Prostitution in the Age of Trump

Photo source tup wanders | CC BY 2.0

Numerous reports strongly suggest that President Trump has had considerable experience engaging with sex workers. His liaisons with Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels), a former porn star, and Karen McDougal, the 1998 Playmate of the Year and model, have become top media stories.

A decade ago, when the reputed liaisons with Trump took place, neither Clifford and McDougal was a full-time hooker. Rather, they used their well-trained sexual skills to entice a very big spender – and one that appears to be a pathetic lover.  In anticipation of the 2016 election, and working through his attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump reportedly cut a deal with Clifford for $130,000 to keep her story silent; McDougal got a payment of $150,000 from the National Enquirer to kill her story.  For these two women, sex paid.

Equally revealing as to Trump’s reputed affinity for sex workers involves a much-debated story of his visit to Moscow in 2013.  Christopher Steele’s now-infamous “dossier” mentions an alleged special night of watersports for the real-estate mogul to engage with upwards of five Moscow hookers at the Ritz.  Former FBI Director James Comey suggests that Trump opposed the Bureau’s investigation of Russia’s role in the ’16 election because it would reveal more about the alleged incident.  Comey reports that Trump claimed that Vladimir Putin told him that Russia had the most beautiful prostitutes.

Trump’s exploits along with occasional revelations about a celebrity – entertainer, politician, business tycoon, sport’s figure – caught with a sex worker often capture momentary media headlines.  However, much of the media and political attention about prostitution focuses on the exploitation of underage girls (and some boys) as victims of sex trafficking.  Such sex slavery is not uncommon, often involving undocumented girls, some pre-teen children.

But exposés about celebrity sex scandals and youth trafficking offer only a limited – and highly sensationalized – understanding of prostitution in the U.S.  A 2017 report from the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), “Navigating Force and Choice: Experiences in the New York City Sex Trade and the Criminal Justice System’s Response,” sheds light on the conditions faced by more “ordinary” sex workers, especially those arrested for engaging in sexual commerce.


Prostitution is legal in only a handful of rural Nevada areas but is estimated to be a $14.6 billion enterprise.  The Fondation Scelles estimated that in 2012 there were one million prostitutes operating across the country.

The CCI study draws on interviews with “316 adults (18 years of age and older) who traded sex for money, housing,food, drugs, their own or others’ safety, or other things they needed.”  It also benefits on the expertise of “13 social service providers, nine judges, five defense attorneys, and one district attorney.”

The interviewees reflect a very urban, very New York portrait:

+ Nearly half (46%) were “cis” women, nearly one-third (31%) were cis men, about a fifth (18%) were “trans” women and a small portion (6%) identified their gender differently; the report defines “cisgender” as “whose gender identities align, according to social norms, with their sex assigned at birth.”

+ Nearly three-fifths (59%) identified their sexual orientation as something other than straight – 31 percent bisexual, 13 percent gay/lesbian, 6 percent queer and almost 10 percent of an additional sexual orientation

+ Half said they identified as black, nearly a quarter (24%) were “Latinx,” a sixth (14%) said they were white, a tenth as mixed race/other, 2 percent as Asian, and 1 percent as Native Hawaiian; CCI notes, the “’x’ at the end of ‘Latinx’ is a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino …”

+ Nearly two-fifths (37%) reported that they had relatives who had been involved in the sex trade.

The sex workers live out the hardships of contemporary life.

+ CCI identifies “financial constraints” as the principle factor driving people into the sex trade; as the report notes, the workers “explicitly connecting their trading to ‘survival’ and feeling like their only available option was exchanging sex for money or other needs.”

+ The median age when participants first “traded” sex for money or something else (e.g., housing, drugs, food) was 18; there was no significant differences by gender.

+ Workers who started “trading” their sex to survive and did so when under the age of 18 “often came after running away from abusive homes or foster care environments.”

The interviewees make clear that sex work is not sexy.

+ Nearly four-fifths (78%) had been arrested and they averaged 8.6 prior arrests, including for drugs, shoplifting, jumping the subway turnstile and trespassing; however, only a quarter had been arrested for prostitution.

+ About a third (35%) reported having disabilities, chronic illness or other medical or mental health issues that were related to their sex-trade work.

+ Nearly three-fourths (73%) were currently using drugs or alcohol – with half (49%) drinking a lot, two-fifths (41%) using marijuana, a fifth (21%) into cocaine/crack and 11 percent into opiates/opioids/heroin.

+ However, two-thirds (64%) reported that their use of alcohol and/or drugs was related to their work in the sex trade; some said addiction was the reason they started sex work (e.g., the need for money to support a habit) or that they started using because of their involvement in selling themselves (e.g., to self-medicate or because clients wanted to do drugs together).

+ Three out of five (60%) sex workers had been in counseling or other mental health services.

Sex workers know that sex work is a business.

+ The other most common types of sex trade involvement included street-based work (71%) and independent escorting (47%).

+ Nearly all participants (94%) currently negotiate prices and collect payment (98%) from customers.

+ However, nearly one-fifth (19%) employ what the CCI identifies as a “market facilitator” to help the sex workers get customers; more than half (57%) never use a facilitator.

+ Sex workers tended to use market facilitators who were both involved in the underground economy and identified working together (referring clients or providing security or drugs for clients) as more lucrative than working solo. Among such facilitators were a family member, friends or intimate partners; sex workers complained that these relations often became abusive, mirroring intimate partner violence patterns.

+ Two fifths (43%) of participants reported having had a conflict in the work place, with 30 percent reporting a violent conflict; more troubling, nearly three-fifths (58%) of participants reported having been robbed or not paid by a customer.

