303 – Prostitution Research, with Dr. Melissa Farley

Screen Shot 2023-09-18 at 12.16.37 AM

Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Dr. Melissa Farley. The two discuss the issues surrounding the legalization of prostitution.

Dr. Melissa Farley

Dr. Melissa Farley. She’s a feminist psychologist who has authored or co-authored 52 peer reviewed articles on trauma, healthcare, prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking as well as two books, “Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress” and “Prostitution and Trrafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.” Her research and publications have been used by governments in South Africa, Cambodia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Ghana, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States for education and policy development on prostitution and trafficking. Dr. Farley founded Prostitution Research and Education, a nonprofit research institute, which disseminates educational materials by survivors and others who contribute to the movement to abolish prostitution.

Main Points

  • Prostitution, pornography, and trafficking are linked and are difficult to separate because they all affect each other.
  • Research should include survivor voices and cultural representation from leaders and experts should be a part of the process.
  • Trafficking is essentially pimping, and in simple terms is the control of one human being by another who uses them for the purpose of making money by selling them for sexual use.
  • The common narrative that permeates the nuanced issue of prostitution, and it is often pushed by the pimps themselves, is that most people engage in prostitution voluntarily but there are few who have been trafficked.
  • Prostitution is not a freely made choice because coercive control is involved and social conditions that surround an individual.
  • When prostitution is legalized, the stigma around it remains.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode #303: Prostitution Research with Dr. Melissa Farley.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. This is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. We’re going to have a conversation with Dr. Melissa Farley. She’s a feminist psychologist who has authored or co-authored 52 peer reviewed articles on trauma, healthcare, prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking as well as two books, “Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress” and “Prostitution and Trrafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.” Her research and publications have been used by governments in South Africa, Cambodia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Ghana, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States for education and policy development on prostitution and trafficking. Dr. Farley founded Prostitution Research and Education, a nonprofit research institute, which disseminates educational materials by survivors and others who contribute to the movement to abolish prostitution. Dr. Farley has also been a speaker at the Global Center for Women and Justice’s Ensure Justice Conference. We are so glad to have this conversation. It is such a pleasure to have you with me today Dr. Melissa Farley. Thank you.

Dr. Melissa Farley 2:25
I am so happy to be here, Sandie Morgan. It’s been many, many years. When we first met and began working on this challenging human rights abuse. But it’s a pleasure. Thanks.

Sandra Morgan 2:41
Well, you have been doing prostitution research for how many years?

Dr. Melissa Farley 2:48
We have been doing research on prostitution and pornography and trafficking because they’re so linked, we’ve found you can’t separate them. We’ve been doing research on those things for 25 years now with many, many, many other people. It’s not just prostitution research, and our team, but it’s lots of partners.

Sandra Morgan 3:13
I think that’s one of the things I really admire about your research, is it is very connected, related, survivor voices are always present, and cultural representation from leaders and experts where you’re doing research are part of the process.

Dr. Melissa Farley 3:41
It’s true, it’s true. We could never have done any of this without the leadership, really, of survivors of the sex trade in all parts of the world. Everything I know and everything we try and communicate comes from that base of their perceptions, and their observations, and their analysis of the sex trade. And I know that’s really important to you too, right, in your work?

Sandra Morgan 4:11
Absolutely, absolutely. We don’t want to do anything for someone without them being part of the process. So let’s start off. If you can give us a glimpse into how you see the overlap of prostitution, pornography, and human trafficking? Those three elements.

