Prostitution and the levels of sexual and physical violence experienced by women

TORL ensured that partner organisations were familiar with the substantial body of empirical evidence on the harm of prostitution, in order to reveal the truth of what women experience and dispute the claim that prostitution can be a safe occupation for women. International research consistently reveals that the rates and frequency of severe violence, including homicide, are exponentially higher for women in prostitution than the general population of women and girls.1 Research conducted in five countries indicated that 80% of women in prostitution had violence-related injuries, 60% had been sexually assaulted and between 60% and 70% had been subjected to verbal abuse and threats; the study also revealed that the sex demanded in prostitution was infused with degrading, humiliating and abusive acts.2

Street prostitution emerges as a very high risk setting in most studies in terms of physical assault, drug related crime and sexual assault, with studies indicating figures as high as between 60% and 86% for instances of rape, beatings and robbery.3 However, interviews with 854 women currently or recently in prostitution across nine countries revealed high incidences of violence and abuse in all types of settings including the streets, indoor brothels, massage parlours, and escort services. Between 70% and 95% per cent of women reported physical assault; between 60% and 70% reported being raped and over 95% reported levels of sexual harassment, which in any other context would be legally actionable.4

Research also indicates that the majority of women move between different settings and are therefore exposed to multiple forms of risk. Raphael and Shapiro (2003) measured the prevalence of violence that customers, managers, pimps, and intimate partners perpetrated against 222 women in Chicago, in 26 different types of prostitution activities/venues, including exotic dancing, escort agency, brothels, own homes and massage parlours. Street prostitution had the highest proportion of physical assault with 70% of women being punched, 79% being threatened with a weapon and 64% reporting forced sex. However, 50% of women reported forced sex in indoor venues and 33% reported threatened rape, fingers or objects inserted vaginally or forced sex in their own homes or in hotels. This study also measured frequency of the different forms of violence women were subjected to, with 21% of women on the streets and in escort services stating that they had been raped more than ten times.5

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre played a key role in the campaign in focussing the debate on the levels of sexual violence endemic in the commercial sex trade and the importance of challenging the issue of sexual consent within prostitution.

Statement by former CEO to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Ellen O’Malley Dunlop:

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which for almost forty years has offered counselling, psychotherapy and a variety of related services to adults who have experienced rape, sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse. One of the enduring realities of Irish society is sexual violence. Its prevalence is a particularly challenging figure to determine. From the most comprehensive national longitudinal research, The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) study,we know that four in ten (42%) Irish women reported experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. While annual statistics provide general trends for those who choose to disclose abuse to professional agencies, such as the DRCC, it provides limited insight into the total number of individuals who have been sexually abused in the general population and reveals even less about those involved in prostitution. Rape and sexual abuse, like prostitution, have been hidden crimes in our society for far too long.

There are those who suggest that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession and that women select it freely. The partners campaigning under the Turn Off the Red Light banner, contend that prostitution is a form of gender-based oppression. Like rape and sexual abuse, prostitution is inherently harmful and abusive. It violates the human dignity and integrity guaranteed to all under the UN Declaration on Human Rights 1948. Human rights define what kind of life is worthy of a human being, what kind of life is worth living. Intrinsic to prostitution are numerous violations of human rights: sexual harassment, economic servitude, educational deprivation, partner and family violence, racism, classism, vulnerability to frequent physical and sexual assault, and being subjected to bodily invasions that are equivalent to torture.These human rights violations describe much of what is told and heard every day in the therapy rooms and on the National 24-Hour Helpline, 1800 77 88 88, operated from the DRCC.

The belief that prostitution is a choice allows the punters, pimps and traffickers to obscure the abuse involved and to focus on the concept of right and entitlement for the abuser because a payment has been made. The assumption being made, that once he pays, she no longer matters. The fact that money is exchanged cannot disguise the fact that what occurs in prostitution is sexual violence. Continuing to focus on the criminalisation of women and not on the punters and pimps underlines the shame and isolation caused by sexual violence, thereby reinforcing a woman’s reliance on the abusive and criminal network of those who control her life. All too often that violence and coercion are the realm of the pimp so that the punter can hold on to the fantasy that the sex is consensual. All of which creates an illusion; the illusion that women want to be there; that they deserve to be treated this way; which results in, not only normalising but also perpetuating violence against women in general. 

The SAVI Report (2002) suggested that the general public needs to view prostitution as ‘violence against women and as a human rights issue’. It recommended public awareness and education aimed at increasing the understanding of the situation of women in prostitution. In 2015 the DRCC’s ‘AskConsent’ campaign set out to raise awareness on the issue of sexual consent. The aim of the campaign was to stimulate important discussion amongst Irish adults and encourage young people to think carefully about effective sexual communication. In educating young people how to communicate appropriately during sexual encounters, it will also play a preventative role by reducing the potential for non-consensual sexual activity to occur. And given the legal and societal uncertainties surrounding the concept of consent, initiatives like this are a vital tool in combating sexual violence. Accepting that prostitution is part of an exploitative sex industry, raises the question as to whether someone can freely consent to be exploited? Women in prostitution comply rather than consent to a punter’s demands. Rather than ask why, or if, women choose prostitution, attention needs to be focussed on why so many men choose to buy women.

The mission of the DRCC is to prevent and heal the trauma of rape and sexual abuse; it was one of our many reasons to get involved in the work of the TORL Campaign, to collaborate in combating the violence and exploitation associated with prostitution. The vast majority of those involved in prostitution are experiencing some form of coercion. Many of the women who are involved in Ireland’s sex industry, had no real choice –poverty and life circumstances, combined with deception and exploitation, are evident in many of their stories. Associated with the risk of selling their bodies repeatedly to strangers is the daily risk of physical and sexual violence. We need to decriminalise those exploited in prostitution, so that they are not punished for being abused. Rape and sexual assault are very difficult crimes to report and to get convictions because of the nature of the crimes. We know from our experience that victims of rape and sexual violence who are involved in the sex industry are less likely to report these crimes and get justice for themselves, hence the perpetrators will be less likely to be punished and may well continue to commit these heinous crimes with impunity.

Ellen O’malley Dunlup –
Former CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

1Potterat, J.J., Brewer, D.D., Muth, S.Q., Rothenberg, R.B., Woodhouse, D.E., Muth, J.B., Stites, H.K. and Brody, S. (2004). Mortality in a long term open cohort of prostitute women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 159, 778-785.
2Raymond, J., D’Cunha, J., Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, S., Hynes, P., Ramirez Rodriguez, Z. and Santos, A. (2002). A comparative study of women trafficked in the migration process: Patterns, profiles and health consequences of sexual exploitation in five countries. Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
3Hoigard, C. and Finstad, L. (1992). Backstreets: Prostitution, money and love. Cambridge: Cambridge Polity Press.
4Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M.E., Alvrez, D., Sezgin, U. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. In M.Farley (Ed.) Prostitution, trafficking and traumatic stress (pp. 33 74). Haworth Press.
5Raphael, J. and Shapiro, D.L. (2002). Sisters speak out: The lives and needs of prostituted women in Chicago. Chicago: Center for Impact Research.
6Mc Gee, H., Garavan, R., De Barra, M., Byrne, J. and Conroy, R. (2002). Sexual abuse and violence in Ireland: A national study of Irish experiences, beliefs and attitudes concerning sexual violence. Dublin: Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Liffey Press.
7Farley and Barkan (1998) cited in Healy, G. and O’Connor, M. (2006). The links between prostitution and sex trafficking: A briefing handbook. European Women’s Lobby and the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).