Sex work

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Sex work is "the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation. [1] [2] It includes activities of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers as well as indirect sexual stimulation". [3] Sex work only refers to voluntary sexual transactions; thus the term does not refer to human trafficking and other coerced or nonconsensual sexual transactions such as child prostitution. The transaction must take place between consenting adults who are of the legal age and mental capacity to consent and must take place without any methods of coercion. [4] [5] The term emphasizes the labor and economic implications of this type of work. Furthermore, some prefer the use of the term because it seemingly grants more agency to the sellers of these services.


The Red Light district in Amsterdam Red Light District.jpg
The Red Light district in Amsterdam

Due to the legal status of some forms of sex work and the stigma associated with sex work, the population is difficult to access; thus there has been relatively little academic research done on the topic. Furthermore, the vast majority of academic literature on sex work focuses on prostitution, and to a lesser extent, exotic dancing; there is little research on other forms of sex work. These findings cannot necessarily be generalized to other forms of sex work. Nonetheless, there is a long documented history of sex work and its personal and economic nature.


Types of sex work include, but are not limited to, street prostitution, indoor prostitution (escort services, brothel work, massage parlor-related prostitution, bar or casino prostitution), phone sex operation, exotic dancing, lap dancing, webcam modeling, pornographic film performing, and nude peepshow performing. The list is sometimes expanded to include jobs in the sex industry that less directly involve the sexuality of the worker in the exchange of sexual performances, services, and products, such as the producers and directors of adult films, manufacturers and sellers of sex toys, managers in exotic dance clubs, escort agents, bouncers, etc.

In 2004, a Medline search and review of 681 "prostitution" articles was conducted in order to create a global typology of types of sex work using arbitrary categories. 25 types of sex work were identified in order to create a more systematic understanding of sex work as a whole. Prostitution varies by forms and social contexts including different types of direct and indirect prostitution. This study as conducted in order to work towards improving the health and safety of sex workers. [6]

Full criminalization of sex work is the most widely practiced legal strategy for regulating transactional sex. [7] Full criminalization is practiced in the United States, China, Russia and the majority of countries in Africa. Under this framework, the seller, buyer and any third party involved is subject to criminalization under the law. This includes anyone who profits from commercial sex in any location or physical setting. Criminalization has been linked to higher rates of STD infections, partner violence and police harassment. [8] Fear of legal ramifications can deter sex workers from seeking proper sexual healthcare services as well as discourage them from reporting crimes that took place during the legal transaction of sex. According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to instances of rape, murder and discrimination due to their marginalized position and ability to be prosecuted by the police even if they come forward as a victim. [9]

Decriminalizing Sex Work Prostitution laws of the world.svg
Decriminalizing Sex Work

Partial criminalization allows for the legalization of both the buying and selling of sex between two consenting parties but prohibits the commercial selling of sex within brothels or public settings such as street solicitation. This subsequently criminalizes the coalition of sex workers, forcing them to work alone and in less safe conditions. Partial criminalization ranges from a variety of legal models such as abolitionism, neo-abolitionism and the Swedish-Nordic Model.

Sex workers demonstrating for better working conditions at the 2009 Marcha Gay in Mexico City. SexWorkers2009Marcha2009.JPG
Sex workers demonstrating for better working conditions at the 2009 Marcha Gay in Mexico City.

Legalization is currently practiced in parts of South America, Australia, Europe and in the state of Nevada. The Red Light District in Amsterdam, The Netherlands is an example of full legalization where all aspects of sex work are allowed as long as they are registered under the state. This process of legalization is often expensive and time-consuming, leading to instances of 'back-door criminalization' where the most marginalized sex workers have to remain illegal because they can't comply with the regulations. This is most common among minority groups, immigrants and low income workers. [10]

Decriminalization is the most supported solution by sex workers themselves. [10] Decriminalization is the only legal solution that offers no criminalization of any party involved in the sex work industry and additionally has no restrictions on who can legally participate in sex work. The decriminalization of sex work would not remove any legal penalties condemning human trafficking. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that decriminalization of sex work would encourage human trafficking. [4] New Zealand was the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003 with the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act. [11] This is the most advocated for by sex workers because it allows them the most negotiating power with their clients. With full protection under the law they have the ability to determine their wages, method of protection, and protect themselves from violent offenders.