Dr. Melissa Farley 4:37
Let me just first say that, after many, many requests from people in the media for an answer to the question, how many people are trafficked anyway? When you use the word trafficking, most of us in the United States, are talking about the federal United States Trafficking Victim Protection Act, which has occasionally been revised since it was first put into effect, but that’s what people are talking about. It’s been my experience, Sandie, I don’t know about you, but people, their eyes roll back in their heads if you start talking about trafficking without defining it. So, over the years, I’ve come to decide, the simplest way to talk about trafficking is to describe what it does. What it does, is it’s pimping. Trafficking, on the ground, in terms of looking at someone’s behavior and the criminal act, it’s pimping. It’s the control of one human being by another who uses them for the purpose of making money by selling them for sexual use. It’s just straight up pimping. Everybody knows what pimping is, few people really know what trafficking is. I use a behavioral definition of trafficking. If you go along with my definition, trafficking is pimping, then the next question is, how many people in the sex trade which includes everything you can think of that has to do with selling sex acts, mainly pictures, no pictures taken, phone sex, massage parlor prostitution, escort prostitution, cell phone prostitution, which just means that somebody puts an ad up for “high end escort” and it just means everybody has a cell phone, the sex buyer, the pimp, and the woman who’s being sold, all have cell phones. If you look at all the different types of prostitution, and types really means the location where it happens, then the question is, how many of those women are pimped? And we have finally done a survey of agencies and governmental reports from Europe and Asia and North America. We called up different NGOs, the service organization NGOs, and we asked them, how many of the people you’re providing services to are under pimp control or under third party control? Because women in the sex trade don’t call them pimps. They call them managers, boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends, friends. They don’t call them pimps, but that’s what they’re doing. So we ask that question of many, many agencies, and many, many official reports. And Sandie, that is a number that is so important to me and it’s so little understood. What we found is that 84% of all adults in prostitution that’s over the age of 18, 84%, are under pimp control. This turns the common idea that most people are in prostitution voluntarily, on its head. Right?

Sandra Morgan 8:39

Dr. Melissa Farley 8:40
The common narrative put out, I think, by pimps and their allies and friends, the common narrative is that, “well, most people are in prostitution voluntarily, but we have to pay attention to those few that are trafficked.” No, it’s not true. Most people are under pimp control and it’s been that way for quite a while, and it looks like it’s staying that way, very much so. So that connection between pimping or trafficking and prostitution is that it’s usually got a pimp in the picture, of course, and always a sex buyer. So you have a large group of people who are vulnerable because usually, for the most part, they’re female, or they look like females. They’re young, they’re poor, and more often than not, as we know, here in California and in many, many parts of the world, they’re women who are vulnerable because of their immigration status, or their ethnic or cultural identity. So that’s who’s in the sex trade. The simple answer to ‘how is pornography connected to that?’ is, I would say this: the only new thing about pornography is that there’s a camera. Either a camera in a studio, which is the old fashioned way of making pornography, or a webcam, laptop, or cell phone produced pornography, which is most pornography today, is produced at home with a cell phone or laptop.

Sandra Morgan 10:31
Wait, so these big studios that proliferated a decade ago now, are being pushed out of business by every day, Mom and Pop pop ups?

Dr. Melissa Farley 10:43
They’re not mom and pop, they look like Mom and Pop, they’re made to look like the pimp isn’t in the picture. But the fact is, the pimp is very much in the picture. One of the things we’ve just found in a new study of pornography production harms is that a majority of pornography that was produced in Sweden and near Sweden, most of the pornography those 105 men and women produced was filmed without their consent.

Sandra Morgan 11:23

Dr. Melissa Farley 11:24
Without their consent by Johns, or by people putting cameras up in hotel rooms and stuff like that. I was surprised by that, so mom and pop doesn’t exist. The amateur porn look, the mom and pop look, is how it’s sold. But there’s there’s a pimp in the picture, much more often than not.

Sandra Morgan 11:48
So the role of control that you used in the definition at the beginning, goes across all of these overlapping elements here. Whether we’re talking about selling pornography, which is still selling a commercial sex act, or if we’re talking about an in person sexual encounter, but control is the overlapping concept that’s involved.

