Although some believe prostitution is a natural by-product of human society, others believe that this is not the case as it is not culturally universal. In fact, it is rare in what is known as sex-permissive societies (societies that see sex as natural and have largely liberal sexual norms) where the profession would be unnecessary, and it is more commonly seen in societies that are known as sex restrictive and that try to suppress sexuality.11 In some ways, prostitution is seen as a way of facilitating promiscuity.11 Natural or not, prostitution oftentimes involves exploitation of vulnerable victims and can be difficult to escape for those seeking a different life for themselves. There are between 40 and 42 million prostitutes in the world. 75% of them are between the ages of 13 and 25, and 80% are female.10 An estimated 1 million prostitutes reside in the U.S.10 As a result, prostitution is a widespread issue, which means that it is important to better understand the profession and industry in order to better form accurate opinions about it. Furthermore, many countries have different ways of seeing the issue and thus different ways of handling it.


What is prostitution?

A prostitute is a person of either sex that sells sex in exchange for money.1 Typically, female prostitutes are referred to as “whores” or “hookers” and male prostitutes are called “hustlers”. Another term commonly used to describe prostitutes is “sex-traders”.1 However, this term is an umbrella term and is used to describe anyone who exchanges sex for money, drugs, or any other material incentive.1 A different word commonly heard when talking about prostitution is “sex worker”.1 Sex worker is the broadest term and includes not only sex traders but also phone sex operators, exotic dancers, people producing pornography, and other work in related fields.1


When did it start?

Prostitution has been a known profession for thousands of years. The earliest valid evidence of prostitution as a profession date back to Ancient Mesopotamia and the Neo-Babylonian period, around 626 BC to 539 BC.11 At that time, the sexual activity between prostitutes and priests was believed to be sacred and beneficial for the people as it was a way to please the Gods. This resulted in commercialized prostitution.11 Many Jewish and Christian scriptures include numerous references to prostitutes. One of the most well-known prostitutes mentioned in the Christian scriptures is Jesus's follower Mary Magdalene.1 Although prostitution is known as the “oldest profession” it does not necessarily mean that it has been a profession without prejudice. Even though the Ecclesiastics from the time of Saint Augustine deemed prostitution as sinful, they also saw it as necessary.2 Having prostitutes available to men would protect women from becoming victims to men’s uncontrollable lusts and protect society from worse sins such as sodomy, adultery, rape, and incest.2 Of course, this seems irrational today, as this only gives men the right to act upon powerless women.


How has prostitution evolved?

Throughout history, most prostitutes were despised and exploited, although a few seem to have managed to mingle with the rich and famous.1 The most exclusive prostitutes in history are known as “courtesans” and they served in the courts of kings, emperors, and other rulers.1 A courtesan’s services, however, were more extensive than just sexual services. They also had to be well educated so they would be able to discuss politics and other male interests.1 Being a courtesan came with certain advantages for women, as they were allowed a more secure position in a privileged and luxurious life.1


What types of prostitution exist? Who is involved?

Street prostitutes

Streetwalkers are at the bottom of the hierarchy in prostitution.1 They typically work independently and stand on corners or stroll the streets, approaching passing males.3 Most commonly they get picked up by clients (“Johns”) driving cars, or they get picked up in bars that are located in “street walking” zones.1 Once picked up, the client and the street walker come to an agreement about what sexual services they will engage in, typical fees, and location. Most commonly the street walker is paid hourly.1 Due to their high visibility, they tend to be the most frequently arrested sex workers.3 In larger cities, street walkers seem to account for 10-20% of all reported prostitution. In smaller cities, however, it may account for 50% of all reported prostitution, most likely due to limited indoor opportunities.3 It is not uncommon for street walkers to be pregnant or mothers.3 Many of these street prostitutes report feeling ashamed of their work and of themselves, and being anxious about their own and their children’s safety.3 Furthermore, being pregnant or dealing with parenting responsibilities while working the streets can cause a great deal of stress due to their unstable work routines and limited predictability.3 Oftentimes streetwalkers also have a long history with the criminal justice system, drug abuse, and have experienced a lot of violence.4 These factors may make it more desirable to leave the industry and simultaneously more difficult.4

