Prostitution has been called a "victimless crime." However, due to the high incidence of both physical and non-physical violence against prostitutes, this statement is inaccurate. Many women involved in street-level prostitution have been victims of sexual and physical assault (including beatings and stabbings), robbery, and kidnapping perpetrated by customers (Williamson & Folaron, 2001). Street-level prostitution is defined as women who walk the streets looking for men who will buy sex. In addition, it has previously been thought that prostitutes work in that field from their own volition. However, previous studies have shown that, when asked, approximately 90% of prostitutes would like to get out of prostitution immediately (Romero-Daza, Weeks, & Singer, 2003). The reasons for staying in prostitution vary from drug and alcohol addiction, providing basic needs (housing, food, clothes) for themselves and children, and being forced into it by pimps or other people known to the prostitute. For the purpose of this website, "violence" will include verbal and physical violence by men who buy sex towards the female prostitute.

Misconceptions regarding prostitution

To start, there are some common misconceptions regarding prostitution, such as why women become and remain prostitutes, that they enjoy this profession, and that because prostitution is illegal in the United States, prostitutes should be arrested for this crime. More information regarding this is below.

Misconception #1: Women become prostitutes because they want to.
Reality: Women do not necessarily want to become prostitutes. It is because of money constraints, the necessity of supporting children, and being forced into prostitution against their will by a pimp, husband, or other person known to the prostitute (Genderberg, 2005).
Misconception #2: Men will treat women better if prostitution is legalized.
Reality: Prostitution is legalized in Australia, the Netherlands, and Germany. Studies in these three countries have not determined that legalization decreases violence against women in this profession. Furthermore, Victoria, Australia, where prostitution is legalized, holds the highest incidence rates of domestic violence and child prostitution. Because women are 95% of the population working as prostitutes, violence against prostitutes can be considered a gender-based crime. As other research has shown regarding gender-based violence, society's attitude towards women must change in order for this type of violence to decrease (Genderberg, 2005).

Misconception #3: A lot of women enjoy prostitution.
Reality: There is no research or collected evidence supporting this claim (Genderberg, 2005). As stated before, as shown by Romero-Daza, Weeks, and Singer, 90% of prostitutes would like to get out of prostitution immediately.

Misconception #4: Prostitutes cannot be raped as their job is to have sex.
Reality: Rape of a prostitute is a possibility if a "john" wants to do something that the prostitute does not want to do. It is actually very common (Williamson & Folaron, 2001; Farley & Barkan, 1998) as the following account describes (Romero-Daza, Weeks, & Singer, 2003).

"This guy wanted to have anal sex [with my friend] and she didn't want to. So, he beat her up, he punched her, he kicked her, and slashed her face up, and at the end had sex with her anyway."

Prostitution and violence

Violence associated with prostitution has been categorized into three different types. These types are similar with legalized (brothel) prostitution (Brents & Hausbeck).

• Interpersonal violence against prostitute women--this type of violence includes both physical and non-physical violence such as verbal abuse, pushing and rape.
• Violence against community order--this type of violence is evident in policies that see commercial sex as evidence of generalized social disorder. Theses policies seek not to eliminate violence, but to control and hide prostitutes from public life, such as the criminalization of prostitution.
• Violence of disease--this type of violence is the focus on the dangers, risks and fears of latent violence via disease and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

In order to convey the intensity and degree of violence some women have experienced, below is a direct account of violence from some study participants (Williamson & Folaron, 2001).

He said he was going to make me an example because some Black bitches ripped him off. He says I want you sit on this, I want you to turn around right now and sit on this [gear shift]. He had an ice pick to my throat. So you know I started crying . . . and he ripped my shirt off me. He slapped me . . . and said, . . . "All that crying and shit ain't gonna help you at all!" So I turned around to the right and I saw that the door was unlocked, so I said, "God please don't let me go out like this," to myself. I just grabbed for the door handle and pushed the door open and when I did, he was coming down with the ice pick.
I had a bad experience. A guy picked me up and terrorized me for about 2 hours. He took me to a house that was totally boarded up . . . he stabbed me . . . I was pretty close to death. I didn't know him but he made me think I knew him . . . He acted like he was a date and he, um, beat me up and then tied me up and drug me across the street and took me into this house and he kept saying that his friends were coming to help him kill me. Um, I finally, I just couldn't take it anymore. I flung myself against a window that was boarded up and it broke the window. The older lady that lived next door heard the crashing glass. . . I was in the hospital for about a week and a half . . .
I got raped. I was walking outside of a bar and I was drunk and high and . . . he took me over to a truck terminal. I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter. He tried to force me to give him head and I wouldn't. I bit him. He ripped my clothes off. He beat me for about 2 hours straight, and I went into convulsions. He bit me below; he bit my nipples. He threw me out for dead and drove off . . . I think he thought he killed me. I was in intensive care for 5 days.