Sex work, in many different forms, has been practiced since ancient times. It is reported that even in the most primitive societies, there was transactional sex. Prostitution was widespread in ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was practiced at various socioeconomic levels. Hetaera in Greece and geisha in Japan were seen as prestigious members of society for their high level of training in companionship. Attitudes towards prostitution have shifted through history.

An Ancient Greek urn depicts a prostitute and her client NAMA Courtisane & client.jpg
An Ancient Greek urn depicts a prostitute and her client

During the Middle Ages prostitution was tolerated but not celebrated. It wasn't until the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that attitudes turned against prostitution on a large scale and bodies began to be regulated more heavily. These moral reforms were to a large extent directed towards the restriction of women's autonomy. Furthermore, enforcement of regulations regarding prostitution disproportionately impacted the poor. [12]

Sex work has a long history in the United States, yet laws regulating the sale of sex are relatively new. In the 18th century, prostitution was deeply rooted from Louisiana to San Francisco. Despite its prevalence, attitudes towards prostitutes were negative and many times hostile. Although the law did not directly address prostitution at this time, law enforcement often targeted prostitutes. Laws against lewdness and sodomy were used in an attempt to regulate sex work. Red-light districts formed in the 19th century in major cities across the country in an attempt by sex workers to find spaces where they could work, isolated from outside society and corresponding stigma.

Ambiguity in the law allowed for prostitutes to challenge imprisonment in the courts. Through these cases prostitutes forced a popular recognition of their profession and defended their rights and property. Despite sex workers' efforts, social reformers looking to abolish prostitution outright began to gain traction in the early 20th century. New laws focused on the third-party businesses where prostitution took place, such as saloons and brothels, holding the owners culpable for the activities that happened within their premises. Red-light districts began to close. Finally, in 1910 the Mann Act, or "White Slave Traffic Act" made illegal the act of coercing a person into prostitution or other immoral activity, the first federal law addressing prostitution. This act was created to address the trafficking of young, European girls who were thought to have been kidnapped and transported to the United States to work in brothels, but criminalized those participating in consensual sex work. [13] Subsequently, at the start of the First World War, a Navy decree forced the closure of sex-related businesses in close proximity to military bases. Restrictions and outright violence led to the loss of the little control workers had over their work. In addition to this, in 1918, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act made it so that any woman found to have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) would be quarantined by the government. The original purpose of this act was to stop the spread of venereal diseases among U.S. soldiers. [14] By 1915 under this act, prostitutes, or those perceived to be prostitutes could be stopped, inspected, and detained or sent to a rehabilitation facility if they were found to test positive for any venereal disease. During World War I, an estimated 3,000 women were detained and examined. The state had made sex workers into legal outcasts. [15] During the Great Depression, black women in New York City accounted for more than 50 percent of arrests for prostitution. [16]

Types of sex work expanded in the 21st century. Film and later the Internet provided new opportunities for sex work. In 1978, Carol Leigh, a prostitute and activist, coined the term "sex work" as it is now used. She looked to combat the anti-porn movement by coining a term that reflected the labor and economic implications of the work. The term came into popular use in the 1980s. (bayswan). COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and other similar groups formed in the 1970s and 80s to push for women's sexual freedom and sex workers' rights. A rift formed within feminism that continues today, with some arguing for the abolishment of sex work and others working for acceptance and rights for sex works.

