The way to prostitution is obviously varied for different people in different societies. For some, it is a pimp that forces them; for others, it is life circumstances that force them, for instance needing to provide for their family and children and have no other alternatives than to sell their body. With a broken self-esteem, earlier abuses and lack of a support network increases the risk of them ending up in prostitution significantly.

In our personal relationships with women in prostitution, we have gathered experience that has led us to conclude that there is a strong association between prostitution and earlier sexual trauma. Even research supports these conclusions.[1] It is possible to say that in these cases it has to do an inner (compared to an outer) “coercion” that is the basis for prostitution; a self-destructive that among other things stems from a wounded self-image, shame, anxiety, and an unconscious effort to regain control. Below is a quote from a pimp that reveals more than what numbers can about the relationship between earlier sexual abuse and prostitution:

“Beauty? Yes. Sexual experience? To a certain extent. But it’s easier than you think. What is more important than anything else is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience from woman who have had sex with their fathers, their uncles, their brothers—you know, someone they love and are afraid to lose if they defy them. Then, it’s just about being kinder than anyone the woman has experience before—and more dangerous. They will do everything and anything that pleases you. That’s how it is done.” He nods towards the woman and both smile. “Both of these girls have been with their fathers. Now they make me rich – and they are happy.”[2]

Based on our discussions with women as well as research on sexual abuse and prostitution, we would like to present some explanations about why a person, who has earlier been exposed to sexual abuse, is at a higher risk of being drawn into prostitution. We do not claim that this is a conclusive explanation of the underlying causes. We also emphasize that we do not believe that in most cases there is one single cause; instead, a variety of different factors likely lie behind a person’s step into prostitution. Below are some of these influencing factors.

Emotional shutdown and disassociation[3]
Many researchers argue that sexual abuse during a person’s childhood affects, more than anything, whether or not they end up in prostitution later in life. A woman’s entrance into prostitution is explained by a so-called “direct effect model” which says that sexual abuse in a person’s childhood increases the risk for prostitution later in life – regardless of whether other contributing causes exist or not. Repeated sexual abuse leads to an early training in emotional shutdown and dissociation as soon as the person comes into contact with anything that has to do with sex. Dissociation is a survival strategy used by the person who sells their body in order for them to endure the humiliation of prostitution.

Shame is a feeling that can be both healthy (and therefore plays an important life function) and unhealthy. Unhealthy shame is a deep feeling of worthlessness and unimportant as a person. The profound sense of shame is rooted in the belief that a person is not a full human being. Those that have been sexually assaulted in their childhood often have this deep pain in their lives. This emotional pain often includes a deep abhorrence to one’s own body, which is perceived as if it has betrayed them. When the body responds to sexual touching during the assault/abuse and the child simultaneously loathes it, this often creates an overwhelming sense of shame, self-hatred, and confusion. With this in mind, it is not as difficult to understand why a person would accept being treated like an object.

Perceived Hostility
According to research, the experience that the world is threatening is a long-term consequence of sexual abuse. What is meant by this is that a person who is sexually abused tends to see the world as a hostile place where there is no natural way to deserve something, and nothing is given “freely and at no cost.” The only way to get something is to offer something in return or to a person into it. The reason for this view is that individuals who were sexually abused as children learn that their bodies, in some significant adult’s eyes, was their most valuable “asset.”

“Even before puberty, many girls learn to use their sexuality to please their father. After many years, she may begin to see prostitution as a logical progression of having sold sex at home. Many abused girls hold the belief that since they are going to be forced to have sex with men, they may as well get paid for it.”[4]

Restrained Anxiety
Earlier sexual abuse can lead to a sort of “learned powerlessness.” It does not matter what the child does (or does not do) to avoid the abuse – it does not cease to continue. The knowledge that ‘something happened, I don’t know when, but I know that’ creates a lot of anxiety. For some children, the only relief they ever feel is the relief that arises immediately after the assault has taken place. Precisely in that moment, they are finally left in peace for a while. Growing up with this sense of constant fear and learned powerlessness is for many, simply unbearable. Many struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety later in life, after the abuse has ended. To then expose one’s self to further abuse can be a way to control anxiety, which (as before) is least intrusive immediately after the assault.

Regaining Control
Some research claims that prostitution is sometimes a way to repeat earlier traumatic experiences in a subconscious attempt to change the painful experience and thus heal a damaged self-image. It is very common for victims of sexual abuse to relive the event/events in flashbacks and nightmares, but the abuse can also be experienced in concrete, new events. The goal is (consciously or unconsciously) to regain power and control, but tragically, it instead leads, sooner or later, to the woman becoming trapped in a victimization cycle leading to a condition called ‘psychological paralysis.’

Boundary Problems
One important reason that victims of earlier sexual abuse is especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation later in life is confusions about their boundaries. Meaningful adults have treated the child as if they do not have a right to their own body, and that message remains in their adulthood. Many of the women we meet tell us about pushy men they encounter in their daily lives (in cafes, the subway, etc.) that indicate they want to have sex with them. Since the woman did not learn that her no means no, the man successfully has his way with her. The same woman sees her own inability to reject strangers as a very big problem. They feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. One woman said, “It feels like the word ‘prostitute’ is written on my forehead!”

Another reason a person takes the plunge into selling sex is, according to many women, the need for money. It is a push factor into prostitution that is often mentioned prior to all others. Money is also the push factor most often highlighted by the media when addressing the topic of prostitution. It is no coincidence that it is the last factor we mention here. The reason for this is that we consider it to be the tip of the iceberg and not the root of the problem. Over the years we have worked with women in prostitution, we have not met a single woman who felt good, simply sells their body for extra money (as it is often described in the media). At the same time, we believe that money without a doubt plays a large roll for many of the women who have stepped into prostitution. Many experience the feeling of being completely alone, without a single person to turn to when things get tough. What they lack is a sense of safety and security in life. For many, seeking out help from social authorities is unthinkable. In some cases this is due to earlier poor treatment; in other cases it is due to the difficulty in relying on others; and for others it is because they feel that they do not deserve help.

[1] See for example, Salter, Anna C., Transforming Trauma – A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, SAGE Publications (1995), sid 186-187; Briere, John N., Child Abuse Trauma – Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, IVPS (1992), sid. 52-53 and 55; Bagley, Chris; Young, Loretta, Juvenile prostitution and child sexual abuse: A controlled study. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, Vol 6(1), 1987, 5-26; Kelly, Liz, Surviving Sexual Violence, Polity Press (1988), sid. 174; Hedin, Ulla-Carin and Månsson, Sven-Axel,Vägen ut! (1998); Silbert and Pines, Early Sexual Exploitation as an Influence in Prostitution (1982)
[2] Salter, Anna C., Transforming Trauma – A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, SAGE Publications (1995), sid 186-187
[3] Dissociation is the absence of awareness of what you are doing and what is going on around you, and can be seen as a normal process that occurs occasionally. It is a relateively common phenomenon among children, and decrease with age. Dissociative experiences as part of normal development do not cause fragmentation in how a person experiences herself/himself. However, when the person does not have a supportive environment to regulate and interpret the emotions associated with potentially traumatizing events, so that the fear continues to hold its grip on the individual, when dissociation increases and the person’s inner sense of self weakens and divides. Wieland, S.. Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Theory and Clinical Interventions. Routledge Psychosocial Stress Series, New York (2011)
[4] Briere, John N., Child Abuse Trauma – Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, IVPS (1992), sid. 52-53 and 55