Deviant behavior is an act that breaches the cultural norms. Norms are considered to be the behavior standards that define the actions that are acceptable in the society. Thus they form a paradigm for predicting actions or behaviors in the society. This means that deviance is any “thought, feeling or act” (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 45) that according to the social audience’s judgment violates the cultural norms (formal or informal rules) or values.
This paper will focus on prostitution as a deviant behavior. It will begin by defining prostitution and explaining why it is considered to be a deviant behavior. Then two sociological theories namely, the labeling theory and the differential association theory will be used to explain why the behavior continues to exist. Finally, the paper will end by discussing the reasons as to why prostitution is best explained by the differential association theory.
Prostitution is defined as “the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return of payment” (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 68). Thus the person who offers such services is referred to as a prostitute. In some countries the act is legalized and regulated by the government while in others it is illegal and attracts severe punishment. Prostitution is some times viewed as a profession since there is a significant level of expertise or skills and practice that is required in order to successfully offer the services (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 69).
According to religious teachings, prostitution is considered to be a sinful act that should be condemned. The social audience also has a negative attitude towards it since they believe that sex is meant for procreation and not for mere pleasure. Thus commercializing it is unacceptable (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 69).
The medical perspective on prostitution condemns the act on the ground that it facilitates the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Thus prostitution is labeled as a deviant behavior since it does not meet the standards of morality as defined by religious perspectives, health principles and social perspectives. The prostitutes are thus labeled as deviants due to the fact that they “willfully sell their bodies in exchange for material things” (Taylor, 2010, p. 59).
The causes of prostitution are as follows. First, the rising levels of permissiveness in the society have provided an opportunity for individuals to engage in deviant behaviors without being punished (Taylor, 2010, p. 63). Second, rising levels of poverty has forced people to engage in the act in order to earn a living. Finally, the rise in cases of failed relationships and marriages has forced the affected individuals to embark on prostitution in order to fulfill their sexual desires.
Differential Association Theory
According to this theory, criminal or deviant behaviors develop through learning. This means that deviance is not an inherent trait of the individual since it only develops as the deviant learns about the outlawed acts from others. The learning occurs as individuals interact by “communicating ideas and symbols” (Taylor, 2010, p. 71).
The symbols and ideas in regard to deviance can be favorable or unfavorable. Thus a person will take the favorable symbols and ideas, especially if they outweigh the unfavorable ones. This means that a person will engage in a deviant behavior if the merits are greater than the demerits.
In the context of prostitution, the behavior is usually learned as individuals share their ideas about sexuality. Besides, most people usually join the sex industry after learning about the material benefits that are associated with prostitution. Research studies in sex industry reveal that the success of the practitioners depends on the level of their expertise or skills (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 67). Such skills are usually acquired as prostitutes interact and share ideas on prostitution.
Besides, advancement in communication technology such as the introduction of the internet has made it easy to share information on prostitution. This encourages individuals to join the sex industry as they learn more about it. These trends show that learning is an integral aspect of prostitution. Thus according to the differential association theory, prostitution continues to gain popularity in the society as individuals learn about it from each other through their interactions.
The Labeling Theory
According to this theory, deviance is created as members of the society formulate norms whose violation amounts to deviance (Taylor, 2010, p. 73). Labeling in this case is the process whereby the members of the society judge the actions of individuals based on accepted norms and then stereotype such actions as either deviant or not.
Thus it involves the “invention, selection and manipulation of beliefs that define conduct in a negative way” (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 76). This forms the basis for labeling individuals as deviants. Thus according to this theory, deviance occurs when an individual is labeled as a wicked person. After sometime, the deviant person internalizes the label and focuses on engaging in acts that are associated with the label.
This theory suggests that prostitution is a social construction that can cease to exist if those who engage in it are not labeled as deviants (Taylor, 2010, p. 73). The society usually punishes those found to engage in prostitution. However, this does not prevent such individuals from engaging in the act.
As they continue to engage in prostitution, they get more severe punishments and stigma from the community. Eventually the prostitutes accept their status and continue to engage in prostitution. This means that the actions of the prostitutes are reinforced by the punishments that they receive from the community. This is based on the fact that prostitutes are considered to be outcasts.
Thus they continue to engage in prostitution due to the fact that they can not be accepted by the society. This means that, according to the labeling theory, individuals practice the act because they have been labeled as prostitutes. It also means that prostitution continues to exist since the punishments used against it reinforce the actions of those who engage in it.
The above discussion shows that prostitution is considered to be a deviant behavior. The reason as to why a person can engage in prostitution and the persistence of the act in the society is best explained by the differential association theory. This is because prostitution just like any other behavior is learned through interaction (Clinard & Meier, 2008, p. 64).
Thus individuals continue to engage in it after realizing that the gains are more than the costs. Prostitution does not exist simply because those who engage in it have been labeled as deviants as suggested by the labeling theory. This can be proved by the fact that even in countries where the act has been legalized; its popularity has increased instead of diminishing.
Besides, consequences such as stigmatization have resulted into a significant reduction in the prevalence of the act instead of perpetuating it. However, it is apparent that an increase in availability of prostitution literature and free interaction has significantly increased the popularity of the act in the society. It is for this reason that differential association theory is considered to be the best in explaining prostitution and its prevalence in the society.
Clinard, M., & Meier, R. (2008). Sociology of deviant behavior. New York: Cengage.
Taylor, H. (2010). Sociology. New York: Cengage.