VI. Causes of Prostitution
Based on one’s ideological stance, there are differing sets of explanations as to why people engage in prostitution. This section describes some causes as delineated by differing ideological perspectives on prostitution. It should be noted that ideological views also influence interpretations of the effects of prostitution and the policies recommended to address the issue.
A. Prostitution as a Fall from Grace
One of the earliest and possibly most enduring explanations of prostitution is the social and moral deviance perspective. This perspective assumes that prostitution is a crime against the laws of the state and a sin against the laws of God. Studies that assume this position generally find that prostitutes have low self-esteem and low self-control (Greenwald, 1958). If prostitutes maintain that economic circumstances pressured them into involvement in prostitution, this perspective views them as weak, as they should have explored other decent forms of generating income.
Studies that applied this assumption also maintained that prostitution was associated with feeble-mindedness and that prostitution could be passed on from one generation to the next. Some studies also asserted that as a deviant act, prostitution could be learned. Individuals who grew up in families or neighborhoods where prostitution was common may likely end up prostituting. This view maintains that individuals who are too weak to control their sexual desires and are too promiscuous have an elevated risk of becoming prostitutes.
With the onset of drug epidemics, studies also often find strong correlations between drug use and prostitution (Graaf, Vanwesenbeeck, Zessen, Straver, & Visser, 1995; Inciardi, Pottieger, Forney, Chitwood, & McBride, 1991; Potterat, Rothenberg, Muth, Darrow, & Phillips-Plummer, 1998). Many studies maintain that prostitutes take drugs to deaden their senses while engaged in prostitution, and many drug-addicted individuals engage in prostitution to maintain their drug habits (Erickson & Butters, 2000). This fortifies the position of the social and moral deviance perspective by arguing that low self-control and lack of attachments to the traditional values of society fuel both the phenomena of drug addiction and prostitution.
B. Prostitution as Voluntary
Studies that assume that prostitution is a voluntary act usually find that most prostitutes are involved in the activity for the purpose of quick economic and commercial gains (Davidson, 1995). These studies also show that involvement in prostitution is fleeting, and a prostitute may leave as soon as the reasons for working as one are no longer present. Individuals who voluntarily participate in prostitution have also been called sex workers and are part of what many call a “sex industry” (Rickard, 2001)
The assumption that prostitution is voluntary asserts that female sex workers are simply using their free choice regarding what to do with their bodies (Jenness, 1990). Since they view prostitution as a legitimate form of employment, female sex workers are in fact actualizing a civil right inherent in their work. This assumption maintains that prostitution is a legitimate way to explore sexual pleasures, and those who engaged in it are not deviants but rather are normal human beings. Some liberal feminists view prostitution as one of the mechanisms women can use to liberate themselves from male sexual domination (Scambler & Scambler, 1997).
A corollary view maintains that prostitution is inevitable in every society as long as sexual needs are not met or there are repressions of sexual desires (Scambler & Scambler, 1997). Prostitution meets the sexual needs of those currently not served in traditionally accepted institutions. For example, husbands who could not have sex with their wives during periods of pregnancy or long-term separation may solicit the services of a professional sex worker. As such, prostitution is seen to have a legitimate functional role: to support the institution of marriage. Proponents of this view are critical of the deviance perspective because of its inherent double standard: harsh treatment of prostitutes yet lenience toward the customer.
C. Prostitution as Involuntary and Coerced
Recently, a scathing critique of both the deviance and free choice perspectives has arisen. Both the deviance and free choice perspectives assume that prostitutes have a say in their involvement; in the former, the prostitute is an antagonist and stigmatized, while in the latter, the prostitute is a protagonist and hailed. The third perspective dismisses both modes of reasoning and argues that prostitution, in whatever form, can never be voluntary. Prostitutes are victims of their personal and environmental circumstances and they should be helped (Farley & Kelly, 2000). The mere fact that most prostitutes want to get out of prostitution but cannot and that those who engage in prostitution have few options during the onset of their involvement means that prostitution is never voluntary (Davidson, 2002; Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998).
Scholars who follow this reasoning find a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution (Farley et al., 1998; Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). Many argue that traumatizing experiences during childhood compromise an individual’s sense of being and may drive these sexually abused children to view prostitution as a normal activity. As such, their involvement in prostitution is not based on a rational choice, contrary to the claims of the free choice perspective (Farley et al., 1998), but a consequence of their victimization.
Scholars who subscribe to this view also find that most prostitutes are deceived into joining prostitution. Many prostitutes are in dire economic conditions: they are usually jobless and in a state of poverty. This condition is especially true for many individuals in the developing countries (Bamgbose, 2002). Offers for a job and other remunerations usually lure these individuals to accept invitations for work, which later turn out to be prostitution. As such, the push of poverty and the deception involved usually translate into coerced prostitution (Farley et al., 1998).
Scholars who embrace this perspective identify macroconditions that systematically produce prostitution. This includes the system of patriarchy that treats women as second-class citizens (Davis, 1993), brazen capitalism that commercializes the female body (Kuntay, 2002), and religious-cultural beliefs that offer women as sex offerings (Mensendiek, 1997; Orchard, 2007). For example, the tremendous growth of global sex tourism, where rest and recreational activities are packaged for male business executives in the developed countries to sexually exploit young women in the developing countries, is an example of how patriarchy, brazen capitalism, and perverted sexual beliefs sustain prostitution (Mensendiek, 1997).