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Logo of bmjThe BMJ
BMJ. 2001 July 28; 323(7306): 230.
PMCID: PMC1120842

Violence towards female prostitutes

Violence in sex work extends to more than risks from clients
Sophie Day, honorary senior lecturer
Helen Ward, senior lecturer

Editor—Church et al report that violence by clients was strongly associated with street prostitution in three British cities.1 Although they say that violence in sex work has seldom been the focus of public and academic interest, it has been extensively documented in much of the historical and contemporary literature.23 Moreover, they simplify the situation by focusing exclusively on violence by clients. In a survey we conducted in London (1989-91), 112 (58%) out of 193 women reported previous assault; these women worked in all sectors of the industry, including 57% of indoor and 68% of street workers. Women reported that 40% of recent assaults were by clients.

Survey data are defined by the pre-existing knowledge and concerns of the investigators. We interpreted material from our survey in the light of prospective research to avoid replicating our own perceptions about violence. This study design also enabled measurement of incident violence and estimates of mortality. Different types of violence were experienced from the state, family, strangers, and clients. The most harrowing entailed the occasional removal of prostitutes' children by the state, and domestic violence. But in addition, everyday arrests, imprisonment, fines, and police raids led women to move within the industry to minimise their risks. Thus, some women reported a positive choice to work in saunas or on streets after experiencing violence in other work sectors because of the apparent protection of operating in a public place with colleagues.4

Prospective research showed, therefore, that London street workers could not be readily differentiated from others over time. Church et al discuss the service implications of excessive mortality but cannot provide relevant data from their survey methods; nor do they cite any. We have previously reported a death rate 12 times higher than expected in London.5 Two women were murdered; neither worked on streets, and the one case that was resolved implicated a boyfriend, not a client. As we concluded, the two murders provide extreme examples of common experiences among prostitutes, who face high rates of violent assault in their personal and their professional lives. The health risks of this occupation are both direct and indirect; occupational studies of, and services for, prostitutes cannot be confined to the risks posed directly by exchanges with customers.


1. Church S, Henderson M, Barnard M, Hart G. Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey. BMJ. 2001;322:524–525. . (3 March.) [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Roberts N. Whores in history. Prostitution in Western society. London: HarperCollins; 1992.
3. Ward H, Day S. Health care and regulation—new perspectives. In: Scambler G, Scambler A, editors. Rethinking prostitution. London: Routledge; 1997. pp. 139–164.
4. Day S. The law and the market: rhetorics of exclusion and inclusion among London prostitutes. In: Harris O, editor. Inside and outside the law. London: Routledge; 1996. pp. 75–97.
5. Ward H, Day S, Weber J. Risky business: health and safety in the sex industry over a 9 year period. Sex Transm Inf. 1999;75:340–343. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2001 July 28; 323(7306): 230.

We should listen to working women

Petra M Boynton, senior research fellow

Editor—The findings from the survey Church et al conducted of women prostitutes indicate the extent of (sexual) violence faced by those who sell sex.1-1 We applaud Church et al for highlighting the risks posed to prostitutes, who are frequently blamed for causing health problems, when their own health needs are overlooked. Church et al note that prostitutes who work outdoors in particular routinely confront clients who are verbally, sexually, and physically violent towards them.

In our qualitative research with women involved in street prostitution we observed similar experiences.1-2 It is, however, worth noting that prostitutes do not just experience violence from clients. They also are in danger from pimps, who subject women to physical and verbal abuse to ensure they continue seeing clients and bring in money. In addition, women involved in street prostitution experience high levels of verbal (and physical) abuse from those who pass through the red light area. We observed for ourselves the seemingly endless hatred directed at street prostitutes from those who see them as an easy target.1-2

Considering that many prostitutes begin working when young, or are still children, it may be that previous physical or emotional abuse has led them to engage in prostitution—and enables others (pimps and clients) to continue to take advantage of them. As Church et al state, prostitutes' needs are often overlooked, and improved services are needed to help them. Such services need to address physical and psychological health and be more widespread, as many prostitutes feel marginalised and therefore find accessing health services difficult.


1-1. Church S, Henderson M, Barnard M, Hart G. Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey. BMJ. 2001;322:524–525. . (3 March.) [PMC free article] [PubMed]
1-2. Boynton PM, Bucknor N, Morton J. Somebody's daughters, somebody's sisters: a reflection of Wolverhampton working women's lives. Birmingham: Aston University; 1998.

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