Dr. Melissa Farley 12:23
That’s exactly right, Sandie, and it’s coercive control. It’s not again, you know, the reason we started our organization was to debunk the myths and lies about the sex trade that are put out by sex trade businessman, ie., pimps. One of the lies that’s out there is that it is a freely made choice. The way you and I might figure out, where are we going to meet for a coffee, at Coffee Shop A or B. It’s not a choice like that, it’s a coerced choice, made by extremely vulnerable human beings, who may not have other options. Today when somebody is doing blow jobs at a gas station so they can get a tank of gas to go to a job, if some reporter comes up and asks her, “Hey, what are you doing?,” she might say, “Well, I’m choosing to do this because I want a tank of gas,” but you know, that’s not really a choice. Similarly, when a teenager sells some kind of a sex act in exchange for a McDonald’s hamburger because she’s hungry, or her little brother or sister is hungry, there are many, many teenage girls prostituting that are a primary source of food for their families in the United States today. This is a choice that can be coerced by social conditions like hunger, a lack of housing, wanting to get some nice clothes for yourself or your children. It isn’t always a gun to the head and chains to the ankles. That’s my point, that’s a myth, and that is certainly an extreme form of pimping where you have coercive, violent control. Now, there’s always violence in the background when you have pimping or trafficking or any kind of prostitution, it’s a very violent enterprise. But the coercive control can be a lack of opportunity, a lack of housing, a lack of jobs, a lack of food, or even less visible to the casual observer, for teenagers, it can be a lack of family support and affection and attention. Certainly pimps are smarter than you and I, and any anti-trafficking organization, in knowing how to sweet talk young kids. They know how to do that. There’s a word for that. I call it just the recruiting, love bombing, that is what cults do when they’re trying to get people into a cult. The word for it in Germany is “Romeo pimping.” But it’s a little misleading, because every pimp knows how to do that. That’s their job.

Sandra Morgan 15:54
Let me go back to, you use the word “choice.” I hear this often and I still remember one of the very first interviews that I did with a young woman, when I started working right here in Orange County. She told me how this was her choice because she was helping her boyfriend. It fits that entire paradigm. Over and over again, this idea of choice is used as part of that argument. Now I’m hearing it again, when people are talking about different approaches to legalize prostitution, in order to, and I’m not exactly sure even how to say this out loud, because it bothers me so much, but to respect the choice of the individual. If I have concerns about is it a choice that’s been coerced by an environment of scarcity and the coercive mind games that we’ve talked about before on this podcast, so that this person feels like they are making this decision, but they’re also being manipulated? Where does that fit in to the arguments that we are hearing about legalizing prostitution?

Dr. Melissa Farley 17:37
That’s such an important observation, Sandie. Like you, I hear this every day and twice on Mondays from the pimps and their friends. And I consider pimps and their friends, and sometimes pimps who call themselves sex work advocates, you know, there are a lot of Pimps in those organizations also. I don’t know if you know that the sex workers organizing Project SWOP in California was begun by a woman who has an interstate trafficking conviction. She’s a pimp. She’s friendly, California girl, surfer look, but she’s a pimp and she called herself a sex worker advocate. Sadly, she is no longer alive, but when she was alive, she was a strong, strong advocate for prostitution, and trafficking, of course. But to get back to that question, someone says, “but you’re restricting their choice, Sandie, you can’t tell somebody what to do.” If she says, or he says, “This is my choice, I’m making good money, etc,” here’s how I would respond to that. Does she, or if you’re talking directly to a young person who says ‘I made the choice,’ I wouldn’t argue with somebody who is on the street and saying they made that choice, that’s not the place for the debate. But when a reporter says this, when a sex work advocate says this, when somebody in a meeting is pushing legalized sexual exploitation, what I would say is, “But I have a question for you. Has she been offered the choice not to prostitute?” That’s the question we need to be asking. Because in one short sentence, it focuses in on the utter lack of choice of some young person who is turning tricks out on international Boulevard in Oakland, or Cap Street in San Francisco or online, more often than not. Trafficking is advertised, and prostitution is advertised through online porn. So the question is, do you have options? If you wanted to, if the if the person wanted to, could they access safe housing and food another way? Or are they actually prostituting because they might not have a place to live in next month, if they don’t raise the money from the sex trade from engaging in prostitution? So, that’s one approach.

