Understanding and Applying Research on Prostitution
by Marilyn C. Moses
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
has shed some light on prostitution through studies of data
on single and serial homicides of prostitutes.
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—possibly
the highest homicide rate of any group of women studied
thus far—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
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, their perpetrators, and the crime scenes
using closed investigative case files and NCAVC’s
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
Profile of Single and Serial Murderers
Single and serial murderers, 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 perpetrators 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
For More Information
- Dudek, J., When Silenced Voices Speak:
An Exploratory Study of Homicide, final report submitted
to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC:
2001 (NCJ 198117), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/198117.pdf.
- Monto, M., Focusing on the Clients
of Street Prostitutes: A Creative Approach to Reducing
Violence Against Women, final report submitted to
the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: 1999
(NCJ 182860), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdf.
 NIJ’s research portfolio centers
on women involved in street prostitution, not on “call
girls” or other off-street forms of prostitution,
such as that found in massage parlors, exotic dance clubs,
hotel bars, or escort services.
 A single homicide involves one victim;
a serial homicide involves two or more victims who are
murdered by the same perpetrator.
 Kurtz, S., H. Surratt, J. Inciardi,
and M. Kiley, “Sex Work and ‘Date’ Violence,”
Violence Against Women 10 (4) (2004): 357–85;
Davis, N., Prostitution: An International Handbook
on Trends, Problems, and Policies, London: Greenwood
Press, 1993; Hogard, C., and L. Finstad, Back Streets:
Prostitution, Money, and Love, University Park: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 1992; Silbert, M.H., “Occupational
Hazards of Street Prostitutes,” Criminal Justice
and Behavior 8 (1981): 395–99.
 Potterat, J.J., D.D. Brewer, S.Q.
Muth, R.B. Rothenburg, D.E. Woodhouse, J.B. Muth, H.K.
Stites, and S. Brody, “Mortality in a Long-Term
Open Cohort of Prostitute Women,” American Journal
of Epidemiology 159 (8) (April 2004): 778–85.
 The eight rape myths Monto identified
are: (1) A woman who goes to the home or apartment of
a man on their first date implies that she is willing
to have sex; (2) When women do not wear bras or wear short
skirts and tight tops, they are asking for trouble; (3)
In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or
has a bad reputation; (4) If a girl engages in necking
or petting and she lets things get out of hand, it is
her own fault if her partner forces sex on her; (5) Women
who get raped while hitchhiking get what they deserve;
(6) A woman who is stuck-up and thinks she is too good
to talk to guys on the street deserves to be taught a
lesson; (7) Women who report a rape are lying because
they are angry and want to get back at the man they accuse;
and (8) Women who report rape after they discover they
are pregnant invent a story to protect their reputation.
Monto, M., Focusing on Clients of Street Prostitutes:
A Creative Approach to Reducing Violence Against Women,
final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice,
Washington, DC: 1999 (NCJ 182860): 63, available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/182860.pdf.
 Prostitution is the offering of something
of value in exchange for sexual activity. By definition,
prostitution is a form of commodification, which in this
context is the belief that women generally and/or sexual
activity specifically are commercial products.
 NIJ award no. 2005–IJ–CX–0037.
Evaluation of Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention FY 2003 Discretionary Funds Projects: The First
Offender Prostitution Program. Findings are expected
in late 2007.
 NIJ award no. 2003–IJ–CX–1036.
Clients of Prostitute Women: Deterrence, Prevalence,
Characteristics, and Violence. Findings are expected
in late 2006.