Risk factors

The risk factors for violence in street walking prostitution can be categorized into three different types: environmental, individual, and behavioral. Environmental risk factors are characteristics in a person's surroundings that increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of violence (Brents & Hausbeck, 2005).

Environmental Individual Behavioral
who buys sex is unknown to prostitute
Being female Drug use: by prostitute and/or
by "john"
Working alone
in secluded areas of town or city
Absence of institutional and
personal social support
Not practicing "safe sex"
by use of contraception such as condoms
High incidence
of "sadistic" johns who buy sex
Homelessness Sex with multiple, unknown
Stigma in
society against prostitution
Working with pimps Allowing negotiation of the
date site


There are significant effects and outcomes associated with gender-based violence in street-walking prostitution. These outcomes can range from death and disease to post traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

As can be seen by the accounts above, there are usually physical outcomes to violence such as bruises, lacerations, and broken bones. In a study completed by Melissa Farley and Howard Barkan (1998), it was found that 68% of the selected prostitutes met the DSM III-R criteria for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder. They interviewed 130 people working as prostitutes in San Francisco regarding the connection between violence and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The table below describes the 17 symptoms of PTSD and the percentage of each participant who experienced those symptoms.

Another outcome of violence, which can also be a risk factor, are drug and substance use. Research has consistently demonstrated that drug use and street-level prostitution are interrelated (Smith & Marshall, 2007; McKeganey & Barnard, 1996; Campbell, 2002). However, it is unclear as to whether women become addicted to drugs due to working in prostitution or in order to pay for their addictions, they become prostitutes.


Reporting procedures

The reporting procedures for a violent act committed against a prostitute are the same as any other illegal activity. The prostitute would need to go to the authorities to report the attack so they could complete an investigation and hopefully apprehend the perpetrator. However, more often, this type of violence is not reported to the authorities, as the prostitute is afraid of being arrested for engaging in prostitution, which is illegal.

Potential prevention and control strategies

Strategies to decrease the incidence of violence in street-walking prostitution should be divided among federal, state and community levels. Although interventions may be difficult with this population because they are already deemed "criminals" by society, it is important to implement effective interventions. Potential strategies are in the table below.

Federal State Community
Harsher penalties for "johns" who commit violent acts against prostitutes Mental and general health programs necessary for this population In areas where prostitution is common, educate prostitutes on violence and ways they can mitigate their risk
System for prostitutes to feel safe reporting assaults to police Programs for prostitutes to learn trade or obtain education and secure employment in area other than prostitution Programs for police and community members to stop criminalizing prostitutes, especially those who are victims of violence
  Substance abuse programs  

Haddon's Matrix

William Haddon, Jr. developed the matrix (seen below) in order to understand how injuries can occur (Runyan, 2003). The matrix as applied to gender-based violence in street-walking prostitution is below.

Phases Host (Victim) Agent/Vehicle/Vector (Weapons & Assailant) Physical Environment Social Environment
Pre-event Drug intoxication Drug intoxication Prostitute is in secluded area with "john" Others are nearby
Event Resistance to energy insults Access to weapons Prostitute is not able to get away or call for help Develop plan for responding to threats
Post-event Cuts, bruises, broken bones, PTSD Rapidity of energy reduction response Ability of prostitute to get to hospital Family and social support

Haddon's 10 Strategies

Haddon also developed ten countermeasure strategies in order to control for injury (Runyan, 2003). These ten strategies are listed below.

