Prostitutes vs. Strippers: A Comparison

This is Sarah's term paper she wrote in college in mentioned in the sex work episode. She wrote it in 2002 so keep that in mind!

        The commercial sex business is a multibillion-dollar industry.  It includes escort services, outcall services, prostitution tourism, streetwalkers, strippers, adult/child pornography, and video/internet pornography.  These different professions seem to cover three main areas – pornography, prostitution, and striptease. There seems to be the most intersection between prostitution and striptease with many sex workers entering the industry through these two areas and switching between the two over the span of their careers. Therefore this comparison will focus on primarily on those two.  Also since 80% of sex workers are female, the information and analysis will refer primarily to women (Farley 5).

The difference between strippers and streetwalkers comes from the difference between a legal act and illegal act.  Since stripping is legal is some form almost everywhere, there is the presence of regulation that protects the worker to certain extent.  However, the line between the two is very gray.  For instance, on the website there is information on all the logistical knowledge one needs to be a stripper.  In a section titled “Vocabulary,” there are words for the different dances and then there are different words for oral sex, ‘hand jobs’, and sex. There is also an article titled “On the Issue of Being a Whore” which explains that no matter what the stripper wants to tell herself she is a whore. “Anyone who works in the sex industry is a whore. … We are all whores.”  Also, many prostitutes reported starting as a stripper before finally becoming a prostitute.  Again, the motivation is financial and they feel it will be an easier and quicker way to make more money. 

Another big difference between stripping and prostitution is the media’s treatment of the two types of sex workers.  There have been many more jobs glamorizing the work of strippers than prostitutes.  From Flashdance to Showgirls, the women are portrayed as ‘real’ dancers just trying to get by through stripping.  TV shows as mainstream as Mad About You depict characters as going to strip clubs with no undertone of moral disapproval.  In the most popular film about prostitution, Pretty Women, the situation is fantasy but the industry itself is never portrayed as glamorous.  The movie begins with Vivian witnessing the murdered body of another prostitute and telling her friend Kit that she wants to “get out of here.”  Never is the fact that Vivian is a prostitute portrayed as acceptable or morally right. When celebrities go to strip clubs, it is the next big trend.  However, when celebrities, such as Hugh Grant, are arrested for prostitution there is a large amount of disapproval.  No matter the amount of glamorization (Vivian is still rescued by a millionaire after all) media portrayals of prostitutes and strippers always ignores the harsh reality of life as a sex worker.

        There are many issues that arise when one begins examining the ‘real’ lives of these women.  Obviously there are many ‘body’ issues in a profession in which one sells one’s body as a commodity for the sexual pleasure of others.  There are issues of racism (the way one is paid depends on the color of one’s skin), socio/economic standing, and widespread oppression of women.  Many of these issues arise when the circumstances surrounding women’s entrance into these professions is examined.  The average age of entry into stripping is late teens (Jones).  The usual motivation is financial.  In narrative after narrative strippers would state that stripping was much more profitable than minimum wage work as a waitress or salesclerk.  


At 22, I was divorced with a 5-year-old daughter and slaving away as a waitress, earning $300 a week.  Meanwhile, a friend was working just one or two nights a week as an exotic dancer and making $750.  When she suggested I try it, I laughed. I was too shy to go topless at the beach – I’d never even driven past a strip club. But as I thought about all I wanted to give my child but couldn’t afford, I considered it. A few days later, I drove to a run-down strip joint terrified (Lemon 2).


Children were often a factor as was funding an education, both of which were used as type of justification. The issue of women’s oppression came up in many women’s narratives, as they argued that they were not oppressed.  However, many stated that the financial independence was the most important part and one must question why stripping is seen as the most viable option to achieve it.  Of course, there are also psychological factors.    In interviews, many women even stated that stripping gave them a sense of empowerment after leaving an abusive relationship

I realized that part of what I loved about the men’s desperation was that it made me feel superior. In my relationship with Matt, I’d always been the one wanting more. Now I was the unattainable one to dozens of men, men who actually were giving me money just so I would look their way while I danced (Hambrecht 2).


The estimates of sexual abuse during childhood among strippers, while lower than prostitution, is still high – anywhere from 40% to 75% (Farley 8).  Many believe that this is a way of ‘reclaiming’ their bodies for their own manipulation.  There are a small percentage of strippers who strip voluntarily.  They keep other jobs and drive to other towns to strip on the weekends.  While there might be no history of abuse, a sense of empowerment is often listed as the motivation.

