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A Study on Prostitution: Its Causes and Complications

Submitted by on February 17, 2017 – 4:35 PM

prostituteProstitution is defined as the industry in which a person provides sexual service to others in exchange for money (Goodlin, 2009), and the person who provides these sexual services and receives payment is hence known as a ‘sex worker’ or ‘prostitute’. Around 300 B.C, when this profession subsisted in sacred places such as temples and churches, different countries had different histories regarding prostitution. In the Cyprus culture, eligibility for marriage was dependent on a woman prostituting to any stranger at least once. Throughout the history of Greece and Egypt, prostitution was prevalent and popular (Benjamin, 1964).


There is substantial indication that female prostitution is an extensively growing profession and prostitutes are spread all over the world. Globally, around 1.8 million people have indulged in prostitution (ILO, 2000). In Pakistan, prostitution finds its roots particularly in inherited red light districts i.e. those in Lahore, Multan, Karachi, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi.


It is estimated that approximately 26,000 women are selling sex each day in Lahore alone (World Bank, 2006). The prevalence of prostitution can be determined by the number of major hubs located in the big cities of Pakistan: 219,000 in Karachi, and 107,000 hubs in Multan and Sukkur each (Blanchard, Khan & Bokhari, 2008).


Additionally, Karachi is further distinguished for its thousands of Bangladeshi and Burmese prostitutes (Naqvi, 2005). Since this work is illegitimate in Pakistan, it is difficult to approximate true numbers—however, the aforementioned statistics propose that a huge population is availing these services. On the contrary, in some cultures, prostitution is not considered a disgrace but rather a legitimized practice.


These prostitutes can be classified into three types based on their location, i.e. home-based, street-based, and Kothikhana-based (brothels). A study conducted in Pakistan by Mishra (2013) revealed that the majority of the prostitutes are street-based (47.3%), followed by home-based (45.2%) and brothels (7.5%).


Apart from this, prostitution has a severe impact on women’s health and social life. These sex workers are often in a situation that deprives them of the right to ask for their health and comfort (Ramaiah, 2006). Also, they are greatly exposed to sexually transmitted infections (Bokhari et al., 2007). Pregnancy, drug addiction, and conflicts are some other complications of prostitution (Qayyum, 2013).


The factors due to which a woman enters the field of prostitution may be based on their willingness i.e. voluntarily or by force (UNESCO, 2002). Voluntary initiation includes those who are willing to work as a prostitute due to economic crises, family pressure, etc. On the other hand, involuntary initiation is specific to women who are forced to enter the sex industry, likely as a result of kidnapping and trafficking.


Secondly, debilitating economic circumstances are often the biggest reason for involvement in prostitution, as it helps to acquire a certain commodity in conditions of poverty (Jackson et al., 2009). The reason for which money is required varies from person to person; it may include supporting children and family, paying rent, or supporting a drug habit. Regardless of how it is viewed, prostitution provides women with items that would not have been otherwise affordable for them.


Those who work for daily wages and earn a meager amount in return are well aware of the insufficiency of this amount to fulfill their family needs. Hence, they look for an easier way to earn money. This raises the question of how a low-skill job demands so much money (Gertler et al, 2003), which can be explained by the high level of risk factor associated with it, i.e., those who indulge in sex without condoms can ask for high compensation.


Thirdly, it is important to note how a lack of education feeds into the spread of this profession. Literature suggests that a lack of qualifications increases one’s vulnerability of adopting sex work by reducing the probability of finding other options for employment. A study by Bindel et al. (2012) found that 39% of prostitutes had no formal qualifications. Although this does interfere with the chances of finding a mainstream source of income, prices for sex work are also nonetheless paid as per the prostitute’s educational level.


Poor academic performance and absenteeism in school are also associated with prostitution. Being away from an educational institution can expose teenage girls to harmful societal aspects and often turns out to be imprudent (Nkala, 2014). Consequently, they become potentially prone to sexual abusers and pimps, who view them as unprotected targets.


