Sex worker

A prostitute in Amsterdam's Red Light district talks with a potential customer.

A sex worker is a person who is employed 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 sex acts or sexually explicit behavior which involve varying degrees of physical contact with clients (prostitutes and 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]


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, edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander.[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]

In practice

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

Sex workers may be any gender and exchange sexual services or favors for money or other gifts. The motives of sex workers vary widely and can include debt, coercion, survival, or simply as a way to earn a living.[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] Transgender people are more likely than the general population to do sex work, particularly trans women and trans people of color.[14] In a study of female Indian sex workers, illiteracy and lower social status were more prevalent than among the general female population.[15]

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 its 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.[16]

While demographic characteristics of sex workers vary by region and are hard to measure, some studies have attempted to estimate the composition of the sex work communities in various places. For example, one study of sex work in Tijuana, Mexico found that the majority of sex workers there are young, female and heterosexual.[17] Many of these studies 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20][21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

Risk reduction

Risk reduction in sex work is a highly debated topic. "Abolitionism" and "nonabolitionism" or "empowerment" are regarded as opposing ways in which risk reduction is approached.[24] 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.[25] Both approaches aim to reduce rates of disease and other negative effects of sex work.

In addition, sex workers themselves have disputed the dichotomous nature of abolitionism and nonabolitionism, advocating instead a focus on sex workers' rights. In 1999, the Network of Sex Worker Projects claimed that "Historically, anti-trafficking measures have been more concerned with protecting 'innocent' women from becoming prostitutes than with ensuring the human rights of those in the sex industry.[24] Penelope Saunders, a sex workers' rights advocate, claims that the sex workers' rights approach considers more of the historical context of sex work than either abolitionism or empowerment. In addition, Jo Doezema has written that the dichotomy of the voluntary and forced approaches to sex work has served to deny sex workers agency.[26]


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.[27] 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.[28]

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.[27] In general, transgender women sex workers have a higher risk of contracting HIV than male and female sex workers and transgender women who are not sex workers.[29]

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.[28] 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.[28]

Health Concerns of Exotic Dancers
Mental Health and Stigma
In order to protect themselves from the stigma of sex work, many dancers resort to othering themselves. Othering involves constructing oneself as superior to one's peers, and the dancer persona provides an internal boundary that separates the “authentic” from the stripper self. This practice creates a lot of stress for the dancers, in turn leading many to resort to using drugs and alcohol to cope. Since it is so widespread, the use of drugs has become normalized in the exotic dance scene.
Despite this normalization, passing as nonusers, or covering as users of less maligned drugs, is necessary. This is because strippers concurrently attribute a strong moral constitution to those that resist the drug atmosphere; it is a testament to personal strength and will power. It is also an occasion for dancers to ‘‘other’’ fellow strippers. Valorizing resistance to the drug space discursively positions ‘‘good’’ strippers against such a drug locale and indicates why dancers are motivated to closet hard drug use.
Stigma causes strippers to hide their lifestyles from friends and family alienating themselves from a support system. Further, the stress of trying to hide their lifestyles from others due to fear of scrutiny affects the mental health of dancers. Stigma is a difficult area to address because it is more abstract, but it would be helpful to work toward normalizing sex work as a valid way of making a living. This normalization of sex work would relieve the stress many dancers experience increasing the likelihood that they will be open about their work. Being open will allow them access to a viable support system and reduce the othering and drug use so rampant in the sex industry.[30][31]

Forced sex work

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.[32] 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.[28][33]

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.[28] Currently, there is little support for migrant workers in many countries, including those who have been trafficked to a location for sex.[34]


Main article: Sex workers' rights

Sex worker's rights advocates argue that sex workers should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people.[35] 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. Each year in London The Sexual Freedom Awards is held to honour the most notable advocates and pioneers of sexual freedom and sex workers' rights in the UK, where sex work is essentially legal.

Unionization of sex work

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.[36] 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.[37] Many regions are home to sex worker unions, including Latin America, Brazil, Canada, Europe, and Africa.[38]

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.[36]

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.[36]

Unionizing Exotic Dancers
Independent contractor vs Employee
Performers in general are problematic to categorize because they often exercise a high level of control over their work product, one characteristic of an independent contractor. Additionally, their work can be artistic in nature and often done on a freelance basis. Often, the work of performers does not possess the obvious attributes of employees such as regular working hours, places or duties. Consequently, employers misclassify them because they are unsure of their workers' status, or they purposely misclassify them to take advantage of independent contractors' low costs. Exotic dance clubs are one such employer that purposely misclassify their performers as independent contractors.
There are additional hurdles in terms of self-esteem and commitment to unionize. On the most basic level, dancers themselves must have the desire to unionize for collective action. For those who wish not to conform to group activity or want to remain independent, a union may seem as controlling as club management since joining a union would obligate them to pay dues and abide by decisions made through majority vote, with or without their personal approval.
In Lusty Lady case study, this strip club was the first all woman managed club to successfully unionize in 1996. Some of the working conditions they were able to address included “protest[ing] racist hiring practices, customers being allowed to videotape dancers without their consent via one-way mirrors, inconsistent disciplinary policies, lack of health benefits, and an overall dearth of job security.” Unionizing exotic dancers can certainly bring better work conditions and fair pay, but it is difficult to do at times because of their dubious employee categorization. Also, as is the case with many other unions, dancers are often reluctant to join them. This reluctance can be due many factors, ranging from the cost of joining a union to the dancers believing they do not need union support because they will not be exotic dancers for a long enough period of time to justify joining a union.[39][40]

