Choice in an Unequal World

“At the core of the phenomenon of prostitution is ‘the treatment of the body as an asset, as a means to seek subsistence’. In prostitution, the body itself becomes a commodity, which reduces the human subject, socially and psychologically, to an object to be exchanged” (Melrose, 2000)

In order to understand the meaning of choice in respect to participation in prostitution, we need to understand the context in which the choice is made.  It does not take a lot of imagination to understand that given a certain set of circumstances we might all choose to do things that in other circumstances we would not choose to do. For example, if you were trapped in a tall building that was on fire, you might choose to jump out the window. Is this a free choice? Perhaps, but from a very limited set of options – jumping or being burnt alive. Does that mean we don’t need stairs and lifts and outside fire escapes, even?

In this article, I attempt to explain some of the context in which many women, children and men choose to enter prostitution.

The personal context

Exact figures vary, but many studies show that of people involved in prostitution:

  • Many entered prostitution as children (defined as under 18). For example, a study of 854 people in 9 countries found that 47% entered before the age of 18 (Farley et al, 2003).
  • Most were poor when they became involved (Adams et. al. 1997, Green et. al. 1997, Pitts 1997).
  • A high proportion have limited formal skills, training and education (Melrose et al. 1999).
  • A high proportion have spent time in care as children (Cuisick 2000).
  • A high proportion have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse as children. For example, in the study of 854 people in 9 countries mentioned above, 63% had experienced sexual abuse and 59% physical abuse as children (Farley et al, 2003).
  • Many experienced direct coercion to sell sex (50% in the Eaves study Breaking down the barriers, 2012)
  • Many (if not most) would like to leave prostitution but feel unable to do so. (90%  in the Farley study cited above.)

Assuming that these studies are representative (and there’s no reason to think they are not) these figures indicate that the majority of people involved in prostitution were vulnerable when they started in it – because they were children or young adults, and/or were poor or destitute, and/or had little or no family support, and/or had few or no formal skills, and/or had a history of being abused as children, and/or were coerced by boyfriends, family members or pimps. These figures also show that entering prostitution is much easier than leaving it.

The wider economic and social context

Margaret Melrose in her paper ‘The ties that bind’, locates the growth of prostitution in the UK within the context of ‘patriarchy’, ‘senarchy’ and ‘globalisation’:

Patriarchy refers to a system of male dominance that results in economic, social and political inequalities between men and women. […] Senarchy refers to the globally institutionalised inequalities of status and power that exist between adults and children. Although class and ethnicity internally differentiate the categories ‘men’, ‘women’, and ‘children’, across the world men have more economic, political and social power than women and children.

Globalisation refers to economic processes that have allowed ‘capital to free itself from labour while holding labour captive’. It is a process that signals a transition from ‘capitalist economy to capitalist society’ in which ‘capitalist relations penetrate every sphere of life’. Because of its articulation with structures of patriarchy, senarchy and racism, globalisation produces ‘new structures of deprivation and hardship’ by ‘locking out’ certain groups: particularly, women, young people and those from ethnic minority groups. These processes have created a hyper-casualised labour market in which the position of women and young people has been transformed. At the same time, they have ‘officially disarticulated citizenship from the values of post-war welfarism’ and rearticulated it to ‘the values of popular capitalism and individualism’.” (See for the full text and references.)

She goes on to explain that as a consequence of neo-conservative policies, recession and welfare changes:

  • The youth labour market has effectively collapsed and mass youth unemployment has become a permanent fixture of UK life.
  • Young people who do find work are typically lowly paid – this is institutionalised by the UK minimum wage legislation that sets a lower rate for those under 21.
  • Women and young people are overwhelmingly concentrated in poorly paid, insecure and low skilled occupations.
  • Changes in social security policy mean that young people have limited or no financial support from the welfare system when they run into difficulties and welfare support for the disabled, families and single mothers has been greatly reduced.
  • In addition, racism and immigration legislation leaves many migrants without the right to work or support from the welfare system.

As a result of all these factors, young people are now more likely to engage in a range of informal economic activities including drug dealing, begging, pimping and, particularly for young women, prostitution.

“In becoming involved in prostitution, it could be argued that these young women are attempting to respond creatively […] to the ties of class, patriarchy and senarchy. However, their attempts to escape these ties merely serve to further entrench their social and economic marginalisation.” (Melrose, 2002)

The cultural context

One consequence of capitalist relationships penetrating every sphere of life is the sexualisation of girls and women in the media. The American Psychological Association (APA) in its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2010) defines sexualisation as when:

  • A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • A person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

There is increasing evidence that this sexualisation and commercialization of female bodies in popular culture is a form of sexual abuse, which robs girls of their right to develop and explore their own sexuality on their own terms and in their own time. Instead the very culture is grooming them to accept a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own.

The APA Task Force Report says:

“Of special interest is the relationship between childhood sexual abuse victimization and sexual behavior. A common symptom of sexually abused children is sexualized behavior. The sexually abused child may incorporate the perpetrator’s perspective into her identity, eventually viewing herself as good for nothing but sex. The constricted sense of self of the sexually abused child and the coercive refusal of the perpetrator to respect the child’s physical boundaries may result in subsequent difficulties in asserting boundaries, impaired self-protection, and a greater likelihood of being further victimized as an adult, including becoming involved in prostitution.”

When is a choice a ‘free’ choice?