The AIDS epidemic presented a new challenge to sex workers. The criminalization of exposing others to AIDS significantly impacted sex workers. Harm reduction strategies were organized providing testing, counseling, and supplies to stop the spread of the disease. This experience organizing helped facilitate future action for social justice. The threat of violence persists in many types of sex work. Unionization of legal types of sex work such as exotic dancers, lobbying of public health officials and labor officials, and human rights agencies has improved conditions for many sex workers. Nonetheless, the political ramifications of supporting a stigmatized population make organizing around sex work difficult. Despite these difficulties, actions against violence and for increased visibility and rights persist drawing hundreds of thousands of participants. [17]

Emotional labor

Emotional labor is an essential part of many service jobs, including many types of sex work. Through emotional labor sex workers engage in different levels of acting known as surface acting and deep acting. These levels reflect a sex worker's engagement with the emotional labor. Surface acting occurs when the sex worker is aware of the dissonance between their authentic experience of emotion and their managed emotional display. In contrast deep acting occurs when the sex worker can no longer differentiate between what is authentic and what is acting; acting becomes authentic. [18]

A prostitute in Berlin in 2001 Woman lying on bed, looking at mirror, Berlin 2001.jpg
A prostitute in Berlin in 2001

Sex workers engage in emotional labor for many different reasons. First, sex workers often engage in emotional labor to construct performances of gender and sexuality. [19] [20] [21] These performances frequently reflect the desires of a clientele which is mostly composed of heterosexual men. In the majority of cases, clients value women who they perceive as normatively feminine. For women sex workers, achieving this perception necessitates a performance of gender and (hetero)sexuality that involves deference to clients and affirmation of their masculinity, as well as physical embodiment of traditional femininity. [19] [22] The emotional labor involved in sex work may be of a greater significance when race differences are involved. For instance Mistress Velvet, a black, femme dominatrix advertises herself using her most fetishized attributes. She makes her clients, who are mostly white hetero males, read Black feminist theory before their sessions. This allows the clients to see why their participation, as white hetero males, contributes to the fetishization of black women. [23]

Both within sex work and in other types of work, emotional labor is gendered in that women are expected to use it to construct performances of normative femininity, whereas men are expected to use it to construct performances of normative masculinity. [18] In both cases, these expectations are often met because this labor is necessary to maximizing monetary gain and potentially to job retention. Indeed, emotional labor is often used as a means to maximize income. It fosters a better experience for the client and protects the worker thus enabling the worker to make the most profit. [19] [20] [24]

In addition, sex workers often engage in emotional labor as a self-protection strategy, distancing themselves from the sometimes emotionally volatile work. [3] [20] Finally, clients often value perceived authenticity in their transactions with sex workers; thus, sex workers may attempt to foster a sense of authentic intimacy. [19] [24]

Intimate relationships

A study in Melbourne, Australia found that sex workers typically experience relationship difficulties as a result of their line of work. This primarily stems from the issue of disclosure of their work in personal relationships. Some sex workers noted that dating ex-clients is helpful as they have had contact with sex workers and they are aware of their employment. [25]

There is very little empirical evidence characterizing clients of sex workers, but they may share an analogues problem. A Scientific American article on sex buyers summarises a limited field of research which indicates that Johns have a normal psychological profile matching the makeup of the wider male population, but view themselves as mentally unwell. [26] Qualitative studies indicate that repeat buyers become romantically attached and idealise sex workers of choice as their perfect partners.

Commodified intimacy

In clients' encounters with prostitutes or exotic dancers (and potentially other sex workers as well), many seek more than sexual satisfaction. They often seek, via their interactions with sex workers, an affirmation of their masculinity, which they may feel is lacking in other aspects of their lives. [19] [22] This affirmation comes in the form of (a simulation of) affection and sexual desire, and "smooth, intimate, affective space, wherein the way that time is managed is governed only by mutual desire and enjoyment." [22] Partly because they are engaged in work during these interactions, prostitutes' experience and interpretation of time tends to be structured instead by desires to maximize income, avoid boredom, and/or avoid detriment to self-esteem. [22]