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

NGOs often play a large role in outreach to sex workers, particularly in HIV and STI prevention efforts.[41] However, NGO outreach to sex workers for HIV prevention is sometimes less coordinated and organized than similar HIV prevention programs targeted at different groups (such as men who have sex with men).[42] This lack of organization may be due to the legal status of prostitution and other sex work in the country in question; in China, many sex work and drug abuse NGOs do not formally register with the government and thus run many of their programs on a small scale and discreetly.[42]

While some NGOs have increased their programming to improve conditions within the context of sex work, these programs are criticized at times due to their failure to dismantle the oppressive structures of prostitution, particularly forced trafficking. Some scholars believe that advocating for rights within the institution of prostitution is not enough; rather, programs that seek to empower sex workers must empower them to leave sex work as well as improve their rights within the context of sex work.[43]

Further reading

See also


  1. 1 2 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. Harcourt, C; B Donovan (2005). "The many faces of sex work" (PDF). Sexually Transmitted Infections. 81 (3): 201–206. doi:10.1136/sti.2004.012468. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  13. Ryan, Chris; Kinder, Rachel (1996). "Sex, tourism and sex tourism: fulfilling similar needs?.". Tourism Management. 17 (7): 507–518. doi:10.1016/s0261-5177(96)00068-4.
  14. "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey" (PDF).
  15. "Demography and sex work characteristics of female sex workers in India". April 2006.
  16. Shaver, Frances M. (March 2005). "Sex work research: methodological and ethical challenges". Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 20 (3): 296–319. doi:10.1177/0886260504274340.
  17. Katsulis, Yasmina. Sex Work and the City.
  18. Dank, Meredith; et al. "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities". Urban Institute.
  19. Dank, Meredith. "Misconceptions about our report on the underground commercial sex economy". Urban Institute. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  20. Ethiopia: Poverty forcing girls into risky sex work
  21. "IRIN Africa - KENYA: Desperate times: women sell sex to buy food - Kenya - HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)". IRINnews.
  22. Leigh, Carol (April 19, 2012). "Labor Laws, Not Criminal Laws, Are the Solution". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  23. Ramos, Norma (April 19, 2012). "Such Oppression Can Never Be Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  24. 1 2 Saunders, Penelope (March 2005). "Traffic Violations: Determining the Meaning of Violence in Sexual Trafficking versus Sex Work" (PDF). Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 20 (3): 343–360. doi:10.1177/0886260504272509. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  25. 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.
  26. Kempadoo, Kamala (1998). Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition. New York, NY: Routledge.
  27. 1 2 Cohan, D (Oct 2006). "Sex Worker Health: San Francisco Style". Sexually Transmitted Infections. 82 (5): 418–422. doi:10.1136/sti.2006.020628. PMC 2563853Freely accessible. PMID 16854996.
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 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.
  29. Operario, Don (May 1, 2008). "Sex Work and HIV Status Among Transgender Women: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis" (PDF). Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. 48 (1): 97–103. doi:10.1097/qai.0b013e31816e3971. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  30. Tyndale, Maticka, E. (2000). Exotic dancing and health. Women & health, 31(1), 87
  31. Barton, B. (2007). Managing the toll of stripping boundary setting among exotic dancers. Journal of contemporary ethnography, 36(5), 571
  32. Silverman, JG (18 March 2014). "Associations of Sex Trafficking History with Recent Sexual Risk among HIV-Infected FSWs in India.". AIDS and Behavior. 18 (3): 55–61. doi:10.1007/s10461-013-0564-3. PMID 23955657.
  33. 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.
  34. 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. 52: 26–40. doi:10.1111/imig.12104.
  35. Weitzer, Ronald (1991). "Prostitutes' Rights in the United States". Sociological Quarterly. 32 (1): 23–41. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1991.tb00343.x.
  36. 1 2 3 Gall, Gregor (1 January 2007). "Sex worker unionisation: an exploratory study of emerging collective organisation". Industrial Relations Journal. 38 (1): 70–88. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2338.2007.00436.x.
  37. "IUSW: Who We Are". International Union of Sex Workers. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  38. "Sex Worker Rights Organizations and Projects Around the World". Prostitutes' Education Network.
  39. Brooks, S. (2001). Exotic dancing and unionizing: The challenges of feminist and antiracist organizing at the Lusty Lady Theater. Feminism and anti-racism: International struggles for justice, 59-70
  40. Chun, S. (1999). Uncommon Alliance: Finding Empowerment for Exotic Dancers through Labor Unions, An. Hastings Women's LJ, 10, 231
  41. O'Neil, John (August 2004). "Dhandha, dharma and disease: traditional sex work and HIV/AIDS in rural India". Social Science and Medicine. 59 (4): 851–860. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2003.11.032. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  42. 1 2 Kaufman, Joan (2011). "HIV, Sex Work, and Civil Society in China". Journal of Infectious Diseases. 204 (5): S1218–S1222. doi:10.1093/infdis/jir538.
  43. Raymond, Janice G. (January–February 1998). "Prostitution as violence against women: NGO stonewalling in Beijing and elsewhere". Women's Studies International Forum. Elsevier. 21 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(96)00102-1.
  44. "The Naked Anthropologist".
  45. "An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie".
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