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The Prostitution Stops Rape Fallacy

The first time I was arrested because of prostitution, on Benburb Street in 1991, I had a conversation with the arresting officer that I have never forgotten. I’d heard one of the older women talk about how we prevented rape, and, sadly, I’d latched onto that as some kind of validation, some kind of evidence that it, and by extension, I, was useful and worthwhile. I didn’t even believe this, but I presented it to the arresting officer as some sort of evidence that I was not, in fact, vermin, but somebody who was doing society a favour in the form of a communal service. This was bullshit, as I sensed myself, and as he was quick to remind me.

I was in the Bridewell Police Station and it was somewhere in the autumn of 1991. I don’t remember his name, but he told me, that day, something I’ve never forgotten. He said, in that blunt way of the Irish: ‘Love, you don’t stop a man raping, or wanting to. You don’t stop rape or anything to do with that. A man who wants to rape will go out and rape, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it’. He might have added, though he didn’t ‘We deal with rape every day’.

I was in the Bridewell Police Station and it was somewhere in the autumn of 1991. I don’t remember his name, but he told me, that day, something I’ve never forgotten. He said, in that blunt way of the Irish: ‘Love, you don’t stop a man raping, or wanting to. You don’t stop rape or anything to do with that. A man who wants to rape will go out and rape, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it’. He might have added, though he didn’t ‘We deal with rape every day’.

And they do, the Guards, or the Police, as they’re known nearly everywhere else in the English speaking world. They deal with rape a lot. As a group, they’re probably second most familiar with it, behind the women in prostitution.

How can I tell you what rape means to me, as a formerly prostituted woman? I was lucky. I know that; both lucky and wily, lucky and crafty, but first and foremost, always lucky.

I was guileful, and I am remembering now so many times when I used my own senses for the nature of people’s intentions to get me out of trouble before it began. It was always a matter of warding off, stepping away from, or redirecting the course of events that were unfolding, and there was so much forward thinking involved in that; it was like a never-ending game of chess, and the ‘course of events’ was often set to end in sexual violence.

It is strange to me now to think that the ‘prostitution stops rape’ fallacy has ever had a chance to gain traction, when sexual violence is so much part of the prostitution life. Do people believe that women in prostitution will simply absorb all the sexual violence there is out there? And do they actually believe they deserve to? Are they so heartless as to imagine there ought to be a separate class of women who sustain the torment of sexual violence so that other ‘normal’ women need not experience it? And what does it say about the individuals who entertain this thought process? Such opinions cannot be held by anyone who does not first ignore and forgo the humanity of the women they would single out to be the recipients of sexual abuse.

Irish feminist Susan McKay, former Chief Executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, made similar points when she said:

“There is an argument that the existence of prostitutes acts as a safety valve for male sexual aggression, thus protecting other women. This disregards the rights of all women to live without sexual violence, but it is also untrue. Studies show that men who use prostitutes regularly are more likely to become violent to women with whom they are in a relationship. Men who use prostitutes are not men who respect women.”

This idea that there are some women for whom prostitution is good enough and right and befitting, and others for whom it is an unthinkable assignment, reminds me very much of the attitudes of those men I’ve already spoken about publicly who would abuse my teenaged self in their homes. They would do so with no apparent thought to the evidence of their family lives that presented all around us, including photos of their own teenaged daughters, often older than I was, that adorned the walls. I could feel the hypocrisy then, but I can better understand it now. I can understand, because I have been so often exposed to it, that there is a wilful ignorance at work here; and ignorance is necessary for those entrenched in self-deception when the bald facts paint an unpalatable picture. But this is wilful ignorance at the micro level. How do we best explain it when we are talking about whole societies looking the other way?

The studied, determined ignorance of the individual with an agenda can in fact be compared with that of the society that doesn’t want to know, because it, too, has an agenda. The punter’s agenda is active. It says ‘don’t show me that, because I might have to stop what I’m doing’. Society’s agenda is passive. It says ‘don’t show me that, because I might have to do something’.

It does not stop with the head-in-the-sand mentality. Those who do not want to acknowledge the truth about prostitution ensure they introduce the circumvention of reality into every conversation they have about it. Active, energetic contradictions abound. There are statistics fabricated and legitimate figures obscured. There are repudiations and abjurations and disavowals of the facts. There are disclaimers and rejections and denunciations and denials. There are refusals and disallowances and negations of truth. There are determined and deliberate lies. There is the outright abandonment of reason and every other damn type of wriggling away from reality that the sorrier side of humanity can come up with.

In the midst of all this, every generation churns out a class of women who are expected to be the recipients of the remunerated sexual violence we are told is necessary to protect the general female population, and yet the existence of prostitution as paid sexual violence is something liberal feminism strives desperately to deny. So which is it? Are a class of paid women necessary to absorb this sexual aggression or does paid sexual aggression not exist at all?