From a cultural point-of-view—racism and discrimination prevent social inclusion and marginalize migrants (UK NSWP, 2008a). For these migrants, racial discrimination aggravates their pre-existing feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially when they already lack social networking and family support. This further hampers migrants’ access to services and employment opportunities needed for survival, and their unsuccessful attempts ultimately drive them into sex work.


Moreover, as per certain cultures or traditions, a particular profession may run in the family, and prostitution can be one of those. In India, caste-based groups of traditional sex workers are often predetermined to become prostitutes as per their family tradition as soon as they are born. A study conducted by Qayyum (2014) showed that almost half of the women surveyed belonged to a particular caste where prostitution was considered a profession, and among those a majority had at least one close relative who also worked as a prostitute.


Coming to the domain of psychological factors, distressing experiences during childhood (most notably sexual abuse) have negative repercussions for mental health all throughout life. These psychological problems can interfere with social relations, employment, and even handling everyday issues. This altogether leads to social exclusion, thus increasing vulnerability to induction into sex-work. A study conducted by Bindel et al. (2012) found that 72% of prostitutes admitted to incidences of verbal, sexual and physical abuse during childhood; these intense experiences of violence tend to generate feelings of triviality which can kick-start their deliberation to enter prostitution.


Under the umbrella of social factors, lack of family support (both financial and emotional) plays a significant role as a determinant of prostitution. Abject poverty related to elderly parents, cost of children’s education, absence of a male earning member, buying a residence, daughters’ marriages and a generally large number of family members are all cited as family-related reasons for entering prostitution (Quuaum, 2013).


Lack of emotional support from family members in terms of care and affection is an equally important factor. Women involved in prostitution often travel collectively in groups as a means of protecting one another (Quuaum, 2013). Since these women lack support from their families, they rely heavily on their peers for support during times of despair which further creates an affectionate attachment between them. Thus, the critical influence of family support on the lives of these women extends from their first experience in prostitution to their decision to extricate from prostitution.


In addition, homelessness has been identified as the most significant factor that prompts engagement in sex work on-street (Spice, 2007). The nature of this engagement is often depicted as survival sex, in which women take on prostitution as a last resort for the sake of food and shelter (McNaughton and Sanders, 2007; Sanders, 2007b). A study conducted by Moen (2012) revealed that girls who left their homes due to any underlying cause, including violence in the home and neglect, were assumed to be the ‘street hood’. Freedom in the streets goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to provide their own basic needs which they tend to attain by any means, therefore resulting in street prostitution.


Drug abuse has also been reported as an important factor in prostitution. A study conducted by Brown (2013) emphasized self-inflicted drug abuse as a significant cause in 64% of the girls in the study. An interesting peculiarity to note was that the direct incentive was not the money which they needed to buy drugs, but rather the sense of powerlessness and unworthiness created by the tendency to abuse.


Lastly, sex trafficking must be taken into account as the vehicle bringing victims into prostitution. The process comprises of recruitment, harbor, movement, and compelling methods to cement the victim in prostitution through coercion, violence or threat. Women are often recruited from poor, vulnerable or marginalized populations, either from foreign countries or from the same country as the exploiters. According to Willis & Levy (2011), innocent women are often pushed into prostitution by traffickers and pimps.


It is imperative to treat the underlying cause of prostitution i.e., firstly to prevent it and secondly to accommodate those who already exist in its sphere. Hence, it is recommended that awareness campaigns for women should be planned through NGOs and mass media, wherein issues of abuse and trafficking are emphasized so as to induce caution. Furthermore, women who are willing to carry on working as sex workers should be provided access to basic healthcare necessities, protection and safety. Those who want to exit the profession should be granted access to rehabilitation facilities and social support structures, in addition to alternative employment opportunities (Fredrick, 2000; Lim, 1998).


It must be emphasized that prostitutes should not be viewed as amoral or criminal; instead, strong policies and laws should be put in place for those who are the actual criminals—those who are involved in abuse, exploitation and trafficking.


In a nutshell, the various reasons for women to involve themselves in sex work are outlined in this paper—economic, educational, cultural, psychological, biological and social factors that push women in prostitution. There is a dire need to address this issue and to work on it at the policy-level as per need.


Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge Dr. Tazeen for her guidance.




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