Sex worker

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A sex worker in Germany
Three prostitutes ("Jineteras") in Havana, Cuba

A sex worker is a person who works in the sex industry.[1][2] The term is used in reference to all those in all areas of the sex industry including those who provide direct sexual services as well as the staff of such industries. Some sex workers are paid to engage in sexually explicit behavior which involve varying degrees of physical contact with clients (prostitutes, escorts, some but not all professional dominants); pornography models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which are filmed or photographed. Phone sex operators have sexually-oriented conversations with clients, and do auditive sexual roleplay. Other sex workers are paid to engage in live sexual performance, such as web cam sex[3] and performers in live sex shows. Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience (striptease, Go-Go dancing, lap dancing, Neo-burlesque, and peep shows). Sexual surrogates often engage in sexual activity as part of therapy with their clients.

Thus, although the term sex worker is sometimes viewed as a synonym or euphemism for prostitute, it is more general. Some people use the term to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute.[4]

History of the concept[edit]

Bronze statue Belle in Amsterdam's red-light district De Wallen, reads "Respect sex workers all over the world."

The term "sex worker" was coined in 1978 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh. Its use became popularized after publication of the anthology, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry in 1987.[5][6][7] The term "sex worker" has since spread into much wider use, including in academic publications, by NGOs and labor unions, and by governmental and intergovernmental agencies, such as the World Health Organization.[8] The term is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary[1] and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.[9]

The term is strongly opposed, however, by many who are morally opposed to the sex industry, such as social conservatives, anti-prostitution feminists, and other prohibitionists. Such groups view prostitution variously as a crime or as victimization, and see the term "sex work" as legitimizing criminal activity or exploitation as a type of labor.[10][11]

Sex work in practice[edit]

Sex workers may be male, female, or transgender, and exchange sexual services or favors for money or other gifts. The motives of sex workers vary widely and can include debt, coercion, or survival.[12] These motives also align with varying climates surrounding sex work in different communities and cultures. In some cases, sex work is linked to tourism. Sex work can take the form of prostitution, stripping or lap dancing, performance in pornography, phone or internet sex, or any other exchange of sexual services for financial or material gain. The variety in the tasks encompassed by sex work lead to a large range in both severity and nature of risks that sex workers face in their occupations. Sex workers can act independently as individuals, work for a company or corporation, or work as part of a brothel. All of the above can be undertaken either by free choice or by coercion. Sex workers may also be hired to be companions on a trip or to perform sexual services within the context of a trip; either of these can be voluntary or forced labor.[13]

Many studies struggle to gain demographic information about the prevalence of sex work, as many countries or cities have laws prohibiting prostitution or other sex work. In addition, sex trafficking, or forced sex work, is also difficult to quantify due to the underground and covert nature. In addition, finding a representative sample of sex workers in a given city can be nearly impossible because the size of the population itself is unknown. Maintaining privacy and confidentiality in research is also difficult because many sex workers may face prosecution and other consequences if their identities are revealed.[14]

Some demographic studies of sex workers have been done, many of which attempt to use smaller samples of sex workers and pimps in order to extrapolate about larger populations of sex workers. One report on the underground sex trade in the United States used known data on the illegal drug and weapon trades and interviews with sex workers and pimps in order to draw conclusions about the number of sex workers in eight American cities.[15] However, studies like this one can come under scrutiny for a perceived emphasis on the activities and perspectives of pimps rather than those of sex workers themselves. Another criticism is that sex trafficking may not be adequately assessed in its relation to sex work in these studies.[16]

Legal dimensions of sex work[edit]

World map of pornography (18+) laws
  Pornography legal
  Pornography legal under some restrictions
  Pornography illegal
  Data unavailable

Depending on local law, sex workers' activities may be regulated, controlled, tolerated, or prohibited. In most countries, even those where sex work is legal, sex workers may be stigmatized and marginalized, which may prevent them from seeking legal redress for discrimination (e.g., racial discrimination by a strip club owner), non-payment by a client, assault or rape. Sex worker advocates have identified this as whorephobia.[17][18]

The legality of different types of sex work varies within and between regions of the world. For example, while pornography is legal in the United States, prostitution is illegal in most parts of the US. However, in other regions of the world, both pornography and prostitution are illegal; in others, both are legal. In regions where sex work is illegal, advocates for sex workers' rights argue that the covert nature of illegal prostitution is a barrier to access to legal resources.[19] However, some who oppose the legalization of prostitution argue that sex work is inherently exploitative and can never be legalized or practiced in a way that respects the rights of those who perform it.[20]

Risk reduction[edit]

Risk reduction in sex work is a highly debated topic. "Abolitionism" and "empowerment" are regarded as opposing ways in which risk reduction is approached. While abolitionism would call for an end to all sex work, empowerment would encourage the formation of networks among sex workers and enable them to prevent STIs and other health risks by communicating with each other.[21] Both approaches aim to reduce rates of disease and other negative effects of sex work.