Let us imagine the setting for a form of abuse that is primarily physical rather than sexual; a battlefield, for example. We are all acquainted with the concept of ‘human shields’, and rightly abhor the cowardice and inhumanity that singles out individuals to bear the brunt of the violence so that others will escape it. Why, then, are one class of women generally accepted to be deserving of their position as the human shields of sexual violence? Because they are from lower socio-economic groups? Because they are from impoverished nations and communities? Because their homelands have been war-torn or environmentally damaged? Because they’ve been sexually abused since childhood and grew up thinking that’s all they’re good for? Because they are generally undereducated? Because they are disproportionately women of colour? – And if you refuse to look at these things, if you refuse to look at the demographics that make up the prostituted population, I have this to ask: What is it about these demographics that make you so uncomfortable you refuse to acknowledge them? And if you refuse to acknowledge them while claiming to be a feminist, I just have this to ask: Are you for fucking real?

The facts are the women who’ve been previously disenfranchised for numerous reasons beyond their control overwhelmingly make up the prostituted population, and these are the women much of society is content to see used as the human shields for sexual violence.

The obvious question is why? Why are so many people at ease with knowing armies of disempowered women occupy the front lines and are thought to act as a buffer between ‘normal’ women and sexual violence? And why do those who are content with this horrific reality include women who, laughably, term themselves feminists?

The female proponents of prostitution consistently tie their arguments in knots; it is a messy business trying to find legitimate reasons for the existence of prostitution while pretending it was never any harm in the first place. It gets messier still when trying to maintain an air of civility while contending that women like us are necessary to protect women like them. If they believe we were capable of protecting their bodies with ours they’re bigger fools than I thought they were, and that is saying something.

Probably the saddest point in our job as the human shields of sexual violence was that it was considered good enough for us in the first place. Probably the most pointless was that we hadn’t a hope of being able to carrying it out. Our shielding position was a make-believe one. It always was. The truth is that prostituted women are in the front lines of the battle of rape and sexual assault against women, but the mistake society makes is in assuming that by absorbing it, we could curtail it. We could not. Prostitution does nothing to satisfy the problem of male sexual aggression. It does the opposite. It says to those men who are sexually aggressive, ‘here are women upon whom you can vent your urges’, and by doing so, it says, ‘you are entitled to find women upon whom to vent them’. Is anybody really so ignorant as to the nature of sexual violence that they think it can be validated and confined at the same time?

Far from preventing sexual assault, prostitution sets up the conditions for rape; and where we set up the conditions for rape, it will happen. The utterly unequal sexual power relations of prostitution are the perfect breeding ground for rape and sexual assault. Prostitution is the rape fantasist’s playground, the one place in society where he can indulge what he considers his kinky little thrill without fear of legal reprisal. If anybody is so foolish as to think this environment curtails rape rather than encourages it, then they not only misunderstand prostitution, but the nature of sexual violation itself.


  1. Susan McKay says,“There is an argument that the existence of prostitutes acts as a safety valve for male sexual aggression.” Yes, there is such an argument, but I’ve never hear any feminist espouse it, ever. Yet you accuse those who “laughably, term themselves feminists” of being fools and worse for believing “that women like us are necessary to protect women like them.” Name a single feminist who has made this contention. If you are going to lecture us about having open minds and making good arguments, start with yourself.

    1. Actually there are several writers claiming the label of ‘feminist’ who also claim that the existence (esp. decriminalization of) the sex industry helps to curb men’s violence against other women.

      Wendy McElroy and Carol Queen are two good examples. Queen has claimed that prostitution is a useful outlet for the sexual urges of men who may wish to have violent sex with their partners but who have partners who don’t want this.

      McElroy has made similar claims with regard to pornography, including that: “Pornography may be a catharsis for
      men with violent urges toward women…restricting pornography removes a protective barrier between women and abuse.”

      But, of course, this does exactly what McKay suggests – it sets up one group of women (those in prostitution) to endure the abuse that other women (including themselves) are supposedly being spared from.

  2. Rachel, you are using your painful experiences in such a constructive way. I only ever see positive comments on your work which is greatly valued.
    Wishing you success and continued strength in your recovery.

    best wishes,

  3. “Do people believe that women in prostitution will simply absorb all the sexual violence there is out there? And do they actually believe they deserve to? Are they so heartless as to imagine there ought to be a separate class of women who sustain the torment of sexual violence so that other ‘normal’ women need not experience it? And what does it say about the individuals who entertain this thought process?”

    The same kind of people claiming to be “allies” of the prostituted who think it’s OK to further marginalize REAL poverty-stricken sex trafficking survivors within the abolition movement because they view us as “lesser-thans” whom they’d prefer to NOT deal with, and instead trot out frauds and Madison Avenue packaged fake survivors to prop up rather than support REAL sex trafficking survivors from the poverty class—that’s who.

  4. What a brilliant article (which I’ll be sharing) and I couldn’t agree more. While I think most feminists do see that prostitution IS violence against women, I have met some who trot out BS about ‘women should be able to do what they want with their bodies’ as though most women in the industry have agency there.

    I remember being very saddened at a feminist meeting a couple of years ago while talking about pornography that some were defending it (those who watched it).

