A person who engages in sex work is sometimes referred to as a sex worker. This term encompasses individuals who provide a variety of services, including prostitution, exotic dancing, phone sex, cam shows, erotic massage, and other forms of adult entertainment. Sex workers may work independently or as part of an agency, and they may work either part-time or full-time.
John E. Exner, an American psychologist, and his colleagues developed a five-class system in order to better define the broad term “sex work”. Class I, or the upper class, consists of call girls; Class II is known as the middle class and includes “in-house girls” who work on a commission basis; Class III, the lower middle class, are streetwalkers whose fees and place of work fluctuate; Class IV are “commuter housewives” who engage in sex work to supplement their family’s income; and Class V are “streetwalker addicts” or “drugs-for-sex streetwalkers” who are considered the lowest class of the profession. It is thought that sex work is different from sexual exploitation in that it is voluntary and involves the commercial exchange of sex for money or goods.
In 1978, sex worker activist Carol Leigh coined the term “sex worker,” which gained further popularization following the 1987 publication of the anthology Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry, edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander. The term has since become widely accepted, appearing in academic publications, NGO and labor union statements, and in documents issued by governmental and intergovernmental agencies like the World Health Organization. The phrase is also included in the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
Some sex workers prefer to identify as “sex workers” in order to avoid the stigma associated with the term “prostitute” and to create an inclusive environment that includes all members of the sex industry. The use of the term “sex worker” also allows individuals to assert ownership over their career choice and to distance their occupation from their person. It is a way for people to show that they are more than their job and have multiple facets to their identity.
Many people with moral objections to the sex industry, such as social conservatives, anti-prostitution feminists, and prohibitionists, are opposed to the term “sex work”. They consider prostitution to be a crime or form of victimization, and believe the term “sex work” implies that criminal activity or exploitation is a legitimate form of labor.
Sex work can take on many forms, from prostitution and stripping to lap dancing, performing in pornography, phone or internet sex, and any other exchange of sexual services for money or other compensation. Full service sex workers are those who include sexual intercourse as part of their services. The risks faced by sex workers can be varied and range in severity, depending on the type of work they do. Sex workers may work independently as individuals, for a company or corporation, or as part of a brothel. Whether they enter into the profession by choice or due to coercion, sex workers may travel to provide companionship or perform sexual services. This could be voluntary or forced labor.
Sex work is a form of labor in which individuals provide sexual services or favors in exchange for money or other gifts. Motivations behind engaging in this line of work can vary widely, including debt, coercion, survival, sexual empowerment, and simply to make a living. One Canadian study found that a quarter of surveyed sex workers began the profession because they found it appealing, citing its flexible hours and the ability to select one’s own clientele. Additionally, sex work can be a way to fund addiction, whether it is a preexisting condition or something that is introduced to individuals after entering the industry. The reasons for sex work differ across cultures and communities, and in some cases, it is linked to tourism.
Transgender individuals, particularly trans women and those belonging to a racial minority, are disproportionately likely to turn to sex work for financial gain. A study of female Indian sex workers has revealed that illiteracy and reduced social standing are more prevalent among them than among the general female population.
A study conducted in Tijuana, Mexico revealed that the majority of sex workers were young, female and heterosexual. Various research efforts have used smaller samples of sex workers and pimps to deduce the characteristics of larger populations of sex workers. One such report on the clandestine sex trade in the U.S. gathered information about illegal drug and weapon trades and interviewed sex workers and pimps in eight American cities to reach conclusions about the number of sex workers there. However, this type of research has been criticized for focusing mainly on the activities and perspectives of pimps and sex work organizers, while disregarding the views and experiences of sex workers. Additionally, sex trafficking is often overlooked in these studies, leading to further criticism.
Many studies find it challenging to accurately measure the prevalence of sex work due to the clandestine nature of such activities, the associated legal restrictions, and the difficulty of obtaining a representative sample of sex workers in a given city. Furthermore, preserving the privacy and confidentiality of research subjects is difficult, as many sex workers may risk prosecution or other repercussions if their identities are revealed.
Sex workers may face harmful stereotypes that portray them as deviant, hypersexual, sexually risky, and substance abusive. Such stigmatization, or othering, can lead to sex workers keeping their occupation hidden from non-sex workers, withdrawing from social situations, and even developing a false self to perform at work. This stigma can perpetuate rape culture and slut-shaming, causing further harm.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in the United States was passed with the intention of protecting victims of sex trafficking, but it made it illegal to advertise consensual sex work online. This conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking has had a detrimental effect on sex workers.
Sex workers around the world face numerous obstacles when attempting to access healthcare, legal resources, and labor rights. In a US-based study of sex workers, 43% of respondents reported exposure to intimate-partner violence, physical violence, armed physical violence, sexual coercion, and rape. It is unsurprising, then, that one sex worker in the same study was quoted as saying “in this lifestyle nothing’s safe”. Furthermore, police officers have been known to exploit sex workers’ fear of arrest by coercing them into sex without payment, then still arresting them afterwards. Often, sex workers are held responsible for crimes committed against them due to the stigma attached to their occupation, which is known as victim-blaming. This form of discrimination, known as whorephobia, has a detrimental effect on sex workers’ safety, agency, and mental health. Nevertheless, there is an increasing number of advocacy organizations dedicated to reducing stigma against sex work and providing support and resources for sex workers.
