The sex industry is a global economic sector that encompasses activities related to the provision of sexual services, products, and entertainment. This includes activities such as prostitution, strip clubs, host and hostess clubs, pornography, sex-oriented men’s magazines, sex movies, sex toys, and fetish or BDSM paraphernalia. It also encompasses television and pre-paid sex movies for video on demand, adult movie theaters, sex shops, peep shows, and strip clubs. It employs millions of people worldwide, with a majority of them being women. This ranges from the sex worker, or adult service provider (ASP) or adult sex provider, to a variety of support personnel.
The term “sex industry” appears to have been coined in the 1970s. An article published in 1977 by the Ontario Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry (LaMarsh Commission) quoted author Peter McCabe as writing in Argosy: “Ten years ago the sex industry did not exist. When people talked of commercial sex they meant Playboy.” The same year, columnist Russell Baker of The New York Times wrote an article arguing that the sex industry should be recognized as an industry, rather than being scattered throughout the city. He suggested that the “sex industry” was not yet commonly accepted as such. This shows that the term was not in widespread use prior to the 1970s.
Prostitution is a form of sex work in which a person provides sexual services to a client in exchange for money or other forms of compensation. It may take place in a variety of settings, such as a brothel, an escort agency, a client’s hotel room, a parked car, or on the street. In some cases, the sex worker has the freedom to decide whether or not to engage in certain sexual activities; however, in other cases, they are subjected to forced prostitution or sexual slavery. Multiple factors contribute to individuals entering into prostitution, including poverty, oppressive capitalist structures, patriarchy, conflict and war, and systemic racism. These conditions work together to perpetuate oppression, leading to inequality and lack of resources for people of color, particularly in the United States.
The legality of prostitution and related activities, such as soliciting, operating brothels, and procuring, varies depending on the jurisdiction. Even in places where it is illegal, a thriving underground industry often exists due to the high demand and potential for high profits gained by pimps, brothel owners, escort agencies, and traffickers.
A brothel is a place of business where people can pay to engage in sexual services with a prostitute. Although these establishments may be referred to as massage parlors, bars, or strip clubs, they are in essence brothels. Sex work in a brothel can be seen as a safer alternative to street prostitution.
In many countries, prostitution and operating a brothel are illegal. This can include laws that make it illegal to solicit sex in public, or laws that outlaw pimping. Additionally, in some jurisdictions, prostitution is only permitted in certain areas, such as designated red-light districts. Furthermore, in some places, it is illegal to employ anyone under a certain age, or to engage in any form of forced prostitution. Similarly, in some countries, it is illegal to advertise or consume alcohol on the premises of a brothel. In some cases, even if prostitution is legal, brothel operators may choose to operate illegally.
Some individuals may travel from their home to engage with local sex workers, a practice called sex tourism, and this can have a range of socio-economic impacts on the destinations visited. Male sex tourism can lead to an increased demand for sex services, while female sex tourism does not usually rely on facilities that are devoted to that purpose. Sex tourism, like general tourism, can be a significant contributor to local economies, especially in popular cities and sites renowned for sex tourism. Sex tourism may be facilitated by restrictive anti-prostitution laws at home, and while it can bring in revenue to the destination, it may also cause social issues in the visited country.
Businesses providing sexual services tend to congregate near military bases. For example, in the 19th century, the British naval port of Portsmouth was notorious for its thriving prostitution scene. Until the early 1990s, large red light districts were located near American military bases in the Philippines. The Monto red-light district of Dublin, one of the largest in Europe, was heavily patronized by British soldiers stationed in the city; its demise came with Irish independence, when the soldiers left. The notorious Patpong entertainment district in Bangkok and the city of Pattaya, Thailand, emerged as rest and relaxation spots for US troops serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.
