“‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart’: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized” by Melissa Farley

Clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Melissa Farley presents the facts and tells it like it is. No matter the legal status, the prostitution of women and girls is intrinsically harmful. This is an excerpt from publication by Violence Against Women. The source of this excerpt is http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/FarleyVAW.pdf

With examples from a 2003 New Zealand prostitution law, this article discusses the logical inconsistencies in laws sponsoring prostitution and includes evidence for the physical, emotional, and social harms of prostitution. These harms are not decreased by legalization or decriminalization. The article addresses the confusion caused by organizations that oppose trafficking but at the same time promote prostitution as a justifiable form of labor for poor women. The failure of condom distribution/harm reduction programs to protect women in prostitution from rape, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and HIV is discussed. The success of such programs in obtaining funding and in promoting prostitution as sex work is also discussed.

Can the physical, social, and psychological harms of prostitution be controlled or decreased by decriminalization, regulation, or other state monitoring? Is there any way to make prostitution safer? Is it possible to protect the human rights of those in prostitution? Does legalization or decriminalization decrease the dangers of prostitution?

In May 2003, prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand (NZ) by a one-vote majority of its Parliament. Throughout this article, examples from NZ will be used to analyze arguments that decriminalizing prostitution would make prostitution safer for the women in it. Four of the five reasons proposed for the decriminalization of prostitution in NZ had to do with public health. In the law’s language, these were to safeguard the human rights of sex workers, to protect sex workers from exploitation, to promote the welfare and occupational safety and health of sex workers, and to create an environment that is conducive to public health. It was also alleged that the law would protect children from the exploitation of prostitution (New Zealand Justice and Electoral Committee, 2001).

Underpinning laws that legalize or decriminalize prostitution is the belief that prostitution is inevitable. This notion is advanced from different quarters: from pimps and johns, 3 governments, public health officials, and from sexologists and evolutionary psychologists. Pimps have, for example, promoted legalized prostitution with the following arguments:

“Why make a married man who is looking for nothing more than an alternative to masturbation, get busted in a sting, have his name and picture be published in his local paper and have to explain everything to his wife? Isn’t that destructive to society? Why have a legion of free-lance STD-spreaders when you could control and regulate sex-field workers’ health? Why consume law- enforcement time and resources to the tune of hundreds-of- thousands of dollars per year instead of collecting at least an equal amount in real estate and income tax withholding? It only makes sense. (Patrick, 2000, p. 12)”

Public statements by pimps emphasize that prostitution is here to stay, with Dennis Hof in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Heidi Fleiss in Sydney, Australia, repeating the mantra that “boys will be boys.”4 A Canadian attorney defended legal prostitution stating that prostitution “is a bottomless market” (Young, 2003). These stereotypes about men not only normalize and trivialize prostitution but are also good business strategy, relieving johns of any doubts regarding the social acceptability of their sexual predation while at the same time inviting them to spend their money.


It is a cruel lie to suggest that decriminalization or legalization will protect anyone in prostitution. There is much evidence that whatever its legal status, prostitution causes great harm to women. The following sections summarize some of the many studies that now document the physical and emotional harm caused by prostitution.

In the past two decades, a number of authors have documented or analyzed the sexual and physical violence that is the normative experience for women in prostitution, including Baldwin (1993, 1999); Barry (1979, 1995); Boyer, Chapman, and Marshall (1993); Dworkin (1981, 1997, 2000); Farley, Baral, Kiremire, and Sezgin (1998); Giobbe (1991, 1993); Hoigard and Finstad (1986); Hughes (1999); Hunter (1994); Hynes and Raymond (2002); Jeffreys (1997); Karim, Karim, Soldan, and Zondi (1995); Leidholdt (1993); MacKinnon (1993, 1997, 2001); McKeganey and Barnard (1996); Miller (1995); Silbert and Pines (1982a, 1982b); Silbert, Pines, and Lynch (1982); Valera, Sawyer, and Schiraldi (2001); Vanwesenbeeck (1994); and Weisberg (1985).

Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in all types of prostitution. Nemoto, Operario, Takenaka, Iwamoto, and Le (2003) reported that 62% of Asian women in San Francisco massage parlors had been physically assaulted by customers. These data were from only 50% of the massage parlors in San Francisco. The other 50%—those brothels controlled by pimps/ traffickers who refused entrance to the researchers—were proba- bly even more violent toward the women inside. Raymond, D’Cunha, et al. (2002) found that 80% of women who had been trafficked or prostituted suffered violence-related injuries in prostitution. Among the women interviewed by Parriott (1994), 85% had been raped in prostitution. In another study, 94% of those in street prostitution had experienced sexual assault and 75% had been raped by one or more johns (Miller, 1995).

In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults; 70% experienced verbal threats of physi- cal assault; 40% experienced sexual violence; and 40% had been forced into prostitution or sexual abuse by acquaintances (Vanwesenbeeck, 1994). Most young women in prostitution were abused or beaten by johns as well as pimps. Silbert and Pines (1981, 1982b) reported that 70% of women suffered rape in prosti- tution, with 65% having been physically assaulted by customers and 66% assaulted by pimps.

Of 854 people in prostitution in nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia), 71% experienced physical assaults in prostitution, and 62% reported rapes in prostitution (Farley, Cot- ton, et al., 2003). Eighty-nine percent told the researchers that they wanted to leave prostitution but did not have other options for economic survival. To normalize prostitution as a reasonable job choice for poor women makes invisible their strong desire to escape prostitution.

Vanwesenbeeck (1994) found that two factors were associated with greater violence in prostitution. The greater the poverty, the greater the violence; and the longer one is in prostitution, the more likely one is to experience violence. Similarly, the more time women spent in prostitution, the more STDs they reported (Parriott, 1994).

Those promoting prostitution rarely address class, race, and ethnicity as factors that make women even more vulnerable to health risks in prostitution. Farley (2003a) found that in NZ, as elsewhere, indigenous women are placed at the bottom of a brutal race and class hierarchy within prostitution itself. When the researchers compared Maori/Pacific Islander New Zealanders to European-origin New Zealanders in prostitution, the Pacific Islander/Maori were more likely to have been homeless and to have entered prostitution at a young age. Mama Tere, an Auckland community activist, referred to NZ prostitution as an “apartheid system” (Farley, 2003a). Plumridge and Abel (2001) similarly described the NZ sex industry as “segmented,” noting that 7% of the population in Christchurch were Maori; however, 19% of those in Christchurch prostitution were Maori.

Women in prostitution are treated as if their rapes do not mat- ter. For example, in Venezuela, El Salvador, and Paraguay, the penalty for rape is reduced by one fifth if the victim is a prostitute (Wijers & Lap-Chew, 1997). Many people assume that when a prostituted woman is raped, that rape is part of her job and that she deserved or even asked for the rape. In an example of this bias, a California judge overturned a jury’s decision to charge a cus- tomer with rape, saying “a woman who goes out on the street and makes a whore out of herself opens herself up to anybody” (Arax, 1986, p. 1).

We asked women currently in prostitution in Colombia, Ger- many, Mexico, South Africa, and Zambia whether they thought that legal prostitution would offer them safety from physical and sexual assault. Forty-six percent of these women in prostitution from six countries felt that they were no safer from physical and sexual assault even if prostitution were legal. Brothel prostitution is legal in Germany, one of the countries surveyed. In an indict- ment of legal prostitution, 59% of German respondents told us that they did not think that legal prostitution made them any safer from rape and physical assault (Farley et al., 2003). A comparable 50% of 100 prostitutes in a Washington, D.C., survey expressed the same opinion (Valera et al., 2001).

It is not possible to protect the health of someone whose “job” means that they will get raped on average once a week (Hunter, 1993). One woman explained that prostitution is “like domestic violence taken to the extreme” (Leone, 2001). Another woman said, “What is rape for others, is normal for us” (Farley, Lynne, & Cotton, in press).


