Deviance Behavior A Study on Prostitution

Deviance Behavior: A Study on Prostitution


Institution Affiliation

Deviance Behavior: A Study on Prostitution


Deviance is a behavior that goes against societal norms and formally enacted rules. Standards are expectations that society expects one’s behavior to conform. There are two major types of deviance; crime or formal deviance, which is the violation of rules that are formally enacted. As the name of this form of deviance suggests, they include but not limited to robbery, assault, theft, rape, and murder. Crime is a kind of deviance that depends on the rules that are violated. Informal deviance, on the other hand, is a description of actions or behaviors that violate certain informal values and includes formally enacted norms. One of the most controversial deviant behaviors is prostitution. Certain theories can be applied to explain the existence of prostitution. Differential association theory and social exchange theories from the constructivist perspective explain the aspect of commercial sex work. However, this paper will lean more towards the social exchange theory because it is more capable of explaining the rational aspect of prostitution. Looking at prostitution as something given out or traded for money or gifts, the social exchange theory allows going beyond the meaning of this singularity as a selling object but also as a dilemma. In other words, there are economic reasons that make women resort to this kind of business and neglect their birth pride in exchange for a few notes for sustenance. The existence of prostitution is not just attributed to the fact that people who engage in it are labeled deviant as it is implied by some theories such as the labeling theory. This paper will focus on women offering sexual services to men in return for money. It should not be mistaken as bias because this demographic is chosen not as a stereotype but based on evidence that women offering men sex for money is more common.


Prostitution is the act or practice offering services of a sexual nature in return for money or some form of payment (Kempadoo & Doezema, 2018). Prostitution has been considered the earliest profession by various historians, although others have offered opinions to the contrary, some citing priesthood to be the earliest profession. Either way, prostitution is an early form of deviance. Deviance is a complex topic considering various societies have norms specific to themselves, and something that may be considered wrong in one society might be acceptable to another. However, in the majority of societies, prostitution is considered deviance, one of the earliest to be precise and takes varied forms. Because of this variation, the definition of prostitution is difficult, and the one provided is general. Most prostitutes are young adults, although there is also a significant number of children and youths in the “profession.” There are male and female prostitutes. Male sex workers who have male customers are fairly common, unlike female sex workers with female customers, although it does happen. The same happens for male sex workers with female customers being not as common as female sex workers with male customers are. Most sex workers work for an organization such as a disguised massage parlor or a whorehouse with full-time commitments while others operate alone with a significant number of working part-time.

Most prostitutes hold a low social status while a few hold a high rank. Those that hold a high status do not usually admit to being sex workers, and society appears to give them a pass, and they do not face as much stigma as those that work for basic items such as rent, food, clothing, or simple favors. Because some or most marriages appear to conform to the definition of prostitution where a man provides a woman with a house, money, clothing, and food among other things, it is important to define prostitution as an economic exchange of erotic relations for any form of payment without involving a permanent, close, or steady relationship between the parties involved.

In some countries prostitution is legalized and regulated by the government while in most it is considered illegal with severe punishment. For almost all religions, prostitution is considered a sin and engaging in it is a major act of defiance. It is also unacceptable for the social audience, and a negative attitude accompanies it as it is believed that sex is meant for procreation and frown upon when used for mere pleasure.

Medical practitioners condemn prostitution on the basis that it enables the spread of sexually transmitted infections. This said prostitution is deviance, as it does not conform to the standards of morality set by social perspectives, religion, and health principles. Prostitution is attributed to the increasing level of pervasiveness in society that has allowed people to engage in deviant behaviors without facing repercussions. Also, the demanding nature of the economy and the rising level of poverty has forced people to view sex as an economic activity. Another factor is the increasing rate of failed relationships and marriages, which has prompted affected individuals to seek prostitution to satisfy their sexual desires.

Differential Association Theory

The theory of differential association states that any form of deviant behavior is developed through learning. It is not an inherent trait of a person as it grows as the individual in question learns of the outlawed acts from the rest of society. The learning happens as people interact through communication, which allows for the exchange of ideas (Anderson & Taylor, 2012, p. 71). The theory can be reduced to the idea that people become defiant by interacting with those that are already defiant and absorb pro-defiant definitions. Differential association theory has drawn more attention for many years than all other theories that explain deviance. Scholars suggest that no single idea in contemporary criminology has had the impact differential association has had on how people perceive crime (Bruinsma, 2014).

Edwin Sutherland is celebrated for the differential association theory, which he developed back in 1947. In this theory, Sutherland advanced the most notable sociological justifications of deviance and crime. He built this theory on the suggestion that similar to conventionality, crime is learned as an individual interacts with others: many individuals come into contact with people that have the belief that laws can be broken. In simple terms, Sutherland believes that a deviant person develops this trait due to a stronger acquaintance to lawbreakers than those that conform to the societal norms and formal laws. It is more of a qualitative rather than a quantitative aspect.

Differential association theory predicts prostitution by looking at the differential access of an individual to criminal access or access to values that are considered bad by society through access to people practicing the same behavior. Prostitution is, in some instances, handed down from parent to child where a woman has grown old and is no longer desirable as it is typical of this profession introduces her daughter into the industry. This advances the theory’s idea that deviant behavior is learned in the same manner that law-abiding values are learned and that this education is accomplished, in the interactions with others. As in the case provided in this paragraph, the daughter is likely to be introduced to others in the business and will interact with them and the situational definitions of the profession instilled in her.

