Welcome to my website!
Phyllis Chesler
Books By Phyllis
- Share it! - Tweet it!

Posted in: Feminism

Published on Jul 15, 2019 by Linda Lowen

Published by Thoughtco

Physical Abuse of Prostitutes Is Common

Sexual assault is commonplace yet rarely prosecuted

For women who are prostitutes, rape is every bit as traumatic as it is for women who are not sex workers. It may even be more painful, as the act reopens old wounds and buried memories of unbearable abuse. In fact, prostitutes demonstrate many of the same characteristics as soldiers returning from the battlefield.

In the 1990s, researchers Melissa Farley and Howard Barkan conducted a study on prostitution, violence against women and post-traumatic stress disorder, interviewing 130 San Francisco prostitutes. Their findings indicate assault and rape are all too commonplace:

Eighty-two percent of these respondents reported having been physically assaulted since entering prostitution. Of those who had been physically assaulted, 55% had been assaulted by customers. Eighty-eight percent had been physically threatened while in prostitution, and 83% had been physically threatened with a weapon....Sixty-eight percent...reported having been raped since entering prostitution. Forty-eight percent had been raped more than five times. Forty-six percent of those who reported rapes stated that they had been raped by customers.

Painful Past

As the researchers note, other studies have proven again and again that most women who work as prostitutes have been physically or sexually abused as children. Farley and Barkan’s findings not only confirm this fact but also highlight that for some, abuse begins so early that the child is not able to comprehend what is happening to her:

Fifty-seven percent reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, by an average of 3 perpetrators. Forty-nine percent of those who responded reported that as children, they had been hit or beaten by a caregiver until they had bruises or were injured in some way...Many seemed profoundly uncertain as to just what "abuse" is. When asked why she answered "no" to the question regarding childhood sexual abuse, one woman whose history was known to one of the interviewers said: "Because there was no force, and, besides, I didn't even know what it was then - I didn't know it was sex."

Unfair Game

Writing in the Criminal Practice Law Report, Dr. Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York, describes the violence that permeates the life of a prostitute and why it’s rare for her to report a rape:

Prostituted women have long been considered "fair game" for sexual harassment, rape, gang-rape, "kinky" sex, robbery, and beatings....A 1991 study by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives, in Portland, Oregon, documented that 78 percent of 55 prostituted women reported being raped an average of 16 times annually by their pimps and 33 times a year by johns. Twelve rape complaints were made in the criminal justice system and neither pimps nor johns were ever convicted. These prostitutes also reported being "horribly beaten" by their pimps an average of 58 times a year. The frequency of beatings...by johns ranged from I to 400 times a year. Legal action was pursued in 13 cases, resulting in 2 convictions for "aggravated assault

The 1990 Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Report states that "prostitution is not a victimless crime... Prostitute rape is rarely reported, investigated, prosecuted or taken seriously."

Serial Killer...or Self Defense?

Chesler cites these statistics as she reviews the 1992 trial of Aileen Wuornos, a woman who the media dubbed "the first female serial killer." A prostitute accused of killing five men in Florida, Wuornos' crimes - as Chesler argues - were mitigated by her past history and the situation surrounding her first murder, committed in self-defense.

Wuornos, a seriously abused child and a serially raped and beaten teenage and adult prostitute, has been under attack all her life, probably more than any soldier in any real war. In my opinion, Wuornos's testimony in the first trial was both moving and credible as she described being verbally threatened, tied up, and then brutally raped...by Richard Mallory. According to Wuornos, she agreed to have sex for money with Mallory on the night of November 30, 1989. Mallory, who was intoxicated and stoned, suddenly turned vicious.

What Lies Beneath

Chesler states that the jury was denied an important tool in understanding the mindset of Aileen Wuornos - the testimony of expert witnesses. Among those who had agreed to testify on her behalf was a psychologist, a psychiatrist, experts in prostitution and violence against prostitutes, experts in child abuse, battery, and rape trauma syndrome. Chesler indicates their testimony was necessary

...to educate the jury about the routine and horrendous sexual, physical, and psychological violence against prostituted women...the long-term consequences of extreme trauma, and a woman's right to self-defense. Given how often prostituted women are raped, gang raped, beaten, robbed, tortured, and killed, Wuornos's claim that she killed Richard Mallory in self-defense is at least plausible.

History of Violence

As is often the case with rape and assault, the perpetrator never commits the crime just once. Wuornos's rapist had a history of sexual violence against women; Richard Mallory had been incarcerated in Maryland for many years as a sex offender. Yet, as Chesler explains:

...the jury never got to hear any evidence about Mallory's history of violence toward prostitutes, or about violence toward prostitutes in general, which might have helped them evaluate Wuornos's much-derided claim of self-defense.

Final Sentence

As Chesler notes, the jury of five men and seven women deliberating Wuornos' fate took only 91 minutes to find her guilty and 108 minutes to recommend she be given the death penalty for the murder of ex-convict Richard Mallory.
Aileen Carol Wuornos was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.


  • Chesler, Phyllis. "Sexual Violence Against Women and a Woman's Right to Self-Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuornos." Criminal Practice Law Report, vol. 1 No.9, Oct 1993.
  • Farley, Melissa, Ph.D. and Barkan, Howard, DrPH "Prostitution, Violence Against Women, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder" Women & Health, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 37-49. The Haworth Press, Inc. 1998.

We are not accepting comments at this time, please go to the Facebook page to generate discussion!

Back To Top