Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | People

Sex Crimes: Melissa Farley

By Tina Owen

After years of listening to horror stories from women and children forced to endure sexual violence and oppression, Melissa Farley has become almost shockproof. That’s why she wasn’t taken aback by a remark that would make many people’s skin crawl.

“It’s like renting an organ for ten minutes,” is how one man described his relationship with a prostitute. 

Melissa Farley Photo: LeaAnn Randall
Anti-prostitution researcher and activist Melissa Farley says, "Prostitution is an institution that we need to abolish. I'm just doing my part."

Farley, a clinical psychologist and director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Prostitution Research and Education, often confronts such casual indifference to the plight of human beings who sell their bodies to survive.

“Prostitution’s harms are made invisible by the idea that it’s about sex,” she says, “rather than sexual violence.”

To help raise awareness of the true nature of the sex industry, Farley, 73PhD, calls upon research skills learned at the University of Iowa, publishing her findings in books, academic journals, and on her organization’s website. She’s presented her research at the United Nations, in courtrooms, and at conferences around the world. She’s found that, contrary to the glossy image perpetuated by movies such as Pretty Woman, most prostitutes endure a life of danger and violence.

Aside from physical problems caused by violence or sexually transmitted diseases, prostitutes bear psychological scars. Farley says, “The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among prostitutes are as high as those of combat veterans.”

While some advocates recommend legalizing prostitution as a way of improving the lives of sex workers, Farley disagrees: “That’s making it a normalized industry, when, in fact, it’s horrifically harmful to the women involved.”

Instead, she takes hope from the enlightened approach that Sweden adopted in 2000. Under new laws, customers—not prostitutes—face prosecution. As a result, prostitution has decreased dramatically and human trafficking into Sweden has almost stopped. It may take years for the U.S. to follow suit, but Farley remains optimistic.

Despite the harrowing nature of her work, she’s committed to continuing her fight. As she says, “It’s more disturbing not to do anything about this massive abuse of human rights that’s going on in almost every country in the world.”