Sex work is defined as the “commercial exchange of sex for money or goods,” and sex workers are individuals who are employed in the sex industry.1 Sex work differs from sexual exploitation, or sex trafficking, in that sex workers are not forced into any act by coercion, violence, or deception. The broad category of sex work includes specific jobs such as street, parlor, peep show, strip club, topless dance, brothel, escort, madam, mistress, and telephone work. Sex work researchers and advocates have expanded this definition to be more inclusive, encompassing “other work-related activities, including models and actors in pornography (movie, magazine, Internet) and professional domination.”1 Historically, sex workers have been referred to as prostitutes, hookers, streetwalkers, and gigolos. However, these terms will not be used in this article due to their negative connotations and problematic nature.
History of Sex Work
Sex work, often referred to as the world’s oldest profession, has been practiced for thousands of years throughout different cultures. The earliest valid evidence of sex work as a profession is from the Neo-Babylonian period (626 – 539 BC). During this time, priests in Ancient Mesopotamia would engage in sexual activity with sex workers, which was believed to be sacred and pleasing to the gods. Sex work has evolved throughout history from religious sexual acts to commercialized work, which can be advantageous for both sex workers and their clients.2 One group that reaped the benefits of sex work were courtesans. Courtesans were prestigious, well-educated sex workers who served in the courts of kings, emperors, and other rulers. Their services ranged from providing sexual services to discussing politics and other stereotypically masculine subjects in court. Working as a courtesan provided women with stable, privileged, and luxurious lives that would have otherwise been unavailable to them.3 However, despite these favorable instances, sex workers have historically been exploited and shunned by society. For centuries, they have experienced judgment and shame, barriers to reproductive health, and difficulty asking for and receiving help as a result of the stigma surrounding their profession.1
Types of Sex Work
There are many different sectors within the broad category of sex work. These include street, parlor, peep show, strip club, brothel, escort, telephone, and webcam work. Fees, location, and levels of security vary between each of these types of sex work.
Street workers are considered to be at the bottom of the sex work pyramid. They typically work independently, are paid hourly, and their “fees and place[s] of work fluctuate considerably.”1 Street workers often stand on corners or stroll along the streets, searching for and approaching potential clients. They are most commonly picked up by clients in cars and in bars located in designated areas. Once together, the client and street worker come to an agreement about the sexual activities they will engage in, required fees, and where the interaction will occur. Due to their high visibility, street workers tend to be the most frequently arrested sex workers. They also typically account for a larger majority of sex workers in small cities than in large ones. This difference may be a result of limited opportunities to partake in other forms of sex work in these areas. Compared with other types of sex work, street work is generally more unstable and unpredictable.3,4
While most massage parlors do only provide massages, some offer “extras”, or sexual services in exchange for payment.4 Oral sex is the most popular sexual service offered by parlor workers. Parlor sex workers tend to be “younger, single, have lower levels of education, and more often identify as immigrants and visible minorities.”5 They also have high rates of condom-use for vaginal and anal sex, and slightly lower rates for oral sex, compared with workers in other sectors of the sex industry.5 Parlor work is typically safer than street work and is considered to be an efficient way to maximize one’s number of clients.