The CCI portrait of contemporary sex workers seems to confirm the truth of deepening inequality in New York and throughout the nation.  These are not the women who serviced Trump or other 1 percent men.  CCI calls for the decriminalization of prostitution and providing social-services support to help sex workers live a better life.


Over the last decade, nearly every state has either passed or toughened existing laws concerning what is labeled “human trafficking” for labor (e.g., house cleaning, farm labor and sweatshop manufacturing) and – especially — for sex work (i.e., prostitution), often involving underage juveniles, mostly girls.  Among the venues in which sex trafficking ostensibly occurs are “gentlemen’s” orstrip clubs, brothels, streetwalkers and online advertisements.

All sex work is not the same nor a form of “trafficking.” The religious right seeks to collapse the difference between the two forms of sexual engagement.  In April 2018, the Justice Department conflated trafficking with sex work in its successful effort to close down the website backpage.com.   However, a 2012 report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics notes, “Two percent of prostitution and commercialized vice arrests in 2010 involved a juvenile, a proportion that has averaged between 1% and 2% since at least 1990.”

In a 2013 study, “Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases,” the DOJ provided valuable data about youth trafficking.  Between 2004-2013, 37,105 suspects were investigated for offenses involving the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It notes the annual number of arrests nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, from 1,405 cases to 2,776 per year.  The suspects were male (97%), U.S. citizens (97%), white (82%) and had no prior felony convictions (79%). The suspects were arrested for possession of child pornography (72%), child pornography production (10%) and child sex trafficking (18%).  It reports that “60% were prosecuted in U.S. district court, 36% were declined for prosecution, and 4% were disposed by U.S. magistrates.”

Trump-era legislative and law-enforcement actions regarding sex are ostensibly targeted at ending sex trafficking.  Sadly, they are part of an effort to collapse the differences between “consensual” commercial sex and sex “trafficking.”  Trafficking is a form of sexual slavery, a “non-consensual,” involuntary or coerced act.  Prostitution is a “consensual” or voluntary practice involving sexual intercourse or other practices (e.g., phone sex, posing) engaged in by women, men and transgender persons who trade sexual services in exchange for money or other forms of compensation. While there has been a reported increase in independent or “freelance” sex workers, commercial sex is often mediated by a pimp or a sex gang.  The opening of sex-robot bordellos in Europe and Japan – and, eventually in the U.S. — may shift this debate.

According to federal data, in 1994, 98,000 people were arrested for engaging in commercial sex; in 2004, those arrested dropped to 87,900; and in 2014, it had further declined to 47,600.  A 2012 report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics notes, “From 1990 to 2010, the arrest rate for prostitution and commercialized vice was cut in half (down 55%), with substantial declines in both the male (down 62%) and female (down 50%) arrest rates.”  Most revealing, the report offers no explanation as to why this significant decline took place.

A 2015 Pew report noted, “states have dramatically changed laws targeting the sex trade to distinguish between voluntary prostitution and the trafficking of women and girls who are forced or coerced into selling sex.”  This change is reflected in efforts to lessen the charges for sex workers arrested for prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor and the establishment of “safe harbors.”  At the end of 2015, 34 states had passed safe harbor legislation, including New York, Minnesota, Connecticut, Tennessee and Texas.  Under such laws, youths arrested for sex trafficking are no longer prosecuted for a criminal offense but placed in a victim-services program that is supposed to provide rehabilitative and protective services.  This support is critical so that these young people can reclaim their lives.


The most significant development is the changing attitudes of ordinary Americans regarding sex work.  A May 2016 Marist Poll finds that nearly half (49%) of Americans felt that commercial sex between two consenting adults should be legal whereas just over two-fifths (44%) opposed it.  It broke down the findings as follows: “Men, 54%, and residents under 45 years old, 58%, are more likely than women, 44%, and older residents, 40%, to believe prostitution should be permissible under the law.”  In addition, six in ten respondents opposed criminal prosecution of those arrested for prostitution and more than half of respondents (53%) reported that decriminalizing prostitution would regulate the “professional,” thus minimizing risk to sex workers.


The Pew and Maris polls reveal how the sex industry has gone mainstream.  The smart female shopper has replaced the sex “pervert” or “harlot” of old.   The guy in a trench coat slinking into an XXX bookstore, sex-toy shop or “adult” movie theatre has been superseded by millions of Americans, including many women, who can easily acquire that – sexually speaking – special something at a local adult “sexual wellness” outlet, a “passion party” (for Christian women) or through Amazon, the biggest retailer offering 60,000 sex-related products.

Today, three-fourths (75%) of American women and teen girls engage in premarital sex. The Guttmacher Institute reports nearly two-thirds (62%) of all women of reproductive age use a contraceptive and nearly all women aged 15–44 who have had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method.

Equally significant, between 1991 and 2014, the teen birthrate fell by nearly 40 percent, to 24.2 births per 1,000 females from 61.8 births, due to sex-education and use of contraceptives. Between 1981 and 2014, the abortion rates for women 15 to 44 years also significantly declined, from 23.9 per 1,000 women to 14.6 per 1,000; in 2014, there were an estimated 926,200 abortions performed.  Finally, psychologists have reclassified practices that were long labeled forbidden or perverse as “deviance without pathology.”

These shifts in sexual values challenge the most fundamental aspect of traditional religious morality.  For millennia, many of the religious right believed that the purpose of sexual engagement was to fulfill the needs of procreation.  In postmodern America, a growing number of people seem to believe that the purpose of sex is to fulfill the desire for pleasure. This shift is testament to the mainstreaming of the sex industry and the redefining of the“new normal,” of what is “acceptable,” i.e., “consensual” and age-appropriate.

How the court cases by McDougal and Clifford – as well as that by other women – against Trump play out will capture media attention. Sadly, the fate of ordinary sex workers like those in New York and throughout the country will drag on with little or no public attention.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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