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Domestic Violence Conference Focuses on Prostitution


Domestic Violence Conference Focuses on Prostitution

The elimination of social support programs and healthcare benefits for the poor are driving more women to prostitution. That’s according to Melissa Farley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the San Francisco Women’s Center, who spoke recently at the eighth annual Domestic Violence Conference at Fordham Law School. Compounding the problem, said Farley, is a culture of public indifference about prostitution and those who promote it.

“People don’t want to look closely at the issue. It is depressing and sometimes frightening,” Farley said. “Until it is understood that prostitution can appear voluntary but is not a free choice, it will be difficult to garner support to assist the women and adolescents who wish to escape prostitution but have no other economic choices.”

Because prostitution is illegal in the United States, statistics indicating the scope of the problem are almost impossible to come by, said Farley. But there is research to support the hypothesis that the majority of women in prostitution are working in the industry because of financial need. A 1997 study funded by Kaiser Permanente and the San Diego-based Prostitution and Research Education Program found that 92 percent of the prostitutes surveyed wanted out of the sex industry but lacked the financial means to support themselves.

Farley was one of more than 30 speakers at the two-day conference titled “Domestic Violence, Trafficking and Prostitution: Common Themes, Common Challenges.” She has studied prostitution and trafficking in the United States, Germany, South Africa and Thailand, and supports the development of programs to provide housing, long-term counseling and job training to current and former prostitutes.

Vednita Carter, the executive director of Breaking Free, a Minnesota-based support program for women looking to get out of prostitution, agreed that women are being shortchanged by the government and are being targeted as criminals rather than victims by law enforcement agencies.

Prostitutes face a range of hazards on the job, according to the panelists, and many have been victims of incest, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, stalking, rape, battery and sexual torture.

“There is no support for women, who are sometimes kidnapped and forced into prostitution,” said Carter. “These victims need laws making pimps and johns more accountable.”

Wanda Lucibello, the chief of the special victims division of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, said there are several obstacles to prosecuting people who promote prostitution.

“Under our system of justice, you must have a witness,” said Lucibello. “And in the case of prostitution, that witness has to be the prostitute, many of whom have been mentally or physically abused by their pimp. It is tough to get them to testify.”

Several speakers pointed to a Swedish law that criminalizes the purchaser of sex—not the prostitute—as a successful model. Donna Hughes, Ph.D., a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island, said that the law has decreased the amount of trafficking by increasing the cost for traffickers and pimps to do business.

— Michael Larkin

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