Strip Club Work
Strip clubs are establishments in which dancers perform for an audience. The strip club workers may also offer sexual services, such as rubbing against a client’s genitals during a lap dance or having sex in a “VIP room,” or other off-site location after the show.3 Many of these workers enjoy their profession due to the money, attention, and power it provides them with. The majority of them “seem to aspire to something else – being an actress, a model, a good mother, or a successful career person.”5 It is worthwhile to note that not all exotic dancers offer sexual services. While strip clubs and massage parlors offer a safer environment than the streets, they have become a frequent target of police raids due to their reputation for providing sexual services.3
House and Brothel Work
Brothels are buildings where sex workers are available for sexual services. These establishments are considerably more structured than massage parlors or strip clubs. In the United States, there are only a small number of legal brothels in the rural counties of the state of Nevada. To operate through them, sex workers must pay part of their commission to the brothel. In the past, there were many more legal brothels throughout the United States. They were typically marked by a red lantern hanging in the doorway, which led to the now familiar name red-light districts. Other parts of the world, like Zurich in Switzerland, have implemented legal drive-in brothels as an attempt to reduce street work. These drive-in brothels have carwash-style booths that provide privacy for the sexual interactions. These drive-in facilities may also feature cafés, showers, laundromats, and on-site security. Brothels often provide safer work environments for sex workers by encouraging condom and contraception use, providing structure, and ensuring the security of its workers.3
Escorts are sex workers who are “paid to accompany their clients to social, sexual, or professional engagements and often perform one or more sexual acts before, during, or after the engagement.”1 Escorts may work independently or pay part of their commission to an agency or collective (two or more sex workers working for a pimp or madam).1 They may promote their services through newspapers, adult entertainment magazines, or through the Internet. Some escorts have websites, work for an agency with a website, or advertise on sites such as Craigslist or Facebook. Escorts are considered to be at the top of the sex work pyramid due to their work being safer, more profitable, and more discreet. Escort work is also the most predominant type of sex work in the United States.3 While employment in this sector of the sex industry often provides autonomy, escorts are not protected by labor laws or code and may face exploitation.1
A Madam is a woman who manages a brothel or escort service. Many Madams have connections and access to more affluent parts of society. Thus, their main purpose is to connect their sex workers with higher-paying clients. Madams also hire workers, make sure their workers are free from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and are of age, screen calls from clients, schedule meetings between workers and clients, match clients with the right worker, let clients know the different services available, and deal with other administrative issues.3
The term pimp is often associated with the negative connotations of the history of “exaggerated black male sexuality” in the United States. In the post-World War Two era, the black pimp was glorified and became an “iconic masculine trope”.7 This occurrence was closely tied to the United States’ history of hypersexualizing the black male body and exaggerating an entire population’s sex drives during the era of slavery.7 While the term pimp can be derogatory and inaccurate, in this article it will be used to describe people who connect sex workers with clients. Pimps manage the lives and business transactions of sex workers. They recruit new sex workers, handle living arrangements, and have been known to bail their workers out of jail when necessary. They also often provide protection from clients and the police. In return for their “affection, concern, or love,” sex workers give a part or all of their earnings to their pimps.4 Pimps can also be exploitative and even abusive towards their workers. The results of a 2010 study on German sex work show that the presence of a pimp led to higher reported stress among sex workers.7 Despite the legality of sex work in certain countries, there has been a recent resurgence of pimps in the sex industry.7
Male Sex Work
Male sex work often consists of the same expectations and sexual services as non-male sex work. It, however, has the “added stigma of homosexuality.”4 Male sex workers often face homophobia, or discrimination and prejudice due to their perceived homosexuality. They may experience verbal insults, violence, and difficulties receiving medical treatment. Male sex work accounts for over a billion dollars of revenue in the United States alone. However, male sex workers are not typically able to support themselves solely through a female clientele. Thus, they usually participate in homosexual acts with both gay-identified and straight-identified men. Research on male sex work in the 1980s focused on the transmission of HIV/AIDS among male sex workers.6 This hyper-focus is one factor that has contributed to the countless stories of discomfort and stigma in doctors’ offices, leading to lower rates of doctors’ visits and treatment of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) among male sex workers.4
Male sex workers are fairly diverse, as they vary in age, race, sexual orientations and physical appearance. Most work independently and are fairly young, aged between 20 and 30 years old. The average transaction involving a male sex worker lasts about an hour at an average rate of $227 in 2018.6 Traditionally, more masculine male sex workers are rewarded financially. Tops, or people who prefer the insertive position during intercourse, typically earn more money than bottoms, those who prefer the receptive position. Male sex workers are often financially rewarded for the advertisement and practice of safer sex while non-male sex workers are penalized financially for insisting on condom use during sexual interactions. Additionally, unlike non-male sex workers who are at a “greater risk of being violated by clients, male sex workers are more prone to violate their clients.”6 Their clients are less likely to go to the police after such encounters due to shame and embarrassment. Male sex workers are a diverse population, face stigma for their perceived homosexuality, and have a greater ability to negotiate for safer sex.6
Telephone work is defined as participation in erotic conversations over the phone in exchange for payment. Typically, a client calls an operator who engages in an erotic conversation with them while the customer fantasizes or masturbates. Clients are usually charged per minute at a $4 per minute rate. Working as a phone sex operator eliminates many of the risks of sex work, as the operator and client do not meet in person. In addition, telephone work provides the ability to work from home and request or create a specific schedule. In the United States, it is legal to work as a phone sex operator as long as both parties are over the legal age of consent. Telephone work is one of the safest forms of sex work, provides a flexible work environment, and is mutually beneficial for the client and operator.3
Sexual webcamming is similar to telephone work in that the worker and client never meet in person. Webcam work consists of live sexual performances or nudity displayed over the internet in exchange for money or gifts.3 Webcam workers typically conduct their work through host websites that customers can visit to watch the performances. Sexual webcammers are generally discouraged from explicitly asking for money, as monetary compensation is seen as voluntary. Thus, many webcam workers do not directly associate themselves with the sex work industry, claiming that their main priority is to have “fun.”8 Webcam work allows its workers to have a flexible schedule and to work from their own homes. The websites facilitating webcam work allow for numerous viewers at one time. Thus, the webcam worker can entertain multiple clients at once and receive increased monetary compensation. In addition, on websites such as Chaturbate, viewers can control the webcam worker’s sex toys through monetary donations. This reduces the importance of conversational and entertaining skills and allows webcam workers to work successfully without speaking the same language as their viewers.8 Webcam work is unique in that there are very few laws in place that regulate its conduct, unlike traditional street or brothel-based sex work.