Massage Parlor and Strip Club Sex Workers

Massage parlors typically only offer massages but a few of them also offer “extras.”3 Strip clubs are another place where one may find sexual services, which can range from simply rubbing against a client’s genitals during a lap dance to having sex in a “VIP room,” or another off-site location after the show.1 Important to note, however, is that not all masseuses and exotic dancers are prostitutes.1 Massage parlors and strip clubs offer a safer environment than the street and thus are safer for the prostitutes.3 That being said, because strip clubs and massage parlors have been commonly associated with providing sexual services, they have also become a frequent target of police raids.1

House Prostitutes and Brothel Prostitutes

Brothels are houses where prostitutes work, and they are much more structured than massage parlors or strip clubs.3 In the United States, there are only a few legal brothels in the rural counties in the state of Nevada.3 In order for sex workers to work through brothels they pay part of their commission to the brothel.4 In the past, there were many more legal brothels throughout the United States. They were typically marked by having a red lantern in the doorway which gave rise to the name red-light districts.1 Other parts of the world, like Zurich in Switzerland, have also implemented legal drive-in brothels as an attempt to reduce street prostitution.1 The drive-in brothels have carwash-style booths where sexual activity can happen in privacy. Furthermore, the facility also has a café, showers, laundromats and security staff on-site.1

Escorts and Call girls

In the United States, the most predominant kinds of sex workers are escorts, also known as call girls.1 Escorts are at the top of the hierarchy of prostitution and their clients pay high fees to take them on “dates.”3 They typically promote their services through ads in newspapers and adult entertainment magazines, but recently there has been seen a rise in the use of the Internet.1 Today some escorts have their own websites or work for an agency that has a website, and they may even advertise on sites like Craigslist or Facebook.1  One example of a high-end famous escort service is the Emperors Club that would charge between $1000 and $5000 per hour for its escorts’ services. However it was forced to close down due to a scandal in 2008.1

Gigolos and Hustlers

Gigolos are male prostitutes that provide sexual services for women, typically wealthy middle-aged women.3 Hustlers are male prostitutes who provide homosexual sexual services for men.3 The ratio between female and male prostitutes varies depending on the city, but typically 20% to 30% of  sex workers in larger cities are men.3 Most male sex workers are young, aged between 20 and 30 years old.4 Their typical clients are middle-aged married men who identify as heterosexual.4 Only a small portion of male sex workers are street workers and some work through brothels, but with the evolution of technology phenomenally they are now working more independently in a growing escort market demand.4


Pimps are people who connect sex workers with clients.3 Essentially, the pimp manages the sex workers’ business and acts like their boss. Thus the sex worker hands the pimp all or part of the money they earned from the client in exchange for concern, and living and working arrangements.1,3 Furthermore, the pimp also recruits new sex workers, bails the sex workers out of jail if necessary, provides drugs, and regulates the street walking as it can be a dangerous job without the protection of a pimp in certain neighborhoods (with regards to clients, police, and mobsters).1,3  Pimps tends to only cater to female prostitutes as male prostitutes are more likely to work independently.1 Important to note is that despite the glorification of pimps in hip-hop culture, they are becoming decreasingly common.1 This may be because pimps are being pushed out of the industry by gang members who have taken control over the street economy.1


A Madam is a woman who manages a brothel or an escort service.1 Many madams have connections and access to more affluent parts of society and thus can connect escorts with higher paying clients.1 Madams have certain duties to fulfill as part of their job. For instance, they make sure that their escorts are STI (sexually transmitted infections) free, screen calls from clients, schedule meetings between escort and clients, match clients with the right escort, letting clients know what different services each escort provides, and take care of other administrative issues.5 Another important part of the job is making sure none of the escorts are underage.5


What is trafficking?