While there are some similarities between prostitution and stripping, there are also many differences. The average age of entry into prostitution is estimated to be around 13 or 14 (Silbert). Each year 500,000 to 1 million children run away from home; half of these children end up having some contact with the sex business (Post).   Many of these girls are runaways for a variety of reasons.  However, some statistics estimate the history of sexual abuse among prostitutes to be anywhere from 45% to as high as 85%.  In interviews, many prostitutes stated this as a reason for leaving home (Council).  Once on the street there are logistical and psychological reasons for turning to prostitution.  Psychologically, many women after running away from abuse find only more violence and exploitation and turn to drugs to null the pain.  If they are as young as thirteen, there are not legally old enough to work at any other job and prostitution provides a way to make some money to support themselves or their habit.  Many are lured into prostitution through ‘boyfriends’ who offer support and care at first but then later turn out to be pimps.  Since finances are such a strong motivation, many strippers turn to prostitution because it is ‘easier’ money (HBO).   The number of ‘volunteer’ streetwalkers is considered to be very low.  Most often any sex worker who does it purely for enjoyment, which is very rare, is found in higher-class fetish communities.  

Being that the primary motivation for strippers and streetwalkers is financial, a closer evaluation of the system through which they make their money is needed.  With strip clubs, there is usually a club manager who decides how often and for how long a woman can dance.  He also decides if she is to ‘work the floor’ for lap dances or stage dance.  ‘Working the floor’ is much more lucrative than stage dancing.  There is a ‘club fee’ each dancer must also pay and as much as 50% of their tips will have to go to the club (L.A. Times).   On the site, a warning was posted about a club in New York City whose club management was openly denying girls their paychecks.  

My friend is currently having a nervous breakdown because they [the club] owe her over $2000 of which they've given her $400 minus a check cashing fee on top of the 20%. Today, they decided that the funny money [paper money distributed at clubs as a way of tipping] we have is useless because it's green and they are only cashing in red funny money right now. How convenient. They told her they'd give her $150 tomorrow for her red money as a "favor." 

There are bouncers that enforce the club manager’s decisions.  Often, there is much animosity and competition between the strippers for dance time.  Many interviews complained that some dancers worked out arrangement with the bouncers to allow them more time on the floor than other dancers.

Now comes the story about what bitches some girls can be. There was a girl that was talking to the same group of guys as I was, and that was fine. I didn't need to hog five guys to myself. But when it was almost nine o'clock, she said I better start tipping everybody, since my shift was over. My shift was over? I told her that my shift wasn't over until midnight. She said she had never heard of that before, and that I better go and talk to the manager. A few minutes later I saw her talking to a bouncer, and I really didn't think anything of it. Was I wrong! She told the bouncer that my shift was over and I wasn't leaving. He came over to me and told me it was time for me to go. (Antonia)


Many strippers stated that the worse part was not dealing with club management but overzealous customers.  Despite protection from the club, 79% of strippers report being stalked by customers and 61% have been victims of physical assault (L.A. times). 

Since there are no regulated businesses involved in streetwalking, each prostitute’s situation can be different.  However, there are some similarities.  While strip clubs are located all over the country, streetwalking is usually limited to large urban areas.  Since there is such a large stigma attached to prostitution, especially streetwalking, it is even segregated within urban settings to the poorest and most violent sections of town.  The location is not the only thing that is similar.  Statistics state that as much as 90% of streetwalkers have a pimp (Council). The dictionary defines a pimp as “one who finds customers for a prostitute.”  However, it seems they more often they serve as some type of ‘protection.’  Unfortunately, not only do they not stop many of the abuses by customers but also they themselves abuse the prostitutes.  The Council on Prostitutes Alternatives in Portland Oregon stated that 85% of prostitutes are raped regularly by their pimps.  In the HBO special Hookers at the Five Point: Five Years Later, one woman stated that the good side of a pimp was you knew who your man was cheating on you with but the bad side was the horrendous physical and emotional abuse.  Many look to the psychological condition the Stockholm syndrome to explain a prostitute’s relationship with her pimp. There are three situations in which this can happen: if the victim perceives a threat to survival and the believes their captor is willing to act on that threat, if the captive perceives small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror, and if there is isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor.   Much like prisoners and captors or abused wives and their abusive husbands, these women bond emotionally to their abusers as a psychological strategy to survive under conditions of captivity (Graham).   