Prostitution is a major problem in many Asian countries, especially those in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. These countries suffer from economic instability, which has encouraged many women to turn to the sex industry for work. According to a study conducted by the International Labour Organization, it is likely that many women who have lost their jobs in other sectors are being forced to enter the sex sector to support their families. In some destinations, the sex industry has become the dominant commercial sector. Conversely, China’s booming economy has also revitalized its sex industry. The city of Dalian, for example, has grown from a small fishing community to a major urban center with a sizeable sex industry since it was declared a special economic zone in 1984. Many of China’s sex workers are immigrants from other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan. The lax policies of many Southeast Asian countries have also made them a popular destination for sex tourism, with many visitors coming from North America or Europe. These issues have become global concerns due to the increasing economic power of China and Japan.
Pornography is the explicit representation of sexual activities and subjects in a manner designed to elicit sexual arousal or gratification. This can include photographs, videos, sculptures, drawings, paintings, animation, sound recordings, films, and video games. Pornographic models, actors, and stars pose for explicit photographs, perform in pornographic films, and present live sex shows. However, when sexual acts are performed for an audience, this does not constitute pornography as the term refers to the depiction of the act, not the act itself. Therefore, shows such as striptease and sex shows are not considered to be pornographic.
As personal computers became increasingly powerful in the 1980s and early 1990s, they opened up the possibility of networked communication, leading to the emergence of online services catering to adults. This, combined with the growth of the World Wide Web, resulted in a boom in the demand for and consumption of pornography and erotica. By 2009, the U.S. porn industry’s revenue was estimated to be between $10–15 billion a year, surpassing the combined revenue of professional sports and live music and rivaling Hollywood’s box office earnings.
The evidence on the social impact of pornography is mixed. Meta-analyses of existing research have indicated a correlation between pornography consumption and sexual aggression, but it is unclear if this is a causal relationship. On the other hand, counter-intuitively, pornography has been found to reduce sexual aggression at a societal level. A 2017 meta-analysis concluded that, while men who consume pornography are less satisfied with some areas of their lives, pornography consumption does not have a significant effect on other areas or on the lives of women. Additionally, a survey of Americans showed that those who had viewed pornography were more likely to experience a breakup in their romantic relationships, with the effect being more pronounced among men.
Adult entertainment encompasses activities which are intended to be viewed by adults only and are typically distinguished from family entertainment. These activities may include ribaldry and bawdiness. Examples of adult entertainment include sex channels on television, pre-paid sex films, adult movie theaters, sex shops, strip clubs, men’s magazines featuring sexual content, sex toys, fetish and BDSM paraphernalia, sex workers such as prostitutes, call girls, pornographic film actors, models, sex show performers, erotic dancers, striptease dancers, bikini baristas, telephone sex operators, cybersex operators, erotic massagers, and amateur porn stars for online sex sessions and videos. There are also professionals in the adult entertainment industry such as courtesans and dominatrixes, who may specialize in certain niche markets.
The sex industry in China includes hostesses who work in many bars. These women are hired by men to provide them with companionship, which involves drinking and engaging in conversation, while the men flirt and make sexual comments. Some of these hostesses also offer sexual services at offsite locations, although this is not a requirement for all women in the industry. These hostesses are generally labeled as “grey women” – meaning that although they are not considered prostitutes, they are not considered suitable marriage partners for many men. Additionally, many wealthy Chinese businessmen have permanent mistresses or “second wives” who are also included in this category. The Chinese government works to keep the reality of the sex industry in China a secret in order to maintain a positive image in the world. Hostesses are given freedom to choose whether or not they want to service a client sexually, though a refusal can sometimes lead to conflict.
Aside from sex workers, many individuals work in or service the sex industry as managers, film crews, photographers, website developers and webmasters, sales personnel, book and magazine writers and editors, business model creators, negotiators, press release writers, contractors, content buyers and sellers, technical support providers, server operators, billing services personnel, payroll clerks, trade show organizers, marketing and sales forecasters, human resource specialists, tax services personnel, and legal support providers. Although many of these individuals do not have direct contact with sex workers, those in management or staff may hire photographers who do.