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Understanding and Applying Research on Prostitution

National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
November 1, 2006

Until recently, female prostitution was a subject that fanned many emotional fires but rarely kindled sound scholarly research. In the past three decades, this situation has begun to change, for three reasons. First, feminist scholars have pushed the door open on studies of this sensitive subject; second, public health concerns regarding the spread of sexually transmitted diseases have intensified in recent years; and third, politicians and policymakers have come to recognize the need for an effective strategy that deals with prostitution and its repercussions.

Recent NIJ-funded research[1]has shed some light on prostitution through studies of data on single and serial homicides of prostitutes.[2]This research reveals that many women enter prostitution as minors and use the income to support a drug habit or to stave off homelessness. Many suffered abuse as children. They have extremely high rates of on-the-job victimization[3]—possibly the highest homicide rate of any group of women studied thus far[4]—and a significant number of prostitute homicides remain unsolved. Researchers have also examined data from a study of prostitutes’ clients to find out who they are, why they solicit sex from prostitutes, and what attitudes they hold toward violence against women.

This body of data can be used to develop intervention programs for prostitutes, to determine the effectiveness of demand-side approaches in controlling prostitution (where officers arrest the clients instead of the prostitutes), and to help law enforcement officers conduct more focused homicide investigations.

The Study: Single vs. Serial Homicide Victims

In 2001, the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crimes (NCAVC), a unit within the Federal Bureau of Investigation that offers investigative support to State and local law enforcement agencies, noted an increase in the number of requests for consultation on serial homicides of prostitutes. In response to this trend, NIJ awarded a grant to researcher Jonathan Dudek to identify empirical distinctions between single and serial prostitute homicide victims. Dudek amassed data on 123 victims, those committing the homicide, and the crime scenes using closed investigative case files and NCAVC’s database.

Dudek found that the motives for a significant number of single homicides were nonsexual in nature, whereas serial homicides were almost exclusively sexually motivated. Despite this difference, there were few variations in the demographics and lifestyle choices of single and serial homicide victims. Most victims were in their late 20’s to early 30’s; 60 percent were African American. Almost all victims worked in high-crime areas and had been victimized both “on the job” (that is, while working as a prostitute) and in their personal lives. The large majority—85 percent—were involved in prostitution to support a drug addiction.

Profile of Single and Serial Murderers

Those who commit single and serial murders, like their victims, appeared to resemble each other on the surface. They both shared violent criminal backgrounds, substance use histories, and lifestyle choices. The sample of those committing the murders consisted of an equal proportion of African Americans and Caucasians who ranged in age from early to mid-30’s.

However, serial murderers differed from single murderers in three areas—sexual aggression, deviant sexual interests, and active sexual fantasies. Serial killers engaged more frequently in planning activities (such as bringing a victim to a preselected area, removing clothing from the victim’s body, and so forth), ritualistic behaviors, body mutilation, and removal of body parts.

Dudek’s findings were significant because they allowed NCAVC to supplement its existing body of knowledge with empirically based data. These data were used to formulate recommendations to help State and local law enforcement officers identify suspects and more efficiently and thoroughly investigate homicides.

The Demand Side—“Johns”

NIJ also sponsored a more extensive look at prostitutes’ clients—commonly known as “johns.” In 1997, an NIJ-funded study conducted by Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland explored the types of sex-related behavior characteristics of men who solicited prostitutes. The study examined the effects of the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) in San Francisco, California, and similar programs in other cities. These programs offered johns an opportunity to pay a fine and attend a daylong seminar. Participants were advised that no further legal action would be taken against them if they successfully avoided rearrest for a year. If there was a subsequent offense, however, the individual was prosecuted for the new offense and the original charge was reinstated.

Monto surveyed 1,291 men arrested for soliciting street prostitutes before they participated in FOPP and in similar johns programs in Las Vegas, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and Santa Clara, California. He compared the data on why these men visit prostitutes, their attitudes regarding violence against women, and the consequences of conceiving of sexuality as a commodity.

Monto found that 72 percent of the men surveyed had attended some college. They ranged in age from 18 to 84 years, with a median age of 37, and were less likely to be married. Although their motives for seeking sex with a prostitute differed, there were similarities among certain groups. Married clients and college graduates were more likely to want a different kind of sex than they had with their regular partners. Steady or unmarried clients and non-college graduates reportedly felt shy and awkward when trying to meet women but did not feel intimidated by prostitutes.

Monto also explored the clients’ attitudes toward “rape myths”—that is, attitudes that have been used to support sexual violence against women.[5] Less than one-half of 1 percent of those surveyed indicated acceptance of all eight rape myths. On the other hand, 20 percent indicated acceptance of four or more items. Researchers believe that this latter group may be responsible for perpetrating violent acts against women for hire.

Next, Monto measured the degree to which clients regarded sexuality as a commercial commodity.[6] Monto found that the greater a client’s belief that women and sex were commercial products, the more frequently he would visit prostitutes. This mindset was also a strong predictor of the acceptance of rape myths, less frequent condom use with prostitutes, and a disinclination to view prostitution as a demeaning profession for women.

Researchers also conducted a limited recidivism study of those clients who participated in the San Francisco and Portland programs. Although both programs had a recidvism rate of about 2 percent, researchers acknowledge that conclusions about the programs’ efficacy in reducing recidivism were hampered by a lack of available baseline data for comparative purposes. The recidivism rate was not computed for men who were arrested but did not attend the program.

What the Future Holds

Since 2000, NIJ has funded two other studies that examine prostitute clients and the San Francisco FOPP more closely. The goals of the first study[7] are two-fold: to compare the recidivism rates for FOPP program participants and nonparticipants, and to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the diversion program. It is anticipated that the savings in prosecution costs, probation administration and monitoring time, and jail time will be substantial even if the recidivism effect is low. The goal of the second study is to ascertain the deterrent effect of arrest on street prostitute patrons.[8]If the study’s preliminary findings hold true—that arresting the clients of women prostitutes has a deterrent effect—this may provide evidence for a shift in law enforcement strategy.

NIJ’s research portfolio on prostitution will help build a body of knowledge that can be used by a wide range of professionals—public health officials, social workers, and law enforcement officers. Understanding the forces that drive a woman into prostitution and the drug dependencies that keep her there will go a long way toward developing intervention strategies for prostitutes and will help to stave off the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Additional data on the types of clients who solicit prostitutes and their attitudes toward them will also help to formulate more effective deterrence programs for johns and may help police identify potential suspects in prostitute homicide cases.

NCJ 215459

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About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 255, November 2006.

Date Published: November 1, 2006