Prostitution: Pathways, Problems and Prevention

Researchers are helping to find solutions to prostitution and its violent, sometimes deadly, repercussions and associated problems such as neighborhood blight, drug abuse and spread of infectious disease.

Policymakers and law enforcement officials use the research to:

  • Set up intervention programs for prostitutes.
  • Improve homicide investigations.
  • Examine the relative costs and benefits of focusing on arresting prostitutes versus arresting their "clients."

Pathways to Prostitution

Women often enter street prostitution as minors. Many are recruited into prostitution by force, fraud or coercion. Some women need money to support themselves and their children; others need money to support their drug habits.

Abuse is a common theme in the lives of prostitutes — many were abused as children, either physically or sexually or both. Many street prostitutes are running away from an abusive situation.

Even when street prostitutes try to leave the streets, they often return to prostitution because their limited education and lack of skills make finding employment very difficult. Without a means to support themselves and their children, they may think staying on the streets is less risky than leaving prostitution. [1]

Men who use Prostitutes

Studies about male clients of female prostitutes have focused on:

  • How the clients compare to the general male population.
  • Whether they are violent.
  • Whether arresting them deters future visits to prostitutes.

Research has shown that men who visit prostitutes:

  • Are substantially deterred from future visits by arrest.
  • Are not highly deviant or crime-involved.
  • Feel entitled to sex with prostitutes if they are not being satisfied by a conventional partner.
  • Do not express opinions that support violence against women.

Men who are violent toward prostitutes:

  • Are likely to have a criminal past.
  • Are likely to have a history of violent offenses, rape and property crime.

Learn more from the full report Clients of Prostitute Women: Deterrence, Prevalence, Characteristics, and Violence (pdf, 187 pages).

Men who use Prostitutes

Studies about male clients of female prostitutes have focused on:

  • How the clients compare to the general male population.
  • Whether they are violent.
  • Whether arresting them deters future visits to prostitutes.

Research has shown that men who visit prostitutes:

  • Are substantially deterred from future visits by arrest.
  • Are not highly deviant or crime-involved.
  • Feel entitled to sex with prostitutes if they are not being satisfied by a conventional partner.
  • Do not express opinions that support violence against women.

Men who are violent toward prostitutes:

  • Are likely to have a criminal past.
  • Are likely to have a history of violent offenses, rape and property crime.

Learn more from the full report Clients of Prostitute Women: Deterrence, Prevalence, Characteristics, and Violence (pdf, 187 pages).

Reducing Demand for Prostitution

Most prostitutes are women. Their clients, commonly called "johns," are almost all men.

Most arrests associated with prostitution are arrests of the women; about 10 percent are arrests of the men who purchase commercial sex.

There are several approaches to reducing the demand for prostitution. These include public awareness and education campaigns, neighborhood watch programs, and efforts by law enforcement (such as Web and street-level reverse stings, surveillance cameras, and publicizing the names and photos of johns. However, to date the only strategies qualifying as "evidence-based practices" are arrest [2] and programs, called "john school," that make customers aware of the negative consequences of prostitution. [2]

In San Francisco's john school, (the official name is the First Offender Prostitution Program), first-time offenders who agree to pay the fee and attend a one-day workshop have the charges against them dropped if they avoid rearrest for another prostitution offense for a year after they attend the class.

Learn more about the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco.

An NIJ-funded evaluation of the First Offender Prostitution Program reported that the program:

  • Produced positive shifts in attitude.
  • Reduced the number of repeat johns.
  • Was cost-effective.

Over the last 12 years, the program has cost taxpayers nothing because the fees paid by offenders cover all direct costs for educating the johns. The program has also generated nearly $1 million for programs that help prostitutes start another life.

This program has been successfully replicated in other cities and counties.

Read the complete evaluation of the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco (pdf, 246 pages).

Murder of Prostitutes

Researchers have studied homicides of street prostitutes to see if crimes involving one victim (single homicide) differed from those involving two or more victims murdered by the same perpetrator (serial homicides).

A 2001 study found that serial murderers:

  • Were almost always motivated by sex.
  • Were more sexually aggressive.
  • Had deviant sexual interests and active sexual fantasies.
  • More frequently planned their activities, such as moving victims to a preselected area or taking clothing from the victim's body.
  • Engaged in rituals and body mutilation.

This study has helped law enforcement officials identify suspects and conduct more efficient investigations.

The profile of the victims was similar in both types of homicides. Most victims were:

  • In their late 20s to early 30s.
  • African American (60 percent).
  • Working in high-crime areas.
  • Abused both "on the job" and in their personal lives.
  • Involved in prostitution to support a drug habit.

Read the complete report When Silenced Voices Speak: An Exploratory Study of Prostitute Homicide (pdf, 500 pages).

Work Cited

[note 1] Michael Scott and Kelly Dedel, Street Prostitution, 2nd Edition, Office of Community Oriented Policing, November 2006, NCJ 216620.

[note 2] Brewer, Devon D., John J. Potterat ; Stephen Q. Muth ; John M. Roberts, Jr., A Large Specific Deterrent Effect of Arrest for Patronizing a Prostitute, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, grant no. 2003-IJ-CX-1036, Washington, DC, National Institute of Justice, 2006.

[note 3] Shively, Michael, Sarah Kuck Jalbert, Ryan Kling, William Rhodes, Peter Finn, Chris Flygare, Laura Tierney, Dana Hunt, David Squires, Christina Dyous, and Kristin Wheeler, Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Prostitution Program (pdf, 246 pages), Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant no. 2005-DD-BX-0037. March 2008, NCJ 221894.

Date Created: September 29, 2009