Not Your Typical “Pretty Woman”: Factors Associated with Prostitution

Wendi Goodlin, Bowling Green State University

Abstract

Criminologists have long been interested in sex work, particularly prostitution. However, the research in this area has been very uneven and has produced conflicting results. The goal of the current research is to move forward in filling the gaps in our knowledge of the lives of women involved in prostitution and to better understand the factors associated with their initial involvement. Three sociological theories guide the analysis: general strain theory, control theory, and social learning theory. The major hypotheses predict that experiencing sexual abuse and exposure to delinquent peers increase the odds of prostitution whereas high levels of parental attachment and supervision decrease the odds of prostitution. These relationships are examined further using mediating and moderating variables, including running away from home, psychological distress, and drug use.

The data upon which this research is based come from The Ohio Lifecourse Study (OLS), a multi-wave dataset of household and institutionalized respondents. Variables central to the analysis come from items that ask how often the respondent has been paid to have sex and a variety of other items that measure contentious family environment, sexual abuse experienced as a child, parental supervision and attachment levels, the influence of peers, their self-esteem and depression levels, and the use and abuse of drugs. Importantly, although the OLS is a highly delinquent sample, it is not a prostitute-biased sample. In addition, the OLS contains a variety of respondents, including those not involved in prostitution, prostitutes who were abused as adolescents, those who were also abused as adolescents but did are not prostitutes, and those of different races. Thus, although the sample is highly delinquent, there is much variation among respondents on key variables including abuse, supervision, running away, and drug use/abuse to name a few. Furthermore, because the OLS contains both quantitative data and qualitative life history narratives, the latter serve as an important supplement to the former and provide rich and nuanced detail not obtainable from the quantitative analyses.

Binary logistic regression analyses show support for the hypothesis that higher levels of sexual abuse increase the odds of prostitution (strain theory), but this relationship is not mediated by running away as argued in previous research. On the other hand, there is little support for the hypothesis that higher levels of parental attachment decrease the odds of prostitution (social control theory); however, this could be a result of the sample being highly delinquent or the lack of variation among respondents on the parental attachment variables. In contrast, there is evidence that higher levels of supervision decrease the odds of prostitution (social control theory). In addition, there is support for the hypothesis that those with delinquent friends have higher odds of prostitution than those without delinquent friends (social learning theory). Moreover, there is support for racial and job status differences. For example, blacks have consistently and significantly higher odds of prostitution than whites and those who are unemployed or employed part-time have consistently and significantly higher odds of prostitution than those with full time jobs. Finally, with the exception of parental caring and trust, most of the moderating variables are not found to be significant.