III. Prevalence of Prostitution
Despite a wealth of literature, it is hard to estimate the prevalence of prostitution. This is because the definitional differences regarding what comprises prostitution make estimations highly variable. It was estimated that the number of sex workers in the United States in 1987, for example, stood close to a million, or 1% of the total population (Alexander, 1987). By limiting its definition to full-time equivalent prostitutes (FTEP), Potterat, Woodhouse, Muth, and Muth (1990) found that the prevalence of prostitution is about 23 per 100,000 population. They concluded that by extending this statistic to the nation, an average of about 84,000 women, or about 59,000 FTEPs, worked as prostitutes in the United States annually during the 1980s. They also concluded that women prostitutes typically remain in prostitution for a relatively short time (about 4 or 5 years for long-term prostitutes).
In a systematic attempt to estimate the prevalence of female sex work (FSW) in different countries (measured as female sex workers in an area over the number of adult women in that area), Vandepitte and colleagues (2006) found huge variations within world regions. This was especially true for countries within Latin America (between 0.2% and 7.4%) and sub-Saharan Africa (between 0.4% and 4.3%.). There was comparably less variation within countries in the other regions of the world. For example, the national FSW estimates prevalence in Asia to range only between 0.2% and 2.6%, in the Russian Federation between 0.1% and 1.5%, in Eastern Europe between 0.4% and 1.4%, and in Western Europe between 0.1% and 1.4% (Vandepitte et al., 2006).
There also appears to be historical variation on the prevalence of prostitution. In documenting the social history of prostitution, Bullough, Bullough, and Bullough (1987) found that in Western societies, prostitution flourished when large numbers of men were concentrated away from wives and families for long periods, when there was a double standard that restricted the movement of women while giving men freedom, and when there were many socioeconomic obstacles to marriage. They contended from this finding that the prevalence of prostitution will be reduced as women are permitted greater sexual freedom and as the socioeconomic conditions that provide fertile grounds for the recruitment of prostitutes are reduced.