Health risks of sex work relate primarily to sexually transmitted infections and to drug use. In one study, nearly 40% of sex workers who visited a health center reported illegal drug use.[22] In addition, a large proportion of sex workers have contracted an STI, with African-American descent and male gender being among predictors for STIs.[22]

Condom use is one way to mitigate the risk of contracting an STI. However, negotiating condom use with one's clients and partners is often an obstacle to practicing safer sex. While there is not much data on rates of violence against sex workers, many sex workers do not use condoms due to the fear of resistance and violence from clients. Some countries also have laws prohibiting condom possession; this reduces the likelihood that sex workers will use condoms.[23] Increased organization and networking among sex workers has been shown to increase condom use by increasing access to and education about STI prevention. Brothels with strong workplace health practices, including the availability of condoms, have also increased condom use among their workers.[23]

Sex workers are unlikely to disclose their work to healthcare providers. This can be due to embarrassment, fear of disapproval, or a disbelief that sex work can have effects on their health.[22] The criminalization of sex work in many places can also lead to a reluctance to disclose for fear of being turned in for illegal activities. There are very few legal protections for sex workers due to criminalization; thus, in many cases, a sex worker reporting violence to a healthcare provider may not be able to take legal action against their aggressor. [23]

Forced sex work[edit]

Forced sex work is when an individual enters into any sex trade due to coercion rather than by choice. Forced sex work increases the likelihood that a sex worker will contract HIV/AIDS or another sexually transmitted infection, particularly when an individual enters sex work before the age of 18.[24] In addition, even when sex workers do consent to certain sex acts, they are often forced or coerced into others (often anal intercourse) by clients. Sex workers may also experience strong resistance to condom use by their clients, which may extend into a lack of consent by the worker to any sexual act performed in the encounter; this risk is magnified when sex workers are trafficked or forced into sex work.[23][25]

Forced sex work often involves deception - workers are told that they can make a living and are then not allowed to leave. This deception can cause ill effects on the mental health of many sex workers. In addition, an assessment of studies estimates that between 40% and 70% of sex workers face violence within a year.[23] Currently, there is little support for migrant workers in many countries, including those who have been trafficked to a location for sex.[26]


Sex worker's rights advocates argue that sex workers should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people.[27] For example, the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour calls for the legalization of sex work, the elimination of state regulations that are more repressive than those imposed on other workers and businesses, the right to recognition and protection under labour and employment laws, the right to form and join professional associations or unions, and the right to legally cross borders to work. Advocacy for the interests of sex workers can come from a variety of sources, including non-governmental organizations, labor rights organizations, governments, or sex workers themselves.

Unionization of sex work[edit]

The unionization of sex workers is a recent development. The first organization within the contemporary sex workers' rights movement was Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), founded in 1973 in San Francisco, California. Many organizations in Western countries were established in the decade after the founding of COYOTE.[28] Currently, a small number of sex worker unions exist worldwide. One of the largest is the International Union of Sex Workers, headquartered in the United Kingdom. The IUSW advocates for the rights of all sex workers, whether they chose freely or were coerced to enter the trade, and promotes policies that benefit the interests of sex workers both in the UK and abroad.[29] Many regions are home to sex worker unions, including Latin America, Brazil, Canada, Europe, and Africa.[30]

In unionizing, many sex workers face issues relating to communication and to the legality of sex work. Because sex work is illegal in many places where they wish to organize, it is difficult to communicate with other sex workers in order to organize. There is also concern with the legitimacy of sex work as a career and an activity that merits formal organizing, largely because of the sexism often present in sex work and the devaluation of sex work as not comparable to other paid labor and employment.[28]

A factor affecting the unionization of sex work is that many sex workers belong to populations that historically have not had a strong representation in labor unions. While this unionization can be viewed as a way of empowering sex workers and granting them agency within their profession, it is also criticized as implicitly lending its approval to sexism and power imbalances already present in sex work. Unionization also implies a submission to or operation within the systems of capitalism, which is of concern to some feminists.[28]

Demographics of sex workers[edit]

The majority of sex workers are young, female and heterosexual.[31] Transgender people are more likely than the general population to do sex work, particularly trans women and trans people of color.[32] Transgender sex workers have very high rates of HIV.

