Causes and Consequences of Prostitution

Prostitution: Causes and Consequences

Prostitution has been termed as one of the oldest professions, with its history going back to as early the ancient period. Indeed, records of most ancient societies — from Greeks and Romans to Jews, Hebrews, Asians, and Muslims — point to the existence of prostitution several thousand years ago (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). Today, though illegal in some jurisdictions, prostitution is a widespread practice, with virtually every major urban area across the globe having numerous brothels, escort services, and joints disguised as massage parlors. Prostitution is also practiced at the sex worker’s or client’s residence as well as in adult entertainment locations such as strip clubs. Emanating mainly from individual and socioeconomic factors, prostitution is associated with a number of dangers on the individuals involved, and may expose one to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This paper describes the causes and consequences of prostitution, clearly demonstrating how individuals get involved, what goes on during the process, and the subsequent effects. First, a definition of prostitution is provided. Next, attention is paid to factors that may cause prostitution as well as consequences and socioeconomic issues associated with the practice.

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Defining Prostitution

Though there is no universally accepted definition, prostitution essentially denotes involvement in sexual activity for money or some other form of benefit (Weitzer, 2005). It may also be referred to as sex work or commercial sex (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). In many societies, it is common for individuals who have had sexual intercourse with several partners without necessarily involving payment to be termed as prostitutes. For purposes of this paper, however, a prostitute is defined as an individual who engages in sexual activity specifically in exchange for payment.

Prostitution is one of the elements of the larger sex industry, which involves stripping, erotic dancing, and pornography. It takes various forms, mainly street prostitution, brothels, and escorts (Weitzer, 2005). Street sex workers solicit for clients along streets, often by wearing provocative clothing. Brothels are settings specifically established for prostitution. In major cities, brothels are often known as red-light districts. Street prostitution and brothels differ from escorts in that the latter usually does not involve explicit advertisement or solicitation of sexual activity. Instead, though sexual activity is often involved, clients compensate prostitutes for spending time with them in a hotel room or at the client’s or prostitute’s residence. Prostitution is also common in strip clubs and massage parlors, and may also take the form of sex tourism (travelling to engage in sexual activity) and virtual sex (performance of sexual acts for money over the internet and phone) (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009).

Though gathering data about the industry is quite difficult, in large part due to its clandestine nature, estimates indicate that 23 in every 100,000 people in the U.S. are full-time prostitutes (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). The prevalence of the practice tends to differ from country to country depending on factors such as culture and the law. Though instances of male sex workers have been on the rise in the recent past, commercial sex work has historically been dominated by women (Weitzer, 2005). In other words, women are significantly more likely to engage in sexual activity for payment than men.

Causes and Risk Factors

Prostitution is attributable to a number of factors. Socioeconomic factors present the greatest risk factor for prostitution (Elmes et al., 2017). Poverty and lack of employment often compels women to use their bodies as a source of income. This is particularly true for women with little or no educational qualifications, from poor backgrounds, and without employed spouses or partners (especially single women with children) (Gorkoff & Runner, 2003). For such women, prostitution provides income to pay bills as well as support their children and families. In addition to economic difficulties, prostitution has become ever more popular in the society due to socio-cultural changes such as increased dilution of conservative moral values, greater advocacy for individual will, popular culture, as well as increased availability and accessibility of pornographic content (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). These factors have in one way or another changed attitudes towards prostitution.

Prostitution may not necessarily be caused by socioeconomic factors. Individual and family factors can as well lead one to prostitution. Some individuals may engage in prostitution not necessarily to make money, but as a way of self-gratification (Jeffreys, 1997). In other words, prostitution may give one happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. Other individuals may be drawn into prostitution by family members (Gorkoff & Runner, 2003). In fact, the socialization of girls and young women into sex work by their mother, sister, cousin, aunt, and other relatives is quite common. As most people tend to trust their family members and relatives, being led to prostitution can be quite easy. For instance, using the circumstances at hand, a mother will easily convince her daughter to engage in sex work. The daughter changes her attitude and perception of sex work and eventually comes to view prostitution as an acceptable source of income.

