Sexuality Research and Social Policy

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 15–29 | Cite as

The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy

  • Ronald Weitzer


Over the past decade, public policies on prostitution and other types of sex work have been increasingly contested, both in academia and in popular debates. One perspective, the oppression paradigm, is increasingly reflected in media reporting on the sex industry and is steadily being articulated by government officials in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere. The proliferation of myths based on the oppression paradigm is responsible for the rise of a resurgent mythology of prostitution. This article examines the claims made by organizations, activists, and scholars who embrace the oppression paradigm, evaluates the reasoning and evidence used in support of their claims, and highlights some of the ways in which this perspective has influenced recent legislation and public policy in selected nations. The author presents an alternative perspective, the polymorphous paradigm, and suggests that public policy on prostitution would be better informed by this evidence-based perspective.


Sex industry Sex work Sexuality policy Prostitution myths  Legalization 


  1. Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., & Brunton, C. (2009). The impact of decriminalization on the number of sex workers in New Zealand. Journal of Social Policy, 38, 515–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Agustin, L. (2007). Sex at the margins: Migration, labour markets and the rescue industry. London: Zed.Google Scholar
  3. Attorney General. (2004). Report to Congress on U.S. government efforts to combat trafficking in persons in fiscal year 2003. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  4. Attorney General. (2005). Report to Congress on U.S. government efforts to combat trafficking in persons in fiscal year 2004. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  5. BBC World News. (2008). Brothel industry is “spreading.” Retrieved June 15, 2009, from, September 4.
  6. Best, J. (1999). Random violence: How we talk about new crimes and new victims. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brents, B., & Hausbeck, K. (2005). Violence and legalized brothel prostitution in Nevada. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 270–295.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown, A. (2008). Sex industry in Scotland: inside the deluded minds of the punters. Daily Record. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from, April 28.
  9. Buchanan, D., Shaw, S., Ford, A., & Singer, M. (2003). Empirical science meets moral panic: an analysis of the politics of needle exchange. Journal of Public Health Policy, 24, 427–444.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Carlshamre, M. (2008). Draft report on prostitution and its health consequences on women in member states. Strasbourg: European Parliament Committee on Women's Rights & Gender Equality.Google Scholar
  11. Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. (2009). Vision. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from
  12. Church, S., Henderson, M., Barnard, M., & Hart, G. (2001). Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings. British Medical Journal, 32, 524–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. (2009). An introduction to CATW. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from
  14. Crime and Misconduct Commission. (2004). Regulating prostitution: An evaluation of the Prostitution Act 1999, Queensland. Brisbane: CMC.Google Scholar
  15. Cusick, L. (2006). Widening the harm reduction agenda: from drug use to sex work. The International Journal of Drug Policy, 17, 3–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Daalder, A. L. (2004). Lifting the ban on brothels: Prostitution in 2000–2001. The Hague: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  17. Daalder, A. L. (2007). Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting of the brothel ban. The Hague: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  18. Daily Mail. (2008). Sex can be bought for just £15, new survey reveals. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from, September 4.
  19. Davis, N. (2000). From victims to survivors: Working with recovering street prostitutes. In R. Weitzer (Ed.), Sex for sale: Prostitution, pornography, and the sex industry (pp. 139–157). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  20. di Mauro, D., & Joffe, C. (2007). The religious right and the reshaping of sexual policy: an examination of reproductive rights and sexuality education. Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, 4(1), 67–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dodillet, S. (2004). Cultural clash on prostitution: Debates on prostitution in Germany and Sweden in the 1990s. Paper presented at the First Global Conference: Critical Issues in Sexuality, Salzburg, Austria, October.Google Scholar
  22. Durchslag, R., & Goswami, S. (2008). Deconstructing the demand for prostitution: Preliminary insights from interviews with Chicago men who purchase sex. Chicago: Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.Google Scholar
  23. Dworkin, A. (1997). Life and death: Unapologetic writings on the continuing war against women. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  24. Epstein, S. (2006). The new attack on sexuality research: morality and the politics of knowledge production. Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, 3(1), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Farley, M. (2004). Bad for the body, bad for the heart: prostitution harms women even if legalized or decriminalized. Violence Against Women, 10, 1087–1125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Farley, M. (2005). Prostitution harms women even if indoors: reply to Weitzer. Violence Against Women, 11, 950–964.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Farley, M. (2006). Prostitution, trafficking, and cultural amnesia: what we must not know in order to keep the business of sexual exploitation running smoothly. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 18, 101–136.Google Scholar