Sex trafficking is when a person is transported, typically against their will, with the intent of prostitution.1 When people, typically girls or women (13% and 66% respectively), are transported from one country to another to meet that country’s demand for prostitutes, it is known as transnational trafficking.1,3 Typically, transnational trafficking happens in the direction of poorer to richer nations, and the most vulnerable people are impoverished and drug-addicted women and runaways girls.1,6 Human trafficking is estimated to generate an annual revenue of $9.5 billion.3 Unfortunately, reported cases of human trafficking only amount to 5%.3 Human trafficking typically happens through the means of threat or the use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to the person in control of the victim.6 It is not uncommon that trafficked girls were promised restaurant jobs, modeling, and other jobs in foreign countries with better economical opportunities than their home country.3 Upon arrival in the new country, their passport gets taken away by the people who trafficked them and the girls are told they owe a large sum of money for the transportation.3 As the girls do not have any money (since that tends to be the motivation for them to make the move in the first place), they end up working in brothels.3 It is important to acknowledge, however, that there is a big difference in how willingly women participate in sex trafficking.1 Some of the women are aware that there is a chance they are participating in sex trafficking and might end up being exploited but others are completely unaware of the consequences.1


What about sugar daddies and sugar moms?

“Sugar daddies” and “sugar mummies” are becoming an increasingly well-known phenomenon. The website defines the phenomenon as a mutually beneficial relationship between older successful men or women that are generous when supporting their “babies”. The “babies” are attractive people looking for a more luxurious lifestyle.7 These types of relationships are becoming increasingly popular amongst broke college students.8 Almost 2 million students worldwide seek out sugar daddies and sugar mommies to help support them through college.8 Although there has been some controversy in the media about whether these types of relationships and match-making sites actually facilitate prostitution. Sites like claim sexual favors do not need to be part of the arrangement and that expectations of the relationship are typically discussed before initiating the relationship.8,9 Some consider this type of relationship prostitution as the sugar mommies or sugar daddies often expect to get some sort of sexual intimacy in return for their financial support or other perks they provide their sugar babies with.9 Furthermore, opponents of this type of relationship consider it sugar-coated prostitution.9 However those involved see it as a distinct lifestyle choice that is seperate from prostitution. This is because it is an on-going relationship rather than just a transaction, and the “sugar baby” has the ability to be very selective about who to date. Furthermore, the funds or favors sugar babies receive are seen as an added bonus, and typically it is expected to keep the relationships monogamous (thus minimizing an extensive sexual history). Sugar daddies and sugar mommies are also seen more like mentors that will guide their “babies” toward a successful life. Lastly these relationships are intended to provide both partners with a better life quality and more emotional fulfillment.8


What about phone sex?

Phone sex is defined as erotic conversations over the telephone, which usually involves payment.1 Typically, a customer calls an operator who engages in erotic conversation with the customer while the customer fantasizes or masturbates.1 Customers tend to be charged per minute and the price tends to be somewhere around $4 per minute.1 Working as a phone sex operator eliminates many of the risks of prostitution, as the operator and customer do not meet. An added benefit of being a phone sex worker is the flexibility, as many can work from their homes and request a schedule that fits around their daily schedules.1 In the United States it is legal to work as a phone sex operator as long as both parties are over the age of 18.


What about sexual webcamming?

As technology and the Internet continue to evolve, sexual activity adapts this gave rise to sexual webcamming. Sexual webcamming can be considered a new version of phone sex and constitutes of live sexual performances or nudity being displayed over the internet in return for money or other tangible assets (they may for instance have a “wishlist” on sites like Amazon) an exchange known as “tipping”.1,12 With live performances, customers are able to request certain acts they would like to see.1 Compared to phone sex operators, webcammers have to be a bit more presentable and look more authentic and more involved when performing sexual acts. The rewards from webcamming tend to be greater than for phone sex, as they can oftentimes service more than one customer at a time.1 Serious problems have appeared with the uprise of sexual webcamming, one of which is underage webcammers and the other is blackmailing and threats towards webcammers.12 For instance, webcammers may be forced into sexual acts they do not feel comfortable performing by clients who threaten to reveal their identity.12 Although there are risks with sexual webcamming, there are still risks associated with prostitution that are eliminated as the sexual acts happen in their own home and they tend to work independently.12 