For sex workers, commodified intimacy provides different benefits. In Brazil, sex workers prioritize foreign men over local men in terms of forming intimate relationships with sex workers. This is a result of local men regarding sex workers as having no worth beyond their occupation. In contrast, foreign men are often accompanied by wealth and status, which are factors that can help a sex worker become independent. Hence sex workers in Brazil are more likely to seek out "ambiguous entanglements" with the foreign men they provide services for, rather than the local men. [27]

Gender differences

Interviews with men and women escorts illuminate gender differences in these escorts' experiences. [3] On average, women escorts charged much more than men. [28] [ better source needed ] Compared to traditional women escorts, women in niche markets charged lower rates. However, this disparity in rates did not exist for men escorts. Men escorts reported widespread acceptance in the gay community; they were much more likely than women to disclose their occupation.[ citation needed ] This community acceptance is fairly unusual to the gay community and not the experience of many women sex workers. Also, heterosexual men prostitutes are much more likely than heterosexual women prostitutes to entertain same-gender clients out of necessity, because the vast majority of clients are men. [22] In general, there is a greater social expectation for women to engage in emotional labor than there is for men; there are also greater consequences if they do not. [18]


The potential risks sex work poses to the worker vary greatly depending on the specific job they occupy. Compared to outdoor or street-based sex workers, indoor workers are less likely to face violence. [29] Street sex workers may also more likely to use addictive drugs, to have unprotected sex, and to be the victim of sexual assault. [3] HIV affects large numbers of sex workers who engage in prostitution, of all genders, globally. Rape and violence, poverty, stigma, and social exclusion are all common risks faced by sex workers in many different occupations. [12] A study of violence against women engaged in street prostitution found that 68% reported having been raped. [30] Sex workers are also in a high risk of murder. According to Salfati's study, sex workers are 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than nonprostitute females. [31] Although these features tend to apply more to sex workers who engage in full service sex work, stigma and safety risks are pervasive for all types of sex work, albeit to different extents. [3] [29] Because of the varied legal status of some forms of sex work, sex workers in some countries also face the risk of incarceration, flogging and even the death penalty. [32]

Feminist/liberalist debate

Feminist debates on sex work (see Feminist views of pornography and prostitution) focus primarily on pornography and prostitution. Feminist arguments against these occupations tend to be founded in the notion that these types of work are inherently degrading to women, perpetuate the sexual objectification of women, and/or perpetuate male supremacy. [33] In response, proponents of sex work argue that these claims deny women sex workers' agency, and that choosing to engage in this work can be empowering. They contend that the perspectives of anti-sex work feminists are based on notions of sexuality constructed by the patriarchy to regulate women's expressions sexuality. [34] In fact, many feminists who support the sex industry claim that criminalizing sex work causes more harm to women and their sexual autonomy. An article in the Touro Law Review 2014, focuses on the challenges faced by prostitutes in the U.S and the need for prostitution reform. "[By criminalizing prostitution] women lose the choice to get paid for having consensual sex. A woman may have sex for free, but once she receives something of value for her services, the act becomes illegal". [35] Those who see this as an attack on a women's sexual autonomy also worry about the recent attacks on liberal social policy, such as same sex marriage and abortion on demand, in the U.S. Some liberals also argue that since a disproportionate share of those who choose sex work as a means of income are the poor and disadvantaged, public officials should focus on social policies improving the lives of those choosing to do so rather than condemnation of the "private" means which those victims of society employ. [36]

Debates on sex worker agency

The topic of sexual labor is often contextualized within opposing abolitionist and sex-positive perspectives. [37] [38] The abolitionist perspective typically defines sex work as an oppressive form of labor. [39] According to opponents of prostitution, it is not only the literal purchase of a person's body for sexual exploitation, it also constitutes exertion of power over women both symbolically and materially. This perspective views prostitution and trafficking as directly and intimately connected and therefore calls for the abolition of prostitution in efforts to eliminate the overall sexual exploitation of women and children. [39] Opponents also refute the idea of consent among sex workers by claiming that such consent is merely a submissive acceptance of the traditional exploitation of women. For these reasons, opponents believe that decriminalizing sex work would utterly harm women as a class by maintaining their sexual and economic exploitation while "serving the interests of pimps, procurers and prostitutors". [39]