“Sugar daddies” and “sugar mommies” are older, successful individuals who seek mutually beneficial relationships with younger, attractive “sugar babies”. These sugar daters encourage the discussion and negotiation of financial benefits in exchange for intimacy in varying forms. While sugar babies have historically thrived offline, there are now more than 20 dating websites that facilitate these pairings. Sugar babies tend to be “college attending or educated, young (between 21 and 27 years old), heterosexual, cis-gendered women.” 9 The majority of sugar babies are not part of upper middle-class or high-income families. Thus, many of them use sugar dating as a way to finance their expensive education or live a more luxurious lifestyle. According to Seeking Arrangements, one of the leading sugar dating websites, in 2016, the average sugar baby’s income was $3000 per month. There has been some controversy as to whether sugar dating constitutes sex work, as sex is not always a part of the relationships.9
Sex work occurs all over the world. However, the legality of the practice varies across regions. The following is a short, non-comprehensive list of countries with varying levels of legality for sex work.
- Australia: Sex work is legal in Australia, as long as sex workers are at least 18 years old and register with the proper authorities. Owners of brothels and escort agencies are also required to register. Condom-use is required in sexual relationships with sex workers.
- Brazil: Sex work is legal in Brazil; however, it is illegal to operate a brothel or employ sex workers.
- Canada: Sex work is legal in Canada; however, workers cannot solicit in public.
- Denmark: Sex work is not a criminal offense in Denmark, as long as sex workers are at least 15 years old. However, it is illegal to profit from others who are selling sex. Thus, pimps and brothels are not allowed.
- Finland: Sex work is legal in Finland; however, workers cannot solicit in public. Pimps and promoting sex work are not allowed.4
- USA: Currently, sex work is only legal within certain counties in the state of Nevada.3
The legality of sex work differs from country to country. Thus, the consequences of employment in the sex industry vary depending on the worker’s location.
Views on Sex Work
There are a wide range of views on whether sex work should be legal, and to what extent. Some argue that sex work is morally wrong and misogynistic, claiming that it contributes to the commodification of women’s bodies. Some feminists consider sex work to be exploitation, arguing that the profession is based on an unequal power balance between client and sex worker, which can be harmful in such intimate and vulnerable interactions.3 These arguments have led some mental health providers to see “sex work as sexually dangerous and degrading and… [to see] women exclusively as victims.”1 This can result in improper care, treatment, and dismissal of the mental and physical health care rights of sex workers.1
Advocates for sex work consider it to be an empowering profession that provides individuals with autonomy over their bodies. They believe that consenting individuals over the age of consent should be given full control over their own bodies. The three main arguments among advocates for sex work are decriminalization, the Nordic model, and legalization. Advocates for decriminalization believe that sex work should be decriminalized to lower risk for sex workers and encourage them to report abuse within their profession. Supporters of the Nordic model believe in criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not in prosecuting the sex worker. This model aims to protect sex workers while simultaneously lowering the demand for sex. Proponents of legalization believe in making sex work legal and regulating it to provide protection, safety, and fair wages for sex workers.10 Advocates for sex workers’ sexual freedom and pleasure view individuals as agents in sex work and see them as empowered sexual beings.