    You’re an incredibly brave woman and thank you for giving me this article as a tool to fight against the stupider arguments people put forward for prostitution.

  5. Excellent piece. I get sick of hearing pro-prostitution advocates saying “LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS” when “listen” means “accept statements uncritically” and “sex workers” means only those who support prostitution for whatever reason. It seems that they don’t want us to listen to those who hated prostitution, nor do they want us to consider the thousands of women and girls worldwide who aren’t able to speak out about their lives in prostitution for fear of reprisal.

  6. This made for interesting reading.
    I have heard the remark that prostitution will “prevent” men from raping made by a woman who was a stripper, porn star then went into escort work.
    I totally disagree with that hideous viewpoint.
    A man will rape if he wants to. Speaking as someone who has been sexually assaulted, I know that rape is the result of four factors. 1) Anger 2) Humiliation 3) Power 4) Control. Since a man with control issues can take out all these emotions on prostitute, there is nothing stopping him from taking them out on other women also. As long as there are prostitutes, escorts, both willing and unwilling, both male and female, rape will still exist. If you look at the statistics you will also see that the instances of rape in close vicinities to strip clubs has increased by 9%. Men are not animals. To rape someone is a choice they make. There is self – control. They need to use it.

  7. Reading Rachel Moran’s brilliance on this subject, or anything else, is like having a drink of cool water after a day of hiking in the Sahara. Breathtaking, dazzling rhetoric and brave unvarnished truth. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

  8. Very true..what u have said…
    I completely agree with you that how some women believing in this fact that prostitutes act as their shields against sexual assault be so selfish that they let that group of women to suffer this voilence for their own safety..even when this fact not valid at all..
    In my country,I have seen many NGOs working for the healthcare of sex workers..ya.its a appraisable task,but they do so because they also argue the same thing that it saves our society from sexual crimes,so it can not be banned… but according to my opnion,they should help to abolish this system from this society

    1. Giving a man a method to satisfy his urge for sex whenever he want,is reducing his own sef control,which leads to his impatience which ultimately results him committing the rape on an unknown girl only because of his uncontrolled urge for sex..
      So,as u have said ..prostitution is not a solution in any way
      I really liked your article which made me to think.

  9. Time for a man’s point of view, after the article written by Rachel and comments by women. Nature / Evolution / God / Whatever made healthy men to have sex, or at least ejaculate, once a week. That’s how humans evolved over millions of years, having sex whenever they wanted it. It is a biological function, like eating at least once day. If a man is starving, he may be forced to steal food. Is he supposed to control his hunger? Learn to live without food? Have more respect for cooks? Likewise if sperm cells back up they cause pain and need an outlet. It has less to do with the women, how he feels about her, respects her, blah blah. It is sad to say, but prostitutes, porn, and other outlets have prevented billions of rapes over the centuries.

    1. 1) I suppose “healthy men” would also have a reasonably healthy brain that tells them what actions would hurt others, and tell them that something is seriously wrong when they see a disfigured, bruised, bleeding, sick, sobbing “service provider”, and tell them not to hurt her more.
      2) “It” is NOT comparable to hunger/thirst for food. It is voluntary, unlike digestion or respiration. “Atleast once a week” is waaaaaay too high figure – if that is natural/normal then humans would multiply as fast as bugs. No way.
      May be this “Atleast once a week” comes after watching movies & other media created by perverted minds that glorify unhealthy stuff & project it as desirable.
      3) Even if you disagree with the previous point, Matt has given a solution for it in his reply (the comment below yours).

  10. @Douglas — Also speaking as a man, you have a hand. Use it. No need to pay a woman in order to treat her like one in order to “alleviate one’s urges.”

    Basic human decency and fundamental respect for the worth and dignity of every human being, especially for women, have stopped far more rapes than prostitutes, porn, and other outlets ever will.

  11. Well written article.. made me think!
    I completely agree with the fact that prostitution will not help preventing rape and this whole ‘protecting normal women’ thing is complete nonsense.

    But I have a very *hypothectical* question to ask you (simply beacuse I do not know. not because I disagree or anything).
    There are a few women who willingly get into prostitution, not just for the sake of money. There are a few men who don’t want to abuse/overpower, just want to satisfy their urge.. who have enough self control to not rape anyone.
    Do you think there’s something wrong even with prostitution of the non-abusive kind?

    1. I’m yet to see a woman who would willingly get into this shameful trade if not for money or threat/force/kidnapping. They exist primarily in the vile imaginations of males. But perhaps, even in the real world there might (just ‘might’, in theory) be some women who “willingly” get into this trade, just like the young lamb in Aesop’s fable that “willingly” vaulted the fence when the wolf outside the fence pretended to eat grass & told that the grass outside the fence was the sweetest it had ever tasted. But you know what happened next right?
      And, no, there is no such thing called “non-abusive prostitution” – that is just the picture painted by the pimp lobby to the public. No woman would ever ever want to sell her body. Even those extraordinarily-ignorant-women who might initially get decieved by Aesop’s wolves would definitely get horrified when they actually face the reality and want to run away from it, but alas they are already trapped & guarded.

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