Legal sex businesses provide locations where sexual harass- ment, sexual exploitation, and violence against women are perpe- trated with impunity. State-sponsored prostitution endangers all women and children in that acts of sexual predation are normal- ized—acts ranging from the seemingly banal (breast massage) to the lethal (snuff prostitution that includes filming of actual mur- ders of real women and children). A report on the sexual exploita- tion of children noted that the presence of a thriving adult sex industry in a community had the effect of increasing child prosti- tution in that same community (Estes & Weiner, 2001). Nevada, the one U.S. state where prostitution is legal in 13 counties, had significantly higher rates of sex crimes than the rest of the United States in the 1990s (Albert, 2001).6

Johns who buy women, groups promoting legalized prostitu- tion, and governments that support state-sponsored sex indus- tries comprise a tripartite partnership that endangers all women. These groups collude in denying the everyday violence and sub- sequent health dangers to those in prostitution. One john, for example, rationalized prostitution as providing health benefits to women in prostitution: Dave (2003) opined that by providing breast massage, he would thereby improve the breast health of women in prostitution. He cited numerous medical studies justi- fying his (paid-for) sexual assaults as medically beneficial.

Those who promote legalization or decriminalization defend the customer base of sex industries with far-fetched rationaliza- tions. Although duly noting the problem of “murderous clients” of prostitutes, Kinnell (2001) nonetheless suggested that legally targeting dangerous johns for arrest somehow increases the dan- ger to those in prostitution. She stated that although “many attacks are perpetrated by clients,” we should still not assume therefore that “a high proportion of clients is potentially violent.”

Pimp states across the globe7 operate with sophisticated subter- fuge in defending legalization or decriminalization of prostitu- tion. Although violence has been declared a priority area of the New Zealand Health Strategy, no part of the NZ prostitution bill offers any specific protection from the violence that is intrinsic to prostitution. Giving lip service to protecting women’s health, the NZ prostitution law claims to protect everyone from HIV andSTDs, even though it has already been established that there is no association between prostitution and HIV in New Zealand (Coney, 2003).

The NZ human rights law has provisions that protect women from sexual harassment. It is a far more protective law than the NZ law that decriminalizes prostitution in the name of women’s health, safety, and right to work. Because one of the job require- ments of prostitution is tolerating sexual harassment, how will the NZ human rights law protect women in prostitution from sex- ual harassment? “What will be the . . . outcome of struggles against sexual harassment and violence in the home, the work- place, or the street, if men can buy the right to perpetrate these very acts against women in prostitution?” (D’Cunha, 2002, p. 41).

Prostitution is an institution that systematically discriminates against women, against the young, against the poor, and against ethnically subordinated groups. Prostitution cannot be made safer or a little bit better by legalizing or decriminalizing it (Ray- mond, 2003). It is a particularly vicious institution of inequality of the sexes. Understanding this, Nevada legislator William O’Donnell stated,

It bothers me that we’re making money off the backs of women. Condoning prostitution is the most demeaning and degrading thing the state can do to women. What we do as a state is essentially put a U.S.-grade stamp on the butt of every prostitute. Instead, we should be turning them around by helping them back into society. (quoted in Albert, 2001, p. 178)

Does a john’s payment of money to a woman in prostitution erase all that we know of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence? The adage silence is consent is mistakenly applied to women in prostitution. We blame those who keep silent for what- ever happens to them because, the logic goes, they should have protested abuse. Women in prostitution are silent for many rea- sons. They are rarely given the opportunity to speak about their real lives because this would interfere with sex businesses. The silence of most of those in prostitution is a result of intimidation, terror, dissociation, and shame. Their silence, like the silence of battered women, should not be misinterpreted, ever, as their consent to prostitution.

This is a significantly shortened excerpt. To read the full article, please visit the Violence Against Women website http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/FarleyVAW.pdf

Melissa Farley is a research and clinical psychologist who has been in practice for 35 years. She is the author of 25 publications. In addition to consulting with orga- nizations on the topics of prostitution and trafficking, she conducts forensic evalu- ations on behalf of survivors of prostitution. She edited and contributed to Prosti- tution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress, 2003.