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Is Prostitution a Victimless Crime? Answer Exposes Gender Gap

What's Recreational Sex for Some Men is Abuse for Many Women


Is Prostitution a Victimless Crime? Answer Exposes Gender Gap

Victims of a 'victimless' crime: a composite photo of murdered prostitutes in the UK

© Getty News Images
Updated March 01, 2012
Noted Harvard Law professor and civil rights activist Alan Dershowitz states emphatically that "prostitution is a victimless crime," and that millions of men regularly seek out prostitutes.

Commenting on New York governor Eliot Spitzer's involvement with a high-end prostitution ring in March 2008, Dershowitz publicly announced he'd stand up to any feminist to argue on behalf of the 'victimless crime' concept.

The opposing attitudes of men and women regarding prostitution reveal one of the widest gender gaps in the landscape of male-female relationships.

Many men see nothing wrong with it and cite regions where prostitution is legal - including several European countries and the state of Nevada.

"Prostitution is Not an Idea"

However, what a sex worker endures on any given workday ranges from rape and physical violence to life-threatening abuse at the hands of her pimp, her johns, and even the occasional corrupt cop. (It's a far cry from what the average female worker experiences at her place of employment.)

Writer and anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin made it her life's work to focus on the sex trade and reveal it for what it is - not a free enterprise but a business built on the backs, the blood, and the debasement of women. In her words, prostitution is:

....the use of a woman's body for sex by a man, he pays money, he does what he wants. The minute you move away from what it really is, you move away from prostitution into the world of ideas....Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another. That's what it is....
And Dworkin refutes the argument that a high-priced call girl charging $5,000 an evening is any more empowered and independent than a 13-year-old runaway beaten by her pimp:
[F]rom the perspective of a woman in prostitution or a woman who has been in prostitution--the distinctions other people make between whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant are not the distinctions that matter....The circumstances don't mitigate or modify what prostitution is.

Slavery-Like Conditions

A leading reasearcher on the trafficking of women, University of Rhode Island women studies professor Donna M. Hughes gives ample evidence as to why the claim "prostitution is a victimless crime" is a flawed argument:

No matter how women and girls get into prostitution, it is difficult to get out. Pimps and brothel owners use violence, threats, and addictions to drugs and alcohol to control the woman, sometimes keeping them in slavery-like conditions. Often women can leave prostitution only after they are used-up, become ill, and no longer make money for the pimps. Women in prostitution are further burdened with a stigmatized identity that is impossible to escape, unless their pasts are kept a secret.

There is no dignity in prostitution. Many of the acts of prostitution, including those that are photographed in the making of pornography, are intended to degrade, humiliate and express domination over women. They are acts of misogyny, not respect or affection, and have nothing to do with love or intimacy. Women don't emerge from sexual exploitation into positions of power, respect or admiration. They remain powerless as individuals and an underclass as a group.....

Prostitution and trafficking are extreme forms of gender discrimination and exist as a result of the powerlessness of women as a class.

"I Hated My Life"

Melissa Farley, Ph.D., of Prostitution Research & Education, identifies a number of human rights violations in a factsheet on prostitution.Included in the factsheet is a quote from a former prostitute who reveals how even 'successful' sex workers suffer from extreme emotional anguish and self-hatred:

For a great part of 1992 I lived in a beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill. I drove my expensive car. I bought lovely clothes and traveled extensively out of the country. For the first time in my 20 years as an adult woman, I paid my own way. There was no need to worry about affording my rent, my phone bill, all the debts one accumulates simply by living month to month. I felt invincible. And I was miserable to the core. I hated myself because I hated my life. All the things I came to possess meant nothing. I could not face myself in the mirror. Working in prostitution lost my soul.

Assault, Abuse & Rape the Norm

The act of selling one's body as a commodity and the associated mental health risks are significant factors that can stand alone in disproving the 'victimless crime' idea. But these are mild examples compared to the very real dangers that prostitutes face - rape, abuse, and violent death. In a study involving San Francisco prostitutes, 82% said they had been physically assaulted since becoming prostitutes; 68% reported having been raped and 46% of those respondents said they'd been raped by customers.

Naked Injustice

Basic civil rights are denied to prostitutes who attempt to navigate the justice system. A tiny fraction of these women ever report crimes committed against them; and even if investigated and prosecuted, judges often do not take their claims seriously, even questioning if a prostitute can be 'really raped.'

In light of all the evidence, the question should not be "Is prostitution a victimless crime?" but "If these women aren't victims, then who is?"


Hughes, Donna M. "Men Create the Demand; Women Are the Supply." Lecture on Sexual Exploitation, Queen Sofia Center, Valencia, Spain, November 2000.

Dworkin, Andrea. "Prostitution and Male Supremacy." Speech delivered at "Prostitution: From Academia to Activism" symposium at the University of Michigan Law School, 31 October 1992.

Farley, Melissa. "Prostitution: Factsheet on Human Rights Violations." Prostitution Research & Education. 2 April 2000.

Boyer, Debra and Lynn Chapman, Brent Marshall. Survivor Interview from "Survival Sex in King County: Helping Women Out." King County Women's Advisory Board, Northwest Resource Associates, Seattle. 1993.

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