Some Sex-positive feminists recognize sex workers as situated within a modern Western sexual hierarchy where a married man and woman are respected while LGBT people, fetishists, and sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models are viewed as sexual deviants. [40] According to sex positive feminists, sex law incorporates a prohibition against mixing sex and money in order to sustain this hierarchy. Therefore, the individuals who practice these "deviant" sexual acts are deemed as criminals and have limited institutional support and are subjected to economic sanctions. [40] Sex-positive perspectives challenge this hierarchy by appreciating sexual diversity and rejecting any notion of "normal" sex. [41] With this understanding, people who choose to engage in criminalized sex acts are seen as autonomous sexual beings rather than victims of the sex industry. For black women, agency is viewed as contextual due to historical considerations, and can be regarded as one facet of a complex system of ideals that encompass black women's sexuality over time. One result of this is the way that race relations impact the mobility of black people in the sex industry. [42]

Some liberal feminists believe that a "democratic morality" should judge sexual activity (as if the proclivities of the majority, as well as their proficiency in providing sexual pleasure(s), should determine the direction of a society's moral compass) "by the way partners treat one another, the presence or absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide". [40] They propound that it should not be an ethical concern whether sex acts are coupled or in groups, same or mixed sex, with or without consensual acts of violence or video, commercial or free. [40]

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Related Research Articles

Sex worker Person who works in the sex industry

A sex worker is a person who is employed in the sex industry. 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 and management of such industries. Some sex workers are paid to engage in sex acts or sexually explicit behavior which involves varying degrees of physical contact with clients ; pornographic models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which is filmed or photographed. Phone sex operators have sexually-oriented conversations with clients, and may do verbal sexual roleplay.

Sex tourism Travel to engage in sexual activity

Sex tourism is travel to a different locale for the sake of sexual activity, particularly with prostitutes. The World Tourism Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, defines sex tourism as "trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, with the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination".

Sex-positive feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s centering on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. Some feminists became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists to put pornography at the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression.

Sex trafficking Trade of sexual slaves

Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, including sexual slavery, which is considered a form of modern slavery. A victim is forced, in one of a variety of ways, into a situation of dependency on their trafficker(s) and then used by the trafficker(s) to perform sexual services to customers. Sex trafficking crimes can involve acquisition, transportation and exploitation; this includes child sex tourism (CST), domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) or other kinds of commercial sexual exploitation of children, and prostitution.

Male prostitution Act or practice of men providing sexual services in return for payment

Male prostitution is the act or practice of men providing sexual services in return for payment. It is a form of sex work. Although clients can be any gender, the vast majority are male. Compared to female prostitutes, male prostitutes have been far less studied by researchers.

COYOTE is an American sex workers' rights organization. Its name is a backronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a reflection of the fact that sex work tends to be stigmatized primarily because of society-imposed standards of ethics. COYOTE's goals include the decriminalization of prostitution, pimping and pandering, as well as the elimination of social stigma concerning sex work as an occupation.

A girlfriend experience (GFE) is a commercial service that blurs the boundaries between a financial transaction and a romantic relationship. It ranges from a transactional sex relationship to a client paying a sex worker to pretend to be his girlfriend during the session.

The laws on prostitution in Sweden make it illegal to buy sex, but not to sell the use of one's own body for such services. Procuring and operating a brothel remain illegal. The criminalisation of the purchase of sex, but not the selling of one's own body for sex, was unique when first enacted in Sweden in 1999. Since then, this "Nordic model" for sex trade legislation has been adopted in several other nations.

