third legal structure, that of a criminal view of both buyer and seller, except in pockets of Nevada. The problem with the criminal model of prostitution is that under it illegal activity flourishes and the law enforcement and criminal justice system differentially punish the seller over the buyer. Statistics are difficult to find here, but in 2010 in the U.S. there were 62,670 arrests for prostitution: 19,480 were men and 43,190 were women. (Note: the majority of those prostituted are women and the majority of buyers are men.) (Source: Equality Now)

I often hear that prostitution is inevitable “men will just do it, it’s the oldest profession,” but I think this is a form of willful ignorance. Norma Ramos, an activist lawyer working to abolish prostitution, calls it the world’s oldest oppression. It is oppression that arises from gender inequality, where women are less valued, less powerful, and less in control than men. There is an over-representation of women of color as well, evidence that gender inequality is further exacerbated by racial inequality. We pretend that it is beyond our capacity to stop it but that is the willful part of our ignorance. It will stop when we choose to stop it. To get there we all need a bit of enlightenment.

Let’s think about what it means to "buy sex." The exchange of money (or drugs/other commodity) is seen as a means of giving consent for a sexual act. What does it mean to give consent when consent arises because of extremely limited choices for survival (money/food/feeding family) or when there is an abuse of power, as in the form of a pimp or other abusive means such as the threat or use of force or coercion?

Is consent freely given when by definition there is nothing free about it?

If it’s not free, then might it already be corrupted from an idea of consent as one given without coercion, abuse of authority, or physical force?

Michael Sandal, a philosophy professor at Harvard University, explored what happens when money and a free-market economy enter into the social fabric of our lives, whether that is our sexual intimacy, education, medical services, or others (Sandel, 2012). He illustrates how the adaptation of an economic model to social relationships leads to corruption and the creation of greater inequality of the parties involved. That is clearly evident in prostitution.

Women and girls entering prostitution are most often there because they see it as a pathway to survival or they are there because of abuse of authority (e.g. pimp). The presence of a history of child abuse, neglect, and trauma impact the brain and body too and that can lead to distorted views of self and others, avoidance, and even cognitive changes. An example of this was brought to light from the work Vednita Carter who is the founder and executive director of Breaking Free.

Vednita works with women and girls in the sex trade who come to her organization for many reasons, court ordered or otherwise. She often hears them tell her how much they "love the life" and their complete lack of interest in leaving.

When she asks them what they like about it, answers range from “love the clothes,” “love my boyfriend (i.e. pimp),” “like having some money,” etc. She stops them and says, “wait a minute, I want to hear what you like about prostitution, the sex acts that you do to get all those things. I want to know what you like about 10 to 15 men ejaculating on you every day, anywhere they want, whenever they want. Or if you live in Thailand, 40 men a day doing the same. I want to know about the sex act—what do you like about that?”

She always gets the same answer—dead silence.

I was reminded by Ms. Carter that when the slaves were freed in the U.S., there were many times where the freed slave didn’t want freedom. They thought their lives were better under slavery. When someone has been victimized, abused, and lived as a "lesser" than another, it may be difficult to know their own value as an equal. We need to look at the role of money on the intimacy of a sexual relationship and see what it does—with honesty.

It is time we become enlightened about prostitution and realize that the Pretty Woman Hollywood version is far from its reality. I said to Norma Ramos, “It’s not so pretty” but she corrected me and said, “No, it’s pretty ugly.”


What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets. 2012. Michael Sandel

Paid For: My journey through prostitution. 2013. Rachel Moran

SPACE – Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment

Breaking Free

Equality Now fact sheet on Nordic Model

About the Author
Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at the UCLA Semel Institute and the Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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