1. Prevent the creation of the hazard in the first place.

  • Prostitute to discontinue prostitution

2. Reduce the amount of the hazard brought into being.

  • Limit the number of "johns" a prostitute works with

3. Prevent the release of the hazard that already exists.

  • Work on methods for victim to calm down abusive "john" when he/she becomes angry

4. Modify the rate or spatial distribution of release of the hazard from its source.

  • Encourage prostitute victim on methods of escape from violent "john"

5. Separate, in time or space, the hazard and that which is being protected.

  • Bring formal battery charges against "john" and possible order for protection for john and prostitute

6. Separate the hazard and that which is to be protected by interposition of a material barrier.

  • Put the perpetrator in jail for assault

7. Modify basic relevant qualities of the hazard.

  • Teach perpetrator positive ways to deal with anger

8. Make what is to be protected more resistant to damage from the hazard.

  • Teach prostitute methods of self-defense

9. Begin to counter the damage already done by the environmental hazard.

  • Provide access to emergency care and police through use of emergency cell phone to prostitute

10. Stabilize, repair, and rehabilitate the object of the damage.

  • Provide counseling and self-esteem classes for victim of gender-based violence in street-walking prostitution

When applied to the issue of gender-based violence within street-walking prostitution, there are certain strategies that will be more effective than others. For example, applying strategy #4 to reduce the amount of injury, it would be important for the prostitute not to go with the "john" in secluded areas, as this will decrease the likelihood that the prostitute will be alone with the "john" and not able to call for help in case she is in danger. Another countermeasure that will be most useful with this type of injury or violence is #3 "prevent the release of the hazard that already exists." If the prostitute is able to use tactics to calm down the "john" when he becomes angry, this may prevent him from becoming violent. A third strategy that may be most effective to use is #5, to separate in space or time the hazard and that which is being protected. If the perpetrator is arrested and jailed for assault, it will prevent him from assaulting other prostitutes in this manner.

Current and future research

Currently, there is minimal research and data on the topic of gender-based violence in street-walking prostitution. Most of the research focuses on the risk of STIs, mainly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), in prostitution. While HIV prevention is an important aspect of public health issues related to prostitution, it is also important to give attention to interpersonal violence and the health related effects of this. In addition, the studies conducted in this area have a small number of research subjects that makes it difficult to apply this to the general population of prostitutes.

In the future, research should focus on mental health and prostitution. As was discovered in the study conducted by Farley and Barkan (1998), posttraumatic stress disorder is a common diagnosis as 68% of the prostitutes studied met the DSM III-R criteria for this type of disorder. Violence and legalized prostitution should also be studied as the circumstances for this type of prostitution are different than street-walking prostitution. Another area that should be studied is substance abuse and prostitution, as this type is very common in this area. Lastly, the effect of protective strategies to lower the probability of violence in prostitution should also be studied. This would be helpful to those involved in prostitution in order to learn tactics to protect themselves and reduce the incidence of violence.


Gender-based violence in street-walking prostitution is a public health problem that is more common than one may think. Perhaps at the forefront of reducing this crime is for society to stop blaming the victim and stigmatizing prostitutes. Strategies at the federal, state, and community level need to be in place in order to reduce this crime.


Brents, B, & Hausbeck, K. (2005). Violence and legalized brothel prostitution in Nevada: Examining safety, risk, and prostitution policy. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20:270.

Campbell, R. (2002). Working on the street: An Evaluation of the Linx Project 1998-2001. Liverpool: Liverpool Hope University.

Genderberg. (2005). Prostitution FAQ. Retrieved March 21, 2010 from:

McKeganey, N, & Barnard, M. (1996). Sex work on the streets: prostitutes and their clients. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Romero-Daza, N, Weeks, M, & Singer, M. (2003). "Nobody gives a damn if I life or die": Violence, drugs, and street-level prostitution in inner-city Hartford, Connecticut. Medical Anthropology, 22:233-259.

Runyan, CW. (2003). Introduction: Back to the future--revisiting Haddon's conceptualization of injury epidemiology and prevention. Epidemiological Review, 25:60-64.

Smith, FM, & Marshall, LA. (2007). Barriers to effective drug addiction treatment for women involved in street-level prostitution: a qualitative investigation. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 17:163-170.

Williamson, C, & Folaron, G. (2001). Violence, risk, and survival strategies of street prostitution. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 23(5):463-475.