Risk reduction in sex work is a highly contested issue, with “abolitionism” and “empowerment” often seen as opposing strategies. Abolitionism seeks to put an end to all sex work, whilst empowerment encourages sex workers to create networks and share information in order to reduce the risk of STIs and other health complications. Ultimately, both approaches strive to decrease the rates of disease and other harm associated with sex work.
Rather than viewing sex workers’ rights through the lens of abolitionism or nonabolitionism, advocates of sex workers’ rights have called for a focus on the human rights of people in the sex industry. The Network of Sex Worker Projects (1999) has argued that the primary concern of anti-trafficking measures has been to protect potential sex workers from exploitation, rather than protecting the rights of those already in the industry. According to Penelope Saunders, a sex workers’ rights advocate, this approach fails to recognize the broader historical context of sex work. Jo Doezema has further argued that the dichotomy between voluntary and forced sex work serves to deny existing sex workers their agency.
Sex workers often feel unable to disclose their work to healthcare providers out of embarrassment, fear of disapproval, or a lack of awareness of the health implications. This is compounded by the criminalization of sex work in many places, creating an environment of fear where sex workers may be reluctant to report violence or seek legal protection. As a result, sex workers may not receive the healthcare they need or the justice they deserve.
The health risks associated with sex work are primarily due to the potential for contracting sexually transmitted infections and engaging in drug use. Research has revealed that nearly 40% of sex workers who visited a health center reported using illegal drugs. Additionally, transgender women sex workers have been found to be at a higher risk of contracting HIV than other sex workers, as well as transgender women who do not engage in sex work.
Transgender women face an increased risk of HIV due to a combination of biological, personal, relational, and structural factors. Biological risks include incorrect condom usage due to erectile dysfunction from hormone therapy, and receptive anal intercourse without a condom, both of which can increase the risk of HIV contraction. Personal risks include mental health issues triggered by a lack of support and violence, leading to increased sexual risk. Structural risks such as involvement in sex work, poverty, and substance abuse are more common in transgender women, due to their tendency to be socially marginalized and not accepted for challenging gender norms. Studies show men who have sex with transgender women are more likely to use drugs than men who do not, making unprotected sex with male partners the largest risk factor for HIV.
Using condoms is an effective way to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, sex workers often face challenges in negotiating condom use with their clients and partners due to fear of resistance and violence. Additionally, certain countries have laws prohibiting condom possession, further decreasing the likelihood of safe sex. To counteract these issues, increased organization and networking among sex workers has been shown to increase access to and education about STI prevention. Establishments that enforce workplace health practices, such as providing condoms, also promote safe sex among their workers.
Health concerns of exotic dancers
Many dancers in the exotic entertainment industry attempt to distance themselves from the stigma of sex work by othering themselves. By creating an external persona that they can inhabit while on the job, they can establish a barrier between their “authentic” self and the stripper persona. Although this practice of self-distancing can be beneficial in some ways, it can also be very stressful for the dancers, leading to the normalization of drug and alcohol abuse in order to cope.
Resisting the drug atmosphere is seen as a sign of strong moral character, and is often used to create a distinction between “good” and “bad” strippers. This is why some strippers may attempt to pass as non-users, or present themselves as users of less stigmatized drugs, in order to avoid judgment. Despite this normalization, it is clear why strippers would be motivated to conceal their hard drug use.
Stigma surrounding the profession of stripping can lead to dancers feeling isolated, both from their friends and family, and from potential sources of support. Additionally, the pressure to conceal their job from loved ones can be incredibly detrimental to their mental health.
Forced sex work
Coerced sex work refers to any situation where an individual is forced or pressured into a sex trade against their will. This can include trafficking, exploitation, and other forms of abuse, and often leads to increased health risks, such as HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections, especially in cases where the individual enters sex work at a young age. Furthermore, even when sex workers consent to certain sex acts, they are often pressured or coerced into additional activities, such as anal intercourse, by their clients. Sex workers may also face difficulty in getting their clients to use condoms, making them vulnerable to unwanted sexual acts, particularly when they are trafficked or forced into sex work.
Many sex workers are deceived into believing they can make a living through this line of work, only to find themselves unable to leave. This deception can have severe mental health consequences. Moreover, research has estimated that between 40-70% of sex workers experience violence within a year. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of support for both migrant workers and those who have been trafficked to a location for sex.
Sex workers’ rights advocates are calling for recognition and protection of sex workers under labor and employment laws, the right to form professional associations or unions, the right to legally cross borders to work, the decriminalization of condoms, and changes to New York’s sex workers diversion program. In addition, they are seeking the legalization of sex work and the elimination of state regulations that are more restrictive than those imposed on other workers and businesses. The Sexual Freedom Awards, an annual event held in London to recognize the outstanding advocates and pioneers of sexual freedom and sex workers’ rights in the UK (where sex work is largely legal), is a testament to the progress being made in the fight for sex workers’ rights.
Unionization of sex work
Recently, the sex worker rights movement has seen the formation of sex worker unions worldwide. The earliest of these unions was Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), founded in 1973 in San Francisco, California. Since then, numerous unions have been established in Western countries and throughout the world, including the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) in the United Kingdom, as well as in Latin America, Brazil, Canada, Europe, and Africa. These unions advocate for the rights of all sex workers, whether they are working by choice or coercion, and promote policies that are beneficial to the well-being of sex workers both within their native countries and abroad.