Return to

Prostitution in The United States - The Statistics--
The figures quoted here are based on studies compiled through the 1980s.

-- It is difficult to estimate the number of persons who currently work, or have ever worked as prostitutes for many reasons including the various definitions of prostitution. National arrest figures range over 100,000. The National Task Force on Prostitution suggests that over one million people in the US have worked as prostitutes in the United States, or about 1% of American women.(1)

-- Average prostitution arrests include 70% females, 20% percent male prostitutes and 10% customers.(2) In the 1990's some cities initiated client arrest programs which raised the percentage of client arrests. A disproportionate number of prostitutes arrested are women of color, and although a minority of prostitutes are women of color, a large majority of those sentenced to jail are women of color. 85-90% of those arrested work on the street though street work accounts for approximately 20% of prostitutes. (Figures vary from city to city.)

-- The ratio of on-street prostitution to off-street (sauna, massage parlor, in call-outcall escort) varies in cities depending on local law, policy and custom. Whereas street prostitution accounts for between 10 to 20% of the prostitution in larger cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, (3) in some smaller cities with limited indoor venues (or when indoor venues are closed down) street prostitution may account for approximately 50%.(4)

-- Percentages of male and female prostitutes varies from city to city. Estimates in San Francisco suggests 20-30% of prostitutes are male; In San Francisco, it has been estimated that 25% of the female prostitutes are transgender.(5) (These figures are not necessarily representative of the gender of prostitutes in general.)

-- Incidence of substance use and addiction varies widely. Studies in the United States found prevalence of substance use and addiction ranging from 0% to 84%, depending on the population being studied, with substance addiction relatively common among street prostitutes (c. 50%)(6) but rare among women who work off the street. One study showed that nearly 50% of one population of women who used drugs did so before becoming prostitutes.(7)

-- The U.S. Department of Health consistently reports that only 3-5% of the sexually transmitted disease in this country is related to prostitution (compared with 30-35% among teenagers). There is no statistical indication in the U.S. that prostitutes are vectors of HIV. Although a small percentage of prostitutes may be HIV positive, William Darrow, CDC AIDS epidemiology official, cites no proven cases of HIV transmission from prostitutes to clients.(8)

-- Violence is one of the major problems for women and prostitutes. Figures vary, one report citing 60% of the abuse against street prostitutes perpetrated by clients, 20% by police and 20% in domestic relationships.(9) According to one massage parlor owner, over 90% of abuse against prostitutes (she has known) takes place within domestic relationships.(10) Between 35 and 85% of prostitutes are survivors of incest or early sexual abuse. (Figures vary widely for different populations.)(11) In a sample of clients from St. James Infirmary, a sex worker clinic in San Francisco 53% of their sample experienced "past or current occupational violence" including 32% by customers, 20% from employers and 15% by police. Only 3% reported incidents to the police. (12) A study of 130 street workers (primarily homeless) who engaged in prostitution or survival sex found that 80% had been physically assaulted.(13) Some prostitutes are raped between 8 and 10 times a year or more. 7% seek help (e.g.., from a rape crisis center), and only 4% report the rape to the police.(14) A study in Toronto showed that, in cases of (non-domestic) rape and abuse, 5% of the perpetrators identified themselves as police officers, often producing badges and police identification. (This does not include actual cases of police misconduct and rape.)(15) Although violence and the threat of violence is a serious problem, some populations of prostitutes show no higher incidence of violence and abuse than women in general.

--Some researchers suggest that prostitutes, in general, suffer from 'negative identities' or lack of self esteem. A 1986 study by Diane Prince, however, found call girls and brothel workers had higher self esteem than before they became prostitutes. 97% of call girls liked themselves 'more than before.' (This study also examines suicide rates, and is often misquoted, referring to a statistic regarding call-girls. In the context of pathologizing prostitutes, some mistakenly report that 75% percent of call girls have attempted suicide, however, according to this study 76% of call girls considered (not attempted) suicide, along with 61% of non-prostitutes, and only 42% of brothel workers.)(16)

-- Although little research has been done regarding client profiles, anecdotal reports and arrest statistic indicate that clients also vary widely in terms of race and class. In a study in London, England 50% of clients were married, or cohabiting. According to Kinsey's report, 70% of adult men have engaged in prostitution at least once. Male prostitutes sometimes report that their clients include married men who identify as heterosexual. Customers are rarely arrested more than once for prostitution and are infrequently jailed.

-- Police officers arrest prostitutes for 'public nuisance' or 'loitering' violations or by disguising themselves as customers. They will approach someone they suspect of prostitution, and solicit(17) their services until this person is deceived into agreeing to perform sex for money.(18) The individual is then arrested for offering or agreeing to an act of prostitution. Arrests of prostitutes necessarily include the use of entrapment, an invasion of privacy, and/or the use of discriminatory laws or tactics.

-- From a report in the 1980s, average arrest, court and incarceration costs amount to nearly $ 2,000.00 per arrest. Cities spend an average of 7.5 million dollars on prostitution control every year, ranging from 1 million dollars (Memphis) to 23 million dollars (New York).(19)

--In 1949, the United Nations adopted a resolution in favor of the decriminalization of prostitution for individual prostitutes, which has been ratified by fifty countries (not by the United States). Many European countries including France and the United Kingdom decriminalize prostitution per se, leaving all related activities criminal such as soliciting, advertising, etc. In 1973 the National Organization for Women passed a resolution supporting the decriminalization of prostitution.

1 Priscilla Alexander, Prostitution: A Difficult Issue For Feminists, (in Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987.)
2 ibid., p 196
3 op cit., Prostitution: A Difficult Issue For Feminists.
4 In the early 1980s, after the closure of massage parlors, street prostitution escalated to comprise a majority of the prostitution in Portland, Oregon (based on first hand accounts by local service providers and prostitutes).
5 Estimates based on a COYOTE survey of San Francisco sex workers and a review of advertising venues.
6 Priscilla Alexander, Prostitution: A Difficult Issue For Feminists, (in Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987 p 188
7 Jennifer James, Prostitutes and Prostitution. Deviants in Hostile World (General Learning Press, 1977).
8 Lambert, Bruce, AIDS in Prostitutes, Not as Prevalent as Believed, Studies Find; (New York Times, September 20, 1988).Numerous sources in the U.S. confirm the fact that prostitutes do not spread AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 1993;5(no. 3):pp. 7, 11, 17. 123 of 202,665 adult and adolescent males diagnosed with AIDS since 1981 denied any risk factor but sex with a female prostitute, or 0.04% (that's 4/100 of 1%) of adult/adolescent males diagnosed with AIDS.
9 Margo St. James, What's a girl like you...? (Claude Jaget, Prostitutes, Our Life. Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1980.)
10 Rebecca Rand, who owned a sauna for nearly twenty years, claims that the prostitutes who worked in the sauna were abused in much the same circumstances that other women were, that is, by domestic partners and others in their personal lives. Although saunas were sometimes targeted for robberies (Rand installed a security system for protection), violence by customers and police was rare.
11p 204
12 "Sex Worker Health, San Francisco Style: The St. James Infirmary," UCSF Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, San Francisco Department of Public Health, St. James Infirmary. Presentation by Deborah Cohan, MD; Charles Cloniger, FNP; Johanna Breyer, MSW; Cynthia Cobaugh, Jeff Klausner, MD, MPH. November 2001.
13 San Francisco Bay Area Homeless Project, 1995.
14 Mimi Silbert, Sexual Assault of Prostitutes. San Francisco: (Delancy Street Foundation, 1981).
15 Maggie's, the Toronto Prostitutes' Community Service Project, study of the criminality of prostitution and it's relationship to violence against prostitutes (August 1992).
16 A Psychological Profile of Prostitutes in California and Nevada, PhD. Thesis, United States International University, March 1986. Prince interviewed 300 women including call girls, street prostitutes and non-prostitutes prostitutes. Note:
17 In 1987, a California made it illegal to agree to engage in prostitution, legalizing this bold form of entrapment.
18 Dolores French, Working, My Life as A Prostitute. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988).
19 Julie Pearl, The Highest Paying Customers: Americas Cities and The Cost of Prostitution Control. (Hastings Law Journal, April 1987. pp 769-800)