I wonder what you think about when you hear the mention of strip clubs, ‘massage’ parlours or escort services, and what your feelings are about pornography. Until recently, I had a relatively passive attitude towards porn and prostitution, knowing very well they existed but not giving much thought to what was really happening behind closed doors, so to speak. Recently, when I saw media reports of a stripper who was pelted with eggs at a stag night, I wanted to learn more about what women working in the sex industry really experienced. I decided to do some reading on the matter and the information which emerged was quite shocking. Were you aware, for instance, that prostitution involves 40-42 million women worldwide, 75% of whom are aged between 13 to 25 years of age? Of these girls and women, 90 percent have a pimp or other person controlling them (Report by Fondation Scelles, 2012). Did you also know that the average age of the first exposure to porn is 11 years? (Johnson et al 2015). Quite scary really when you consider that the most widely viewed porn contains violence, degradation and the humiliation of women.
I’m going to run through some findings which have emerged from the research into prostitution and pornography in order to give you a better understanding of the human impact of the sex industry:
- Prostitution involves the objectification, dehumanisation and commodification of women
Prostitution exists on the basis that men can pay to have access to a woman in order to satisfy his sexual urges. In paying for such a ‘service’ the woman’s body becomes a commodity or an object for his pleasure. Once a certain class or group of women are seen as objects, it’s much easier to treat them without any regard for their safety, well-being or feelings. The person being used as an object loses their humanity, and who they are as a person is ignored or forgotten. A prime example of objectification is the Red Light District in Amsterdam, where you’ll see sex workers standing in full-length windows barely clothed, with men on stag nights or boys’ holidays queueing up outside. Most of these women were trafficked by criminal gangs from Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe with the promise of a better life, only to find themselves abused and exploited. Of course, such objectification doesn’t remain confined to the act between prostitute and sex buyer. On the contrary, such attitudes over time become an ingrained feature within society wherein women are seen as sexual objects rather than valued, whole members of society. Interestingly, a number of studies found that even when men knew that women had been coerced, pimped or trafficked, this didn’t deter them from buying sex (Farley et al 2003; Dragomirascu et al 2009).
- Women who are prostituted are vulnerable
Numerous studies have found that an average of 43 – 69 percent of women who enter prostitution were sexually abused as children or adolescents (Bengley & Young 1987; Bolton 1992; Dworkin 1997; Farley et al 1998). The most likely explanation for this would be that children who were sexually abused develop psychologically and emotionally in ways that make them more vulnerable to further abuse, and more likely to engage in risky behaviours. Poverty, homelessness, lack of education, unemployment and drug addiction act as an entry into prostitution, leaving some women believing they have no other way to support themselves. In other words, the poor and ethnically marginalised are being sold for sex to a more privileged group of men. Some may argue that prostitution involving adults is consensual. The Palermo Protocol (an international law adopted by the United Nations), however, states that consent in prostitution is irrelevant since money used to pay a sex worker is a means of coercion, and desperate people consent to grievous harms.
- Prostitution is a form of sexual and physical violence against women
A large number of studies have found very high rates of violence in prostitution, including rape and physical assault. A study by Farley et al (2003), carried out across 9 countries, showed that the majority of prostitutes had experienced severe forms of violence, 68 percent of whom suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to the severity experienced by Vietnam war veterans. Methods of sexual coercion include minimisation or denial of violence, economical exploitation, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation and assault. One woman who worked in a strip club described having her legs, buttocks, breasts and crotch grabbed by men, leaving her bruised and in pain. She also described feeling repeatedly humiliated with verbal taunts and threats if she didn’t do as the men asked. Quite ironic really that strip clubs are often referred to as ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’.
- Prostitution results in emotional trauma
Regardless of where the prostitution takes place, whether it be a strip club, massage parlour, hotel room or brothel, the emotional consequences are the same. The experience of prostitution is that of being hunted, dominated, harassed and assaulted. Over time, the degradation and humiliation experienced by these women produces a core sense of self-hatred. A 16-year old Costa Rican girl said, ‘Prostitution makes me feel like I’m nothing…nothing at all’. Another woman working in a strip club stated, ‘They stare at you with this starving hunger. It sucks you dry. You become this empty shell. They’re not really looking at you. You’re not even there.’ (Farley et al 2003). Prostitution has been found to cause depression, dissociative disorder and other mood disorders. Dissociation occurs as women mentally disconnect to attempt to protect themselves from the trauma caused by repetitive sexual encounters with strangers.