  28. Farley, M. (2007). Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: Making the connections. San Francisco: Prostitution Research & Education.Google Scholar
  29. Farley, M. (2008). Affidavit of Melissa Farley, in Bedford v. Attorney General of Canada, Case No. 07-CV-329807PD1. Ontario: Superior Court of Justice.Google Scholar
  30. Farley, M., & Kelly, V. (2000). Prostitution. Women & Criminal Justice, 11(4), 29–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Farley, M., Baral, I., Kiremire, M., & Sizgin, U. (1998). Prostitution in five countries: violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. Feminism & Psychology, 8, 405–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M., et al. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (pp. 33–74). Binghamton: Haworth.Google Scholar
  33. Fisher, W. (2005). Politics: USAID sued over anti-prostitution policy. Inter Press Service. Retrieved June 16, 2009, from, August 23.
  34. Gardham, M. (2008). Sex industry in Scotland: MSP calls for crackdown on punters. Daily Record. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from, April 29.
  35. Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. (2007). Collateral damage: The impact of anti-trafficking measures on human rights around the world. Bangkok: GAATW.Google Scholar
  36. Harcourt, C., & Donovan, B. (2005). The many faces of sex work. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 81, 201–206.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Herbert, B. (2007a). City as predator. The New York Times. Retrieved June 16, 2009, from, September 4.
  38. Herbert, B. (2007b). Fantasies, well meant. The New York Times. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from, September 11.
  39. Hester, M., & Westmarland, N. (2004). Tackling street prostitution: Towards an holistic approach. London: Home Office.Google Scholar
  40. Hoigard, C., & Finstad, L. (1992). Backstreets: Prostitution, money, and love. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Hughes, D. (2005). The demand for victims of sex trafficking. Kingston: University of Rhode Island.Google Scholar
  42. Jeffreys, S. (1997). The idea of prostitution. North Melbourne: Spinifex.Google Scholar
  43. Kantola, J., & Squires, J. (2004). Discourses surrounding prostitution policies in the UK. European Journal of Women's Studies, 11, 77–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kelly, P. (2008). Lydia's open door: Inside Mexico's most modern brothel. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  45. Kempadoo, K. (1998). Introduction: Globalizing sex workers' rights. In K. Kempadoo & J. Doezema (Eds.), Global sex workers: Rights, resistance, and redefinition (pp. 29–33). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. Kulish, N. (2007). Bulgaria, joining a European trend, won’t legalize prostitution. The New York Times. Retrieved June 16, 2009, from, October 6.
  47. Kurtz, S., Surratt, H., Inciardi, J., & Kiley, M. (2004). Sex work and date violence. Violence Against Women, 10, 357–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lever, J., & Dolnick, D. (2010). Call girls and street prostitutes: Selling sex and intimacy. In R. Weitzer (Ed.), Sex for sale: Prostitution, pornography, and the sex industry (2nd ed., pp. 187–203). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Lipsett, A. (2008). Big Brothel research “seriously flawed.” The Guardian. Retrieved June 16, 2009, from, October 3.
  50. Lowman, J., & Fraser, L. (1995). Violence against persons who prostitute: The experience in British Columbia. Ottawa: Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  51. Lucas, A. (2005). The work of sex work: Elite prostitutes’ vocational orientations and experiences. Deviant Behavior, 26, 513–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Macleod, J., Farley, M., Anderson, L., & Golding, J. (2008). Challenging men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland [Report]. Glasgow: Women’s Support Project.Google Scholar
  53. Martis, J. (1999). Tourism and the sex trade in St. Maarten and Curacao, the Netherlands Antilles. In K. Kempadoo (Ed.), Sun, sex, and gold: Tourism and sex work in the Caribbean (pp. 201–216). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  54. Meaker, L. (2002). A social response to transnational prostitution in Queensland, Australia. In S. Thorbek & B. Pattanaik (Eds.), Transnational prostitution: Changing patterns in a global context (pp. 59–68). London: Zed.Google Scholar
  55. Monto, M. (2004). Female prostitution, customers, and violence. Violence Against Women, 10, 160–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Monto, M. (2010). Prostitutes' customers: Motives and misconceptions. In R. Weitzer (Ed.), Sex for sale: Prostitution, pornography, and the sex industry (2nd ed., pp. 233–254). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  57. Monto, M., & Hotaling, N. (2001). Predictors of rape myth acceptance among the male clients of female street prostitutes. Violence Against Women, 7, 275–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Monto, M., & McRee, N. (2005). A comparison of the male customers of female street prostitutes with national samples of men. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49, 505–529.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Murray, A. (1998). Debt-bondage and trafficking: Don’t believe the hype. In K. Kempadoo & J. Doezema (Eds.), Global sex workers: Rights, resistance, and redefinition (pp. 51–64). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  60. Nadon, S., Koverola, C., & Schludermann, E. (1998). Antecedents to prostitution. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 206–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. National Institute of Justice. (2007). Solicitation: Trafficking in human beings research and comprehensive literature review. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.Google Scholar