For a choice to be truly ‘free’, there needs to be a variety of viable options to choose from. If the choices are destitution or prostitution, the choice is a matter of survival and cannot be regarded as a free choice between several viable alternative options. This is not a criticism of the person making the choice – but of the options available to her/him. Similarly when the person is coerced – whether directly or indirectly through grooming by one or more individuals or the culture itself as described in the previous section, the choice cannot be described as ‘free’.

“A choice out of limited options sometimes is no choice at all, in other situations it may still be some sort of choice but it has to be viewed in its context. Similarly consent is equally subject to its context. Choice and consent are undermined to varying degrees (in extremes to render them meaningless) where there is a power imbalance […]  The fact that it is overwhelmingly men who are able to choose to pay to buy sex from others, predominantly women and girls, is material to any analysis of prostitution. These are not merely individual acts, this is an organised industry that privileges wealth, power and men.” (Eaves for Women’s response to Amnesty’s Consultation on its prostitution policy.)

When the International Criminal Court considers rape in war, the question of consent can be considered irrelevant. Suppose a woman is doing agricultural work in her field alone or with her children and 20 armed enemy soldiers enter the field with the intent of raping her. What relevance is whether she consents or not? The force is such that her choices are to run away, in which case she will be shot, or to acquiesce. There is a recognition that her choices are so limited that it makes the question of consent meaningless. (MacKinnon, Catherine A. 2006.)

Taking into account the context, personal, economic, social and cultural, in which those who enter prostitution are situated, we must deduce that the majority did not have a truly free choice. In fact, it is reasonable to consider that in many cases the very concept of choice is as meaningless as the concept of consent can be in rape in war.

“Instead of the question, ‘Did she voluntarily consent to prostitution?’ the more relevant question would be: ‘Did she have real alternatives to prostitution for survival?’ The incidence of homelessness (75%) among our respondents in 9 countries, and their desire to get out of prostitution (89%) reflect their lack of options for escape. It is a clinical, as well as a statistical error, to assume that most women in prostitution consent to it. In prostitution, the conditions which make genuine consent possible are absent: physical safety, equal power with customers, and real alternatives.” (Farley et al, 2003)

Women who are currently in prostitution sometimes find this awful truth hard to face.

“There is also a hugely variable narrative between women in prostitution and women who have exited (Moran R. 2013). Whilst in prostitution your “livelihood” depends on upholding the illusion that you are in it because you enjoy it and can make lots of money at it. This is part of what the men are paying for – service with a smile that makes the men feel guilt free whereas otherwise they often feel ambiguous about prostitution. Moreover while in prostitution, you cannot easily speak negatively of the harms of the industry because obviously this requires you to confront your unhappiness and do something about it but for many women they do not see how to even consider any alternative. It’s a survival strategy and coping mechanism. Once exited, women are much more likely to focus on the negatives of prostitution and to view the whole industry as abusive and exploitative and harmful.” (Eaves for Women’s response to Amnesty’s Consultation on its prostitution policy.)

Who has a free choice in prostitution?

“Fundamentally, prostitution is underpinned by ‘men’s access to money for the purchase of commodities in the capitalist labour market and women’s lack of access to it’” (Melrose, 2002)


  • Adams, N., Carter, C., Carter, S., Lopez-Jones, N. and Mitchell, C. (1997) ‘Demystifying Child Prostitution: A street view’, in D. Barrett (ed.) Child Prostitution in Britain: Dilemmas and practical responses, London, The Children’s Society
  • American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from
  • Barrett, D. (1998) ‘Young People and Prostitution: Perpetrators in our Midst’, International Review of Law, Computers and Technology, Vol. 12 (3) pp. 475-86
  • Cusick, L., Martin, A. and May, T. (2004). A Study of Young People, Vulnerability and Involvement in Drug Use and Sex Work, London: Home Office.
  • Eaves for Women’s response to Amnesty’s Consultation on its prostitution policy: eaves-ammesty-response-final-a93a5c
  • Eaves for Women, Breaking Down the Barriers (2012) (
  • Eaves for Women, Men who buy sex (2009) (
  • Farley , M. (2003).  Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4, 2003, pp.33-74. (
  • Green, J., Mulroy, S. and O’Neill, M. (1997) ‘Young People and Prostitution from a Youth Service Perspective’, in D. Barrett (ed.) op. cit.
  • MacKinnon, Catherine A. 2006. “Defining Rape Internationally: A Comment on Akayesu.” Pp. 237-246 in Are Women Human? Catherine MacKinnon. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Melrose, M. (2002), Ties that bind – Young People and the Prostitution Labour Market in Britain, presented at Fourth Feminist Research Conference, Bologna: September 2000 (
  • Melrose, M., Barrett, D. and Brodie, I. (1999) One Way Street? Retrospectives on Childhood Prostitution, London, The Children’s Society
  • Moran R. Paid For, My journey through Prostitution, 2013
  • Pitts, J. (1997) ‘Causes of Youth Prostitution: New forms of practice and political responses’, in D. Barrett (ed.) op. cit.
  • Sangera, J. (1997) ‘In the Belly of the Beast’, Discussion Paper for South Asian Regional Consultation on Prostitution, Feb. 17-18th 1997, Bangkok, Thailand
  • Scambler, G. and Scambler, A. (1997) ‘Rethinking Prostitution’, in G. Scambler and A. Scambler (eds.)
  • Smart Library on Globalization. What Counts as Rape in International Crimes? Retrieved from:


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