Kidnapping and compulsion can also lead one to prostitution (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). Compulsion is particularly common, often involving young women being promised false employment opportunities by their peers, kidnappers, and gangs. The victim ends up in prostitution and eventually gets used to it. Once in, one may be reluctant to get out or testify against their kidnapper due to the fear of assault and violence.

Effects and Socioeconomic Issues

While commercial sex is a source of income for prostitutes, it is associated with serious consequences. Sex workers experience physical violence and sexual assault (Gorkoff & Runner, 2003). Indeed, instances of prostitutes being battered or raped by their clients are not uncommon. Rape and violence can cause unwanted pregnancy as well as minor to severe injuries to the victim’s body and even sexual organs. Often caused by insertion of sharp or rough objects in the genitals, genital mutilation is a particularly important consequence to consider as it may gravely damage the victim’s reproductive system. Physical and genital injuries may also increase the risk for partial or permanent disability, pelvic pain or pelvic disease, miscarriage, infertility, as well as cervical cancer (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009).

Prostitution has also been associated with a greater risk for STDs such as HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, and the human papilloma virus (Elmes et al., 2017). These conditions are particularly widespread in commercial sex workers, further increasing the risk for infertility, miscarriage, and cervical cancer. STD transmission between clients and sex workers endangers the health of their partners and children as they may also be affected. Failure to use condoms is cited as the major cause for STD transmission between clients and sex workers. Accordingly, most countries where the practice is widespread, especially in developing countries, have initiated campaigns to increase condom use amongst sex workers (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). The campaigns focus on not only condom use, but also other important aspects such as sex education and regular STD screening. In an attempt to reduce the spread of HIV, some countries have banned prostitution. Nonetheless, such measures have been the subject of intense criticism as they encourage more underground sex work, consequently making the promotion of safe sex quite difficult (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009).

Prostitution endangers not only the physical, but also the psychological and behavioral health of the victim. Most prostitutes struggle with stress, depression, trauma, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Gorkoff & Runner, 2003). These psychological outcomes stem from, among other factors, physical violence, sexual assault, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, acquisition of STDs, and shame for earning a living from ways regarded by the society as abnormal. Due to these emotional consequences, prostitutes face a high risk for suicide and self-mutilation (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). Prostitutes may often engage in substance abuse to cope with the psychological outcomes of sex work. Indeed, smoking as well as alcohol and drug use tends to be markedly high among prostitutes (Jeffreys, 1997). This increases the risk for respiratory and cardiovascular complications.

Besides its physical, behavioral, and emotional effects, prostitution raises a number of socioeconomic concerns. In addition to violence and substance abuse, notable concerns include illegal immigration, crime, human trafficking, as well as the involvement of children and the elderly in commercial sex (Jeffreys, 1997; Farrell & Cronin, 2015).). Due to such concerns, some opponents have called for the abolition and prohibition of prostitution (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). Prohibition, however, may not achieve much as the practice can extensively thrive without detection by the authorities. Arguing from a human rights perspective, proponents of prostitution advance the view that the practice should be decriminalized or regulated just like any other business (Jeffreys, 1997). Decriminalization may actually achieve more positive outcomes in the long run compared to prohibition and abolition.


Overall, prostitution has become more commonplace over the years, with individual and socioeconomic factors plays a crucial role. Increased prostitution has consequently increased the risk for physical violence, sexual assault, injury, emotional difficulties, behavioral complications, and STDs. In other words, prostitution endangers the physical, behavioral, and emotional health of sex workers. Addressing the problem, therefore, calls for the consideration of a wide range of factors.


Elmes, J., Skovdal, M., Nhongo, K., et al. (2017). A reconfiguration of the sex trade: how social and structural changes in eastern Zimbabwe left women involved in sex work and transactional sex more vulnerable. PLoS ONE, 12(2): e0171916

Farrell, A., & Cronin, S. (2015). Policing prostitution in an era of human trafficking enforcement. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 64(4-5): 211-228.

Gorkoff, K., & Runner, J. (2003). Being head: the experiences of young women in prostitution. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Jeffreys, S. (1997). The idea of prostitution. 1st ed. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Sanders, T., O’Neill, M., & Pitcher, J. (2009). Prostitution: sex work, policy and politics. London: SAGE.

Weitzer, R. (2005). New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 43(4-5): 211-235.

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