Some believe that advocating for sex work in these ways promotes sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. However, much of the harm suffered by sex workers may stem from the way society views and treats their occupation rather than from the work itself. It is difficult to provide safety and lower the potential risks of sex work when it remains illegal. In Nevada brothels, where sex work is legal, sex workers are rarely exposed to violence and STIs. In addition, they are not in danger of arrest and the consequent criminal records that may result from illegal sex work. These benefits have also been found in other nations where sex work is legal.1
While there can be many benefits to sex work, it does involve risk. Because sex work is illegal in many countries, it can be difficult for sex workers who have experienced physical, sexual, or mental abuse to ask for or receive help. Sex workers often face judgement from doctors, stigma from society, and may have difficulty accessing or experience feelings of shame surrounding treatment for STIs. In addition, women of color are disproportionately represented in sex work, indicating a connection between race, gender, socioeconomic background, and entrance into the sex industry. African American and Latinx sex workers are “disproportionate survivors of physical violence,” especially if they are involved in street work.1 More research is needed to understand the potential risks of sex work for non-binary and transgender individuals.1 For more information about the risks of sex work and resources for sex workers, we recommend the “Sex Workers Outreach Project USA” located at the bottom of this page.
Sex trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act.”11 Many survivors of sex trafficking feel that it is a form of modern-day slavery. Sex trafficking occurs within the U.S. and all over the world despite being illegal globally. It persists due to confusion over the definition of trafficking, corruption in law enforcement, insufficient protections for survivors, and ineffective or unenforced laws.12 Individuals who have run away from home, belong to low-income families, and experience substance abuse problems are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking.1
Sex traffickers use many different manipulation techniques to coerce men, women, and children into commercially engaging in sex against their will. Some traffickers transport individuals from one country to another to meet that country’s demand for sex workers, a practice known as transnational sex trafficking. Transnational trafficking typically occurs by taking people from poorer to richer nations.1 Some traffickers advertise a high paying job abroad and promise romance, gifts, fast money, and other luxuries, while others use violence. These businesses exist within several venues including, but not limited to, fake massage establishments, residential brothels, escort services, strip clubs, hotels, motels, and on public street corners.13
Survivors of sex trafficking are often trapped in their situations as for many, “escape is not an option.”12 This is in part due to threats made by sex traffickers, such as harming the survivors’ families. Those directly affected by sex trafficking are vulnerable to re-trafficking multiple times. Many survivors who manage to successfully escape “return to the same conditions of poverty, domestic violence, social bias, or lack of economic opportunity” that preceded their initial trafficking.12 Others may be “recruited, deceived, seduced, or abducted” into sex trafficking for a second or third time.12 Some survivors of sex trafficking are conscious of their participation in the practice. However, others are completely unaware of the consequences and exploitation of sex trafficking.
The following resources are available to sex workers, people looking to transition out of sex work, and survivors of sex trafficking. If you or someone you know is involved in sex trafficking, we urge you to take advantage of these resources.
Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP) is a “national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focused on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy.”14 This organization has a hotline available to support individuals currently or previously involved in the sex trade or adult industry, those in exploitative situations or who are looking to transition out of sex work, allies (parents, relatives, partners, friends, and helping professionals), and grassroots activists and organizers.14
Hotline: 1-(877)-776-2004 (select 1)
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is a national resource center and anti-trafficking hotline that serves victims and survivors of human trafficking, as well as the anti-trafficking community in the United States. The toll-free hotline is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, every day of the year in more than 200 languages to answer calls from anywhere in the country. The NHTRC works to serve anyone in need of assistance, information, and other resources related to human trafficking within the United States and U.S. territories.15
Views on sex work vary greatly between individuals and the legality of the profession differs from country to country. It can be difficult for sex workers living in regions where sex work is illegal to request and receive the help they need. Advocates for sex work claim that it provides autonomy and financial benefits to those employed in the industry. Others claim that sex work is inherently misogynistic and highlight its potential risks. However, unlike sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, sex work must be consensual. We recommend the above resources for sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking.
1. Burnes, Theodore R. “The SAGE Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender: S-W.” Sex Work, SAGE, 2017, pp. 1467–1470.
2. Lerner, Gerda. “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11.2 (1986): 236-54. Web.
3. LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2015. Print.
4. Greenberg, Jerrold S., Clint E. Bruess, and Debra Haffner. Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2014. Print.
5. Kolar, Kat, Chris Atchison, and Vicky Bungay. “Sexual Safety Practices of Massage Parlor-based Sex Workers