Sandra Morgan 20:50
And I’ve heard that over and over again. I’ve met moms who say to me, “It’s cold, I have to pay the heating bill. My children are not going to be cold because I don’t want to ‘work.'” Okay, so another argument.

Dr. Melissa Farley 21:11
Let me just say one other thing that I hate about that argument, like they’re making the choice to prostitute. If you object to that assumption that the choice is made, oftentimes, somebody will back down a little bit and they’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but there are a lot of unpleasant jobs Sandie. Who likes working at McDonald’s? I’m sure your boss gives you a hard time at Vanguard sometimes. You know, we all have difficult jobs.” We can go down that road, too.

Sandra Morgan 21:53
For sure, for sure. So one of the other arguments that I’ve heard is about how this might help remove some of the organized crime element. I remember a conversation back in episode 197, with Dr. Donna Hughes, a mutual friend of ours. She reported that countries that utilize the legalization approach anticipated getting rid of organized crime, but only succeeded in expanding illegal unregulated prostitution.

Dr. Melissa Farley 22:33
That’s exactly right. And it’s only gotten worse since you interviewed Dr. Hughes, only worse. It always amazes me when people go down that road, Sandie, and say, “well, it would be better.” Here’s how I see that question. That’s really one of the most important questions and the simplest issue to bring up around, ‘Should we legalize prostitution? Or should we help anyone who wants to get out of the sex trade, get out and arrest the perps of the crime, who are sex buyers, pimps and traffickers?’ To address that argument you have to know the answer to the question, “Doesn’t legal prostitution make it at least a little bit better? Or doesn’t it back off some of the worst elements or doesn’t it reduce the harm?”. At heart, that question is a harm reduction argument. It goes like this: the stigma is reduced. The social stigma of prostitution is reduced and people are not getting arrested. Anybody engaged, any anti-trafficking advocate, any human rights advocate, any housing advocate, needs to understand that there is no data that shows ever, that legal prostitution reduces the rape, the violence, the assault, the sexual harassment, and the harm, physical and psychological of prostitution, that has been documented in decades of many, many, many people’s research. We know how bad women and others get hurt in the sex trade. But what does get reduced is one or two things, and we need to know this and we need to talk about it. When prostitution is legalized, women and men in the sex trade do not get arrested. They twist the abolitionist position, and they call us prohibitionists. Maybe there’s some people out there that morally think, or they make a moral argument that it’s bad to support people in prostitution by not arresting them. Right? That’s not where you and I are at. This is not a moral argument. This is a harm argument where we are trying to reduce the harm, and we would never arrest anybody who’s turning a trick, we don’t want that. So they’re lying about our position on legal prostitution. That’s very important to know, and confront anyone who makes that mistake, or deliberate misinterpretation of the abolitionist position. The other thing to know is that evidence from New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands is very, very clear. There’s no reduction at all in social stigma, with legal prostitution, the stigma remains. The Germans can’t get anyone to join a prostitution union, neither can the Dutch. Why? Nobody wants a record of ever being in prostitution, whether it’s legal, illegal, quasi-legal, whatever. No one wants to be in it and everyone wants to get out fast, and they almost always don’t make the kind of money that pimps promised them. There is no reduction in the harm of prostitution, you can’t stop rapes in prostitution, it’s impossible. People think, “Oh, they have panic buttons.” I once talked to a guy who told me those booths in Amsterdam have not one, not two, but three panic buttons and women are still raped and strangled and pimps still keep pillows out of the little beds in those booths. Why? Because pimps know they’re used to suffocate and sometimes assassinate women.