Laws and views regarding prostitution

Currently the only state in the United States where prostitution is legal is in Nevada, and only in certain counties within Nevada.1 There are however varying views on whether, and to what extent, prostitution should be legal. Some view prostitution as morally wrong and misogynistic, and some feminists even consider it exploitation, as the profession is based on an unequal power balance between client and prostitute (which can be harmful in an intimate and vulnerable act such as sexual activity). Furthermore, the clients can actually be dangerous (some serial killers have in fact been strictly targeting prostitutes).1 Others have however taken the opposite stance and believe that adults should be allowed to choose what to do with their body. A big concern that is yet to be resolved is whether the harm suffered by prostitutes is due to their work or if it stems from the way society views and treats the occupation.1 Looking strictly from a health and safety perspective, it makes sense that it would be difficult to provide safety and solve health concerns in a field that is illegal. In fact, in the legal Nevada brothels the prostitutes rarely experience any violence or contract STIs (and they also do not have to deal with the consequences or stress from arrests as they are legally allowed to be prostitutes).1 These benefits also hold true for other nations where prostitution is legal.1


What are some potential risks associated with sex work?

Prostitution involves a lot of risk and as it is (for the most part) an illegal occupation. This makes it difficult for prostitutes to protect themselves against crimes that are committed towards them by their pimps or clients.13 Even though sex workers have the right like everyone else to report crimes, they are often scared to do so for various reasons. For instance, they fear no one will believe them, they are scared of being arrested, they feel ashamed, and they may want to keep their profession a secret.13 Furthermore, they may be victims of intimate partner violence from clients (or at times even their own pimps) who are trying to control them.13 They may use methods such as physical violence, sexual assault, economic abuse or manipulation, isolation, verbal abuse, threats, and intimidations.13 A study has shown that 68% of female prostitutes met the criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which in fact is the same rate as war veterans and torture victims.13 Important to note is that prostitutes can be raped, no means no, and that consent is essential even when it comes to prostitution. 

The Aftermath

One may now start to wonder why sex workers do not leave their occupation. However, this can be much harder than expected. As many as 92% of women involved in prostitution expressed that they wanted to leave their occupation but that they could not due to lack of simple human aids such as housing, job training, health care, treatment and counseling for alcohol and drug addiction.13 If they have a pimp, they may be scared of what the pimp could potentially do to them.13 Furthermore, prostitutes may not want to seek out resources as they may fear having their children taken away from them; experience shame, ridicule, and judgment; not being able to get a job once people find out they used to be involved in prostitution; or being arrested or suffer from other legal consequences.13 Lastly, for many of the people involved in sex work this is the only life they know and thus it may be hard to recognize what they would like to change or what would make their life easier. In fact, 75-90% of all prostitutes were sexually abused as children.13 Luckily today there are many qualified resources available to help, guide, and support sex workers if need be.




“Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA” is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focused on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy.”  They have a hotline available to support individuals currently or previously involved in the sex trade or adult industry, individuals in exploitative situations or who are looking to transition out of sex work, allies (parents, relatives, partners, friends, and helping professionals), and grassroots activists and organizers.

Hotline: 1-(877)-776-2004 (select 1)



“The National Human Trafficking Resource Center” (NHTRC) is a national resource center and anti-trafficking hotline that serves victims and survivors of human trafficking, as well as the anti-trafficking community in the United States. The toll-free hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year in more than 200 languages to answer calls from anywhere in the country. The NHTRC works to serve anyone in need of assistance, information, and/or other resources related to the issue of human trafficking in the United States and U.S. territories.

Hotline: 1-(888)-373-7888





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  3. Greenberg, Jerrold S., Clint E. Bruess, and Debra Haffner. Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2014. Print.
  4. Gremore, Graham. "Male Sex Workers Reveal The Truth About Their Lives And Clients." Queerty. 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
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  6. "United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime." What Is Human Trafficking? Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  7. "What Is a Sugar Daddy & How to Be a Sugar Baby." Seeking Arrangement. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  8. Fitzgerald, Todd. "Hundreds of Manchester University Students Shun Loans in Favour of 'sugar Mummies and Daddies'" Men. 09 Feb. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  9. "Is the Sugar Daddy, Baby Phenomenon Prostitution? | Metro News." 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  10. Lubin, Gus. "There Are 42 Million Prostitutes In The World, And Here's Where They Live." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  11. Lerner, Gerda. "The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11.2 (1986): 236-54. Web.
  12. Bertrand, Natasha. "How Webcam Models Make Money." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
  13. "Prostitution." 21 June 2012. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. 

Last Updated: 07 March 2016.