When it comes to pornography, a number of similar themes emerge, all of which have implications on an individual, human level and for society as a whole. Over the last 15-20 years, the nature of pornography has changed quite dramatically. Twenty years ago, pornographic scripts took the form of a ‘story’, so to speak, such as a pizza delivery man turning up to a house where a sexual encounter would ensue. Nowadays, pornographic scripts are short, lack a ‘story’ and are focused mainly on genitalia. Furthermore, the most viewed porn contains violence, degradation and the humiliation of women. Keeping in mind that the average age of persons viewing porn for the first time is 11, the sexual script boys and girls are being socialised into is quite a disturbing one. Whilst boys are being taught that the degradation, objectification and humiliation of women is an acceptable aspect of their masculinity, girls are learning that this is a script that they need to mould themselves into. Young people are also being given the incorrect notion that pornographic scripts are a reflection of what really happens in a loving relationship between two consenting adults.
A 2014 report (Schrimshaw et al 2016) concluded that pornography has a significant impact on real-life sexual encounters, with an entire generation of young people growing up to believe that what they see in hardcore porn is what should be replicated in real-life. A link was found between viewing unprotected sex and engaging in it. A significant rise was also seen in surgical procedures such as Labia plasty (procedure to decrease the size of the vaginal opening), with women seeking to look more like cosmetically enhanced performers. In the US last year, there was a 40 percent increase in Labia plasty procedures, reflecting a worrying rise in concern over body image and sexual performance.
Since porn gives a very unrealistic view of real-life sex, a natural consequence has been that regular viewers of porn find real-life encounters less stimulating and enjoyable. A study by Johnson et al 2015 found that men who watched more porn relied on conjuring up porn images during sex to maintain arousal. A similar study by the NHS in 2014 found a significant rise in erectile dysfunction in otherwise healthy young men and concluded excessive porn use to be the cause. On a deeper level, an increased reliance on porn over real-life encounters and relationships increases feelings of isolation and loneliness. Whilst pornography’s two-phase process of arousal and euphoria during sexual stimulation provides temporary relief and satisfaction, it can’t act as a substitute for healthy attachment needs or true intimacy. Butler at al 2018 found that porn addiction is on the increase due to maladaptive efforts to alleviate loneliness and sadness through the use of porn. However, relational needs can only be satisfied within healthy, meaningful relationships.
Apart from the effects of porn on consumers, we would be rather misguided to think the negative effects of porn end there. The porn industry is a growing one, with Porn Hub registering 92 billion hits in 2015 alone. The industry itself involves a global supply chain including connections to prostitution, human trafficking, child porn, violence and drugs. This global industry profits from the bodies of men, women and children, many of whom have been recruited from vulnerable sectors of society. These include homeless and substance abuse shelters, foster homes and communities marred by poverty. Furthermore, drug and alcohol abuse tend to dominate the lives of those working in the sex industry, as substances are used as a means of dissociating from the traumatic impact of the often violent and degrading sexual encounters they must partake in. The health and safety of workers in the industry is a huge cause of concern, including addiction, sexually transmitted diseases and exposure to violence and abuse. Much like prostitution, people working in the porn industry are being exposed to conditions which damage their mental and physical health and place them in extreme danger.
After reading this article, you may be wondering what difference having this information will make. Even if you wanted to, could you really do anything to change something which is so widespread? As individuals, our contribution can be significant. For instance, anyone who works with or has children of their own could make use of any parental controls available to limit children’s access to pornographic content. Age-appropriate discussions with children about the importance of respectful, consensual relationships is also important, as is educating young people about the realities of the sex industry. Most of all, we can allow this knowledge to guide our personal choices, ensuring that whatever we decide, it’s based on an informed and realistic understanding of the sex industry and its impact on people.