Prostitution in South Africa is illegal for both buying and selling sex, as well as related activities such as brothel keeping and pimping. However, it remains widespread. Law enforcement is poor.

Prostitution Engaging in sexual relations in exchange for payment

Prostitution is the business or practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for payment. Prostitution is sometimes described as sexual services, commercial sex or, colloquially, hooking. It is sometimes referred to euphemistically as "the world's oldest profession" in the English-speaking world. A person who works in this field is called a prostitute and is a type of sex worker.

Sex workers rights

Sex workers' rights encompass a variety of aims being pursued globally by individuals and organizations that specifically involve the human, health, and labor rights of sex workers and their clients. The goals of these movements are diverse, but generally aim to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, and ensure fair treatment before legal and cultural forces on a local and international level for all persons in the sex industry.

Sex industry Field of business

The sex industry consists of businesses that either directly or indirectly provide sex-related products and services or adult entertainment. The industry includes activities involving direct provision of sex-related services, such as prostitution, strip clubs, host and hostess clubs and sex-related pastimes, such as pornography, sex-oriented men's magazines, sex movies, sex toys and fetish and BDSM paraphernalia. Sex channels for television and pre-paid sex movies for video on demand, are part of the sex industry, as are adult movie theaters, sex shops, peep shows, and strip clubs.

Violence against prostitutes has been reported worldwide, both on a physical and psychological level. The victims are predominantly women, including in extreme cases murder both inside and outside the workplace. Minorities such as transgender women or women of color can face increased instances of violence due to intersectional prejudices present in society.

Feminist views on prostitution

There exists a diversity of feminist views on prostitution. Many of these positions can be loosely arranged into an overarching standpoint that is generally either critical or supportive of prostitution and sex work.

Melissa Farley is an American clinical psychologist, researcher and feminist anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist. Farley is best known for her studies of the effects of prostitution, trafficking and sexual violence. She is the founder and director of the San Francisco-based organization, Prostitution Research and Education.

Prostitution law Legality of prostitution

Prostitution law varies widely from country to country, and between jurisdictions within a country. At one extreme, prostitution or sex work is legal in some places and regarded as a profession, while at the other extreme, it is a crime punishable by death in some other places.

Migrant sex work is sex work done by migrant workers. Migrant sex work is significant because of its role as a dominant demographic of commercial sex workers internationally. Migrant sex work shares several similarities across various contexts, such as their migration from rural to urban areas or between developing to industrialized nations and the economic push and pull factors that help determine their migrant status. Migrant sex workers have also been at the center of complex discussions over the legality of sex work, the differentiation or conflation of sex work from sex trafficking, and responses from national governments and non-governmental organizations over the regulation of sex work and the provision of services for victims of sex trafficking.

The decriminalization of sex work is the removal of criminal penalties for sex work. Sex work, the consensual provision of sexual services for money or goods, is criminalized in most countries. Decriminalization is distinct from legalization and regulation.

Nordic model approach to prostitution The approach to prostitution law first instituted in Sweden in 1999

The Nordic model approach to prostitution, also known as neo-abolitionism, the sex buyer law and the Swedish model, is an approach to prostitution law. Though it is often called the "Nordic model", it has only been adopted in three of the Nordic countries, and has no connection to the socioeconomic model of the same name.

Sex worker abuse by police officers can occur in one or more ways. Police brutality refers to the intentional use of excessive force by a police officer, be it physical, verbal, or psychological. Police corruption is a form of police misconduct where an officer obtains financial benefits and/or career advancements in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. Police misconduct refers to inappropriate actions taken by police officers in connection with their official duties. Sex workers, particularly poor sex workers and those who had been manipulated, coerced, or forced into sex work, are at risk of being obliged or otherwise forced to provide free sexual services to police officers out of fear of being harmed or arrested. Some sex workers have reported that they have encountered police officers who have physically assaulted them without evidence of a crime and without making an arrest.


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