In a study of female Indian sex workers, illiteracy and lower social status were more prevalent than among the general female population.[33]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary, "sex worker"
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, "sex industry"
  3. ^ Weitzer, Ronald. 2000. Sex For Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry (New York: Routledge Press)
  4. ^ Lumby, Catherine. "Sex is not dirty work". The Sydney Morning Herald. June 10, 2012
  5. ^ Sex work: writings by women in the sex industry edited by Frédérique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander, Cleis Press, 1991 (2nd ed). ISBN 0-939416-11-5.
  6. ^ "The Etymology of the terms 'Sex Work' and 'Sex Worker'", Accessed 2009-09-11.
  7. ^ Whores and other feminists, edited by Jill Nagle, Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-91822-7.
  8. ^ "Violence Against Sex Workers and HIV Prevention" report published by the World Health Organization
  9. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "sex worker"
  10. ^ "Prostitution, trafficking, and cultural amnesia: What we must not know in order to keep the business of sexual exploitation running smoothly" by Melissa Farley, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 18(1):109–144, Spring 2006. "Some words hide the truth. Just as torture can be named enhanced interrogation, and logging of old-growth forests is named the Healthy Forest Initiative, words that lie about prostitution leave people confused about the nature of prostitution and trafficking. The words ‘sex work’ make the harms of prostitution invisible."
  11. ^ Baptie, Trisha (2009-04-29). "'Sex worker' ? Never met one !". Retrieved 2009-09-12. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Ryan, Chris, and Rachel Kinder. "Sex, tourism and sex tourism: fulfilling similar needs?." Tourism Management 17.7 (1996): 507-518.
  14. ^ Shaver, Frances M. (March 2005). "Sex work research: methodological and ethical challenges". Journal of Interpersonal Violence 20 (3): 296–319. 
  15. ^ Dank, Meredith et al. "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities". Urban Institute. 
  16. ^ Dank, Meredith. "Misconceptions about our report on the underground commercial sex economy". Urban Institute. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  17. ^ Ethiopia: Poverty forcing girls into risky sex work
  18. ^ Kenya: Desperate times: women sell sex to buy food
  19. ^ Leigh, Carol (April 19, 2012). "Labor Laws, Not Criminal Laws, Are the Solution". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  20. ^ Ramos, Norma (April 19 2012). "Such Oppression Can Never Be Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Tucker, Joseph; Astrid Tuminez (2011). "Reframing the Interpretation of Sex Worker Health: A Behavioral–Structural Approach". Journal of Infectious Diseases 204 (5): S1206–10. doi:10.1093/infdis/jir534. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  22. ^ a b c Cohan, D (Oct 2006). "Sex Worker Health: San Francisco Style". Sexually Transmitted Infections 82 (5): 418–422. doi:10.1136/sti.2006.020628. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  23. ^ a b c d e Shannon, Kate; Joanne Csete (August 4, 2010). "Violence, Condom Negotiation, and HIV/STI Risk Among Sex Workers". JAMA 304 (5): 573–574. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1090. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  24. ^ Silverman, JG (18 March 2014). "Associations of Sex Trafficking History with Recent Sexual Risk among HIV-Infected FSWs in India.". AIDS Behavior 18 (3): 55–61. doi:10.1007/s10461-013-0564-3. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  25. ^ Decker, Michele (23 September 2013). "Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetrator". BMC Public Health 13 (876). doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-876. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  26. ^ Goldenberg, S.M. (14 June 2013). "“Right Here is the Gateway”: Mobility, Sex Work Entry and HIV Risk Along the Mexico–US Border". International Migration. doi:10.1111/imig.12104. 
  27. ^ Weitzer, Ronald. (1991). "Prostitutes' Rights in the United States," Sociological Quarterly 32(1):23–41.
  28. ^ a b c Gall, Gregor (1 January 2007). "Sex worker unionisation: an exploratory study of emerging collective organisation". Industrial Relations Journal 38 (1): 70–88. 
  29. ^ "IUSW: Who We Are". International Union of Sex Workers. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  30. ^ "Sex Worker Rights Organizations and Projects Around the World". Prostitutes' Education Network. 
  31. ^ Katsulis, Yasmina. Sex Work and the City. 
  32. ^ "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey". 
  33. ^ Demography and sex work characteristics of female sex workers in India. April 2006. 

External links[edit]





North America[edit]

Anti-prostitution groups[edit]