Prostitutes are also very likely to be abused by their customers.  One article on the Prostitution Research and Education website outline the four types of ‘johns’ or customers.  There are ‘users.’  “The user would deny any intent to harm anyone, and might even claim some empathy for the sex workers he uses. However, his empathy does not extend to discontinuing his using behavior, nor to helping anyone escape from the sex industry (Parker 2).”  Users make up the majority of sex customers.  However, there are other types as well.  Many people with psychological problems are drawn to prostitutes because they can act out their desires without fear of rejection or getting caught.  There are sadists, people who receive sexual gratification by inflicting pain on others.  Many prostitutes report being beaten and raped by men who clearly got sexual pleasure out of it.  There are also those with necrophilia.  These people are aroused by death, filth, or degradation – all of which is in large quantities around streetwalkers.  Since this desire is rejected by society, these men can pay prostitutes and still keep their secret.  There are also child molesters and there is no shortage of children in the sex industry to meet their ‘needs.’  Pimps also have younger women dress up as children to meet these men, who pay extra for such services.   

As mentioned before, prostitutes suffer large amounts of abuse from these customers.  Some estimate that anywhere from 62% to 80% of prostitutes are raped by their customers (Farley 6).  Seventy-three percent are assaulted (Farley 8). Most prostitutes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their lifestyle.  In the United States, the police also hassle prostitutes.  Since 72% are homeless, they live in a constant state of flight, trying not to get caught.  This opens them up to abuse by cops, who can hassle and even beat them because they have no real legal recourse.  Statistics show when the cops do take action it is always against the prostitute and never the customer.  In Seattle a study was done on the difference between arrests and convictions of prostitutes and customers. In 1993, 42% of women arrested on prostitution related charges were convicted, compared to 8% of the men (Farley 10).  While strippers are also harassed, it differs from place to place.  Overall, the streetwalker suffers a much harder existence – illustrated by her mortality rate, which is 40 times higher than the national average (Farley 9). 

Moral judgment instead of the true reality of these women’s existence is most often reflected in society’s ideas.  Morally, stripping is not completely apprehensible.  For instance in 2001, Marie Claire took a poll of 2000 readers 50% of whom said they would not be opposed to their boyfriend or husband visiting a strip club.  However, strippers are seen to a large extent as ‘sub-human.’ As if to say, the selling of the body is understandable but the seller is not to be praised.  This is also reflective of the double standard between sex workers and sex customers.  Their seems to be little moral judgment about men visiting a strip club, with most of the moral outrage reserved for the women working within it.

Yet with prostitutes there is no doubt that even these statistics would be different.  Overall, prostitution, especially streetwalking is much more stigmatized.  They are seen as drugged out shells with no real inner existence or emotion.  In many cities when a prostitute is murdered, the police mark the file as NIH – no human involved.  This is also evident in the amount of help provided for prostitutes.  While a battered wife would have several shelters at her disposal, a prostitute trying to escape her pimp would have few avenues of help.  There also exists the same moral double standard between the customer and worker.  Hugh Grant, when caught with a prostitute, was arrested and suffered some bad publicity but his career quickly rebounded.  One can only imagine the difference is Julia Roberts was actually caught turning tricks and what that would do to her career.  

The stigmatization of the workers in both careers is reflective of larger issues of gender oppression.  It is acceptable for men to commodify women’s bodies but not acceptable for women to profit from commodification in anyway.  Many believe the first way to deal with these issues is to decriminalize prostitution. Decriminalizing would make it a crime to buy a prostitute but not to be a prostitute focusing the moral outrage on the men contributing to continuance of the system instead of the women using it for survival.  For instance in Sweden, it is not illegal to solicit sex but only to purchase it.  Since prostitution involves such widespread violence against women at the hands of people who hold the legal consequences of getting caught as punishment, it would seem decriminalization would be an excellent option. It would stop the abuses by cops, customers, and pimps to a certain extent.  Some argue for legalization. However, it seems there are better ways to protect the prostitute without sending the message that it is an acceptable career choice. 

Yet, there are large groups of sex workers who have unionized and demand that prostitution be considered an acceptable career choice.  They argue that they are happy in their chosen professions and they should not be stigmatized for their choice.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that they are in the majority.  The majority of prostitutes, as statistic after statistic shows, are mistreated and abused and they need help to exit the system or help surviving it.  As we have seen in example after example in this class, the commodification of the body rarely leads to positive consequences.  It should not be considered wrong for women to enjoy sex, and I do not believe that any opponent of legalization would argue that. When money is involved, however, women’s sexuality and even their enjoyment becomes an object to be purchased or exploited.  If there is ever a time when women’s sexuality are respected and seen as valid, then maybe the legalization of prostitution could be a viable option.  It seems to me if we ever reached that time however – there would no longer be a need for prostitutes.