Sandra Morgan 27:25
So let’s go back to when you were talking about, we don’t want to arrest the person being sold. What came about, we moved away from using the language of legalization, and we started about using the language of decriminalizing. We don’t want to criminalize and further stigmatize that victim. But many of the approaches to decriminalization are not just about decriminalizing the woman or sometimes a man, a male, a child, but actually it decriminalizes various actors in the sex trade that include the pimp, the brothel owners, the sex buyers.

Dr. Melissa Farley 28:21
Legalization, and decriminalization are a pimps legal dream. They don’t do anything for the person in prostitution, except take more money away from them, and make it easier for brothels and legal venues to make more money, which is pimping and brothel managing. That’s exactly right. Both what is called decriminalized prostitution, and legal prostitution, they’re both laws that are set up for pimps, and for sex trade businessmen. They do not benefit the people in it. New Zealand has had the same amount of pimp control and coercion, post decriminalization. They have much more trafficking from Australia and the Pacific and Asia than they did before. Why? Because pimps can make money. It’s simple. And pimps don’t have to worry about getting arrested.

Sandra Morgan 29:29
I know we’ve got to wrap up pretty quick, and I’m going to put links to that research you’re mentioning in our show notes, but I want to wrap up by going back to 2008, when you really led the battle against legalization in San Francisco. You built support from both sides of the aisle, and I’d just like a little bit of your reflection on that. Who supported you?

Dr. Melissa Farley 30:01
Well, if you go to noonk.net, you can see a list of kind of famous Bay Area percentages, and Democrats, and Republicans, and community groups who supported a grassroots organization that opposed a measure to, as we put it, every time we opened our mouth Sandie, and I urge people to do this, decriminalize, and normalize, trafficking and pimping. That’s what we focused on. We were very, very clear about messaging. We hired someone full time, who had PR expertise, she had a politician relative in her family, so she grew up around PR and messaging, that’s essential. People like you and me, your friends, my friends, we love them. But none of us are PR experts and pimps are, their friends are. They know how to message. Most of us are a little naive about that and I sure include myself in it. So there were a few key elements to that campaign. One of them was, we raised enough money to hire a full time PR person, and she ran the whole campaign with a lot of input from a whole bunch of us, including the legendary Norma Hotaling, at Sage, and several friends of hers at Sage, and many others. Safe house, which is still going in San Francisco. Safe house was behind this 100% and Glenda Hope. I could make a list a mile long. We had a website and we ran quotes. At this time, Barack Obama was running for president and guess what? The pimps chose a real good time to put it on the ballot because Obama brought in a bunch of young voters. In order to try and pass these measures, they were getting signatures on ballot measures by having topless people walking around with clipboards getting signatures. They pulled out every trick in the book, so to speak. But it takes a whole community, you cannot just be siloed if you try and object to pimp based laws that are coming up again. They bring them around every few years. We need to get used to this and we need to have an organization that’s flexible, that has their messaging down, and that has enough money to run ads in the newspaper, do free workshops, have media contacts, because the pimps and their friends have a lot of media savvy, don’t you think?

Sandra Morgan 33:23
Yes, yes. Well, we’re going to work hard to get the messaging out Dr. Farley. Tell us the website for prostitution research and education.

Dr. Melissa Farley 33:37
Yes, it’s a long name, prostitutionresearch.com. We have a number of libraries there. We have a whole library on law and policy. We have a blog called Traffic Jamming, where you can pick up the latest in political movements that are opposing the legalization of pimping and trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 34:05
That’s the place when I want the latest research on prostitution. We’re going to put a link to the No on K, so you can look at history and learn from what the community there did back in 2008. Much of it is still very relevant. We’ll put links to Episode 197 where we talked about legalization with Dr. Donna Hughes. And again, Episode 219, where we talked to Brad Miles. Come back and join us on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast again in two weeks. And Melissa, I appreciate you so much. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom.

Dr. Melissa Farley 34:57
Thanks for inviting me Sandie. I appreciate our work together over the years. Thank you so much and see you soon.

Sandra Morgan 35:06
All right! Bye, bye.

Scroll to Top