  62. O’Connell Davidson, J. (1998). Power, prostitution, and freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  63. Outshoorn, J. (2001). Debating prostitution in parliament: a feminist analysis. European Journal of Women's Studies, 8, 472–490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Parameswaran, P. (2006). “Sex worker” tag giving wrong impression. Agence France-Presse. Retrieved June 16, 2009, from, December 19.
  65. Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission. (2004). Inquiry into the trafficking of women for sexual servitude. Canberra: ACT.Google Scholar
  66. Perkins, R., & Lovejoy, F. (2007). Call girls: Private sex workers in Australia. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press.Google Scholar
  67. Plumridge, L., & Abel, G. (2001). A segmented sex industry in New Zealand: sexual and personal safety of female sex workers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 25, 78–83.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  69. Poppy Project. (2008). Big brothel: A survey of the off-street sex industry in London. London: Author.Google Scholar
  70. Prostitution Law Review Committee. (2008). Report of the prostitution law review committee on the operation of the prostitution reform act 2003. Wellington: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  71. Prostitution Research & Education. (1998–2008). About Prostitution Research & Education. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from
  72. Raphael, J., & Shapiro, D. (2002). Sisters speak out: The lives and needs of prostituted women in Chicago. Chicago: Center for Impact Research.Google Scholar
  73. Raphael, J., & Shapiro, D. (2004). Violence in indoor and outdoor prostitution venues. Violence Against Women, 10, 126–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Raymond, J. (1995). Prostitution is rape that’s paid for. Los Angeles Times, p. B6, December 11.Google Scholar
  75. Raymond, J. (2003). Ten reasons for not legalizing prostitution and a legal response to the demand for prostitution. Journal of Trauma Practice, 2, 315–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Raymond, J. (2004). Prostitution on demand: legalizing the buyers as sexual consumers. Violence Against Women, 10, 1156–1186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Raymond, J. (2008a). Affidavit of Janice J. Raymond, in Bedford v. Attorney General of Canada, Case No. 07-CV-329807PD1. Ontario: Superior Court of Justice.Google Scholar
  78. Raymond, J. (2008b). Cross-examination of Janice J. Raymond, in Bedford v. Attorney General of Canada, Case No. 07-CV-329807PD1. Ontario: Superior Court of Justice.Google Scholar
  79. Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality (pp. 267–319). Boston: Routledge.Google Scholar
  80. Sanders, T., & Campbell, R. (2007). Designing our vulnerability, building in respect: violence, safety, and sex work policy. British Journal of Sociology, 58, 1–19.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Scoular, J. (2004). Criminalizing punters: evaluating the Swedish position on prostitution. Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law, 26, 195–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Seib, C., Fischer, J., & Najman, J. (2009). The health of female sex workers from three industry sectors in Queensland, Australia. Social Science and Medicine, 68, 473–478.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  83. Shaver, F. (2005). Sex work research: methodological and ethical challenges. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 296–319.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  84. Soderlund, G. (2005). Running from the rescuers: new U.S. crusades against sex trafficking and the rhetoric of abolition. NWSA Journal, 17(3), 64–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Steinfatt, T. (2002). Working at the bar: Sex work and health communication in Thailand. Westport: Ablex.Google Scholar
  86. Stolz, B. (2005). Educating policymakers and setting the criminal justice policymaking agenda: interest groups and the “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000”. Criminal Justice, 5, 407–430.Google Scholar
  87. Sullivan, B. (2008). Working in the sex industry in Australia: the reorganization of sex work in Queensland in the wake of law reform. Labour and Industry, 18, 73–92.Google Scholar
  88. Sullivan, M. (2005). What happens when prostitution becomes work? An update on legalisation of prostitution in Australia. North Fitzroy: Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.Google Scholar
  89. Sullivan, M., & Jeffreys, S. (2002). Legalization: the Australian experience. Violence Against Women, 8, 1140–1148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2006). Human trafficking. Washington: GAO.Google Scholar
  91. Vanwesenbeeck, I. (2001). Another decade of social scientific work on prostitution. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 242–289.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  92. Weitzer, R. (1999). Prostitution control in America: rethinking public policy. Crime, Law and Social Change, 32, 83–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Politics & Society, 35, 447–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Weitzer, R. (2009a). Legalizing prostitution: morality politics in Western Australia. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 88–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Weitzer, R. (2009b). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 213–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Whittaker, D., & Hart, G. (1996). Managing risks: the social organization of indoor prostitution. Sociology of Health & Illness, 18, 399–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Winick, C., & Kinsie, P. (1971). The lively commerce: Prostitution in the United States. New York: Signet.Google Scholar
  98. Women’s Support Project. (2003). The harm caused through prostitution. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from
  99. Woodward, C., Fischer, J., Najman, J., & Dunne, M. (2004). Selling sex in Queensland. Brisbane: Prostitution Licensing Authority, Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Medai, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyGeorge Washington UniversityWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations