Sex work

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Sex work is "the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation. It includes activities of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers ... as well as indirect sexual stimulation"[1] 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

Because of the agency associated with the term, "sex work" generally refers to voluntary sexual transactions; thus the term does not refer to human trafficking and other coerced or nonconsensual sexual transactions.[2] 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 nude modeling, adult 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.

On the set of a pornographic film

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.[3]


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

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.[4]

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 relatively 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. 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. The state had made sex workers into legal outcasts.[5]

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 worker’s 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. .[6]

Legal status[edit]

The legal status of sex work is reliant on the type of sex work and the location in question. In the United States sex work is largely regulated at the state level. Prostitution is illegal in almost every state, with Nevada being the only exception (see Prostitution law). Most other forms of sex work – those which do not involve engagement in sex acts via bodily contact – are legal if the sex worker is 18 or older and consenting.

Emotional labor[edit]

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.[7]

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.[8][9][10] 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.[8][11]

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.[7] 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.[8][9][12]

In addition, sex workers engage in emotional labor as a self-protection strategy, distancing themselves from the sometimes emotionally volatile work.[1][9] Finally, clients often value perceived authenticity in their transactions with sex workers; thus, sex workers may attempt to foster a sense of authentic intimacy.[8][12]

Commodified Intimacy[edit]

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.[8][11] 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.”[11] 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.[11]

Gender differences[edit]

Interviews with men and women escorts illuminate gender differences in these escorts’ experiences.[1] On average, women escorts charged much more than men.[13] 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 to disclose their occupation. This community acceptance is fairly unique 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.[11] 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.[7]


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.[14] Street sex workers may also more likely to use addictive drugs, to have unprotected sex, and to be the victim of sexual assault.[1] 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.[4] Although these features tend to apply more to sex workers who engage in full service sex work, stigma and social exclusion are pervasive for all types of sex work, albeit to different extents.[citation needed] Because of the varied legal status of some forms of sex work, sex workers in some countries also face the risk of incarceration.

Feminist debate[edit]

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.[15] 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.[16] Furthermore, sex positive feminists argue the sex industry is varied; sex workers motivations for their work differ, and the focus should be placed on improving their lives rather than condemning their work.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, edited by Ronald Weitzer, Routledge, 2000.
  2. ^ "Sex Work vs. Trafficking: Understanding the Difference". 
  3. ^ Donovan, B. & Harcourt, C. 2005. “The Many Faces of Sex Work.” Sexually Transmitted Infections 81(3):201-206.
  4. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Melissa Hope Ditmore, Greenwood Press, 2006.
  5. ^ "When Prostitution Wasn’t a Crime: The Fascinating History of Sex Work in America". 
  6. ^ "Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You History". 
  7. ^ a b c Hochschild, A. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling’’, University of California Press, LTD, 1983.
  8. ^ a b c d e Frank, K. G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire, Duke University Press, 2002.
  9. ^ a b c Sanders, T. (2005). "'It's Just Acting': Sex Workers' Strategies for Capitalizing of Sexuality". Gender, Work, and Organizatio 12 (4): 319–342. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2005.00276.x. 
  10. ^ Trautner, M. (2005). "Doing Gender, Doing Class: the Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs". Gender and Society 19 (6): 771–788. doi:10.1177/0891243205277253. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Brewis, J., & Linstead, S. Sex, Work and Sex Work, Routledge, 2000.
  12. ^ a b Sijuwade, P. (1996). "Counterfeit Intimacy: Dramaturgical Analysis of an Erotic Performance". International Journal of Sociology of the Family 26 (2): 29–41. 
  13. ^ Fogg, A. (14 October 2014). "Gender differences amongst sex workers online". 
  14. ^ Krusi, A (Jun 2012). "Negotiating safety and sexual risk reduction with clients in unsanctioned safer indoor sex work environments: a qualitative study". Am J Public Health 102 (6): 1154–9. 
  15. ^ Dworkin, A. "Prostitution and Male Supremacy". 
  16. ^ O’Connell Davidson, J. Prostitution, Power, and Freedom. Polity Press, 1998.
  17. ^ "Audacia Ray in Feministe "7 Key American Sex Worker Activist Projects"".