Breaking the Matthew Effect – on Women Leaving Prostitution



Although the body of research literature on prostitution is extensive, systematic research on why and how women break with prostitution is lacking. The purpose of this paper is to report some empirical findings from a Swedish study of women leaving a life in the sex trade. In a broader perspective the study ties into a social psychological research tradition which focuses on illuminating individuals’ processes of change, turning points, role changes and exit behaviours.

The study comprises life-story interviews with 23 women who exited prostitution during the years 1981–1995. Half of the women were referred to us via a special social outreach operation within the social services in a major Swedish city, the other half were recruited via newspaper and tabloid announcements. The majority of the women had been active in the sex trade for more than five years, thus classifying them as “long-term residents”. The majority had experiences exclusively of street prostitution, the most common form in Sweden.

Our analysis shows a number of different exit courses, ranging from breakaways that happened quickly and were executed primarily by women who were relatively loosely integrated in the milieu, to breakaways that were made by women who, after many years of being exploited in prostitution, had reached the limit of the existentially bearable. In our account, we also identify four main challenges which the women have been faced with after leaving the trade: (1) working through and understanding the experiences of a life in prostitution, (2) dealing with shame, (3) living in a marginal situation, and (4) dealing with intimate and close relationships. Finally, we present an integrated exit model which combines structural, situational, interpersonal and individual factors in explaining how and why women leave prostitution. The purpose of our model is to create a general understanding of why certain people not only survive a difficult life situation, but are able to grow and develop further during the course of the process.