As mentioned earlier, the symbols and ideas with respect to deviance may either be favorable or otherwise. For this reason, an individual will adopt the ideas or symbols that are favorable to their situation, especially if they outweigh those that are unfavorable. A person will become deviant if the merits are greater than the demerits. Differential association is based in two main notes; Learning happens within intimate personal groups and techniques for being deviant or committing crimes encompasses the content that is learned. The content also motivates attitudes and rationalization.

In the context of prostitution, the conduct is learned as people exchange ideas on sexuality. Moreover, most people engage in commercial sex after becoming aware of the materials benefits that come with joining this industry. According to research by Clinard and Meier (2011), success in the sex industry is dependent on the level of expertise or skills of the practitioner. These skills are acquired as prostitutes interact and share ideas on the subject.

In trying to understand why people, especially women, engage in sex, it is important to look at the priority of these women and the financial responsibilities or the dependence on the proceeds from this activity as a mean of survival. Also, there is the duration spent with commercial sex business owners popularly known pimps and the process of socializing with women that are in the business. Besides, the level of influence on upcoming prostitutes by pimps, friends, and other more experienced and similarly desperate women is enough reason to lead women into commercial sex work (Antwi Bosiakoh, 2012). In a more general statement, people learn to engage in prostitution as a result of the intense interaction and duration of socialization and the importance they place on the industry and its profit.

Besides, technological advancement, most notably the introduction of the internet, has enabled the ease of exchanging information on the subject. As individuals learn more about the industry, they become encouraged to become a part of it. Considering these trends, it becomes evident that learning is a crucial aspect of prostitution. So using Edwin Sutherland’s idea, the popularity of prostitution grows as people become more aware of it from a person that has actual experience

Differential association theory requires that there be a preexisting condition or an opportunity for a woman to learn prostitution in an environment before they can completely become deviant in this manner. But given the opportunity to learn prostitution is almost always available to many women, and the number of those that become prostitutes not reflective of this number, it means that there are other factors that make women vulnerable to join the commercial sex industry. As a result, the applicability of this theory on this issue is further questioned.

Social Exchange Theory

According to the social exchange theory, each individual in a relation has something to offer and gets something in return (Cook, Cheshire, Rice, & Nakagawa, 2013). By examining the costs and benefits of various interactions, a basis for making predictions about how people will think, feel, and act is generated. The applicability of the social exchange theory to prostitution is dependent on the view of sex as a female resource. When men give women money of some form of payment to women in exchange for sex without enduring commitments, they are getting something of value from these women, and the value in the market determines how much to pay for these services. From this perspective, sex is part of the economic system where the prostitute and her client operate. If the commercial sex worker works under and organization or a pimp, then they become part of the hierarchical structure of prostitution. By looking at prostitution from this perspective, a lot of value is placed on the woman’s/prostitute’s worth, although the society would not view sex workers in the same regard. Richard Emerson defines social exchange theory as “the economic analysis of non-economical social situations” (Emerson, 1976, p. 336). He goes on to discuss the use of social operant behavior, which basically means that a behavior will endure if there is a steady incentive that is received from others.

Although Emerson did not have the idea of sex work when he discussed the theory or was addressing the topic in particular, it is very applicable to it. It supports the argument that if women did not require the service of prostitutes or had no desire for them, then the industry would not exist. The fact that prostitution has been there for ages is an indication that the interaction between a prostitute and her client is a crucial social process that creates value to the economy of a certain community (Kannampuzha, 2015). In his article, Richard Emerson highlights the construction of the social exchange theory and pinpoints specific ideas that can be related to this theory, such as rationality, reductionism, and tautology. The takeaway point is the exchange theory is more of a frame of reference than a theory, which happens through the social process. By doing so, a deeper understanding of how and why prostitution persists and continues to flourish in communities is afforded. However, removing the theoretical aspect of the exchange theory devalues it and its applicability to many social issues that are considered conforming, lawful, and legitimate and its value as a logical philosophy in general. However, for the sake of this paper, this view is perfect.

Social exchange theory can also be used to explain why prostitutes are not considered valuable in almost all societies. They are viewed as women who are readily available to provide erotic services as soon as these services are needed. By using this perspective, the idea that sex workers are quite sought after and are in considerably high demand is not implied. The men that seek these services have the impression that they are not getting something exclusive. This supports the idea of sex workers who are people to be disposable as there are many other women who are available to provide a similar service, maybe even at a lower rate. As mentioned, although social exchange theory was not intended to rationalize prostitution, it is very applicable to economic theory to aide in the understanding of the multifaceted socio-economic issues surrounding commercial sex work.


This discussion illustrates why prostitution is considered deviant behavior. The differential association theory explains that prostitution, just like any other form of deviance, is learned through association. It also explains the spread of the behavior as it is obvious that the availability of information on prostitution and free interaction is instrumental in popularizing the act in society. Social exchange theory, in its part, explains the persistence of the behavior and attributes this persistence to the economic importance of the industry, which is often downplayed. Prostitutes continue to operate in the industry because they know that gains are worth the costs. A good for instance that explains this phenomenon is that even in countries where the act is considered illegal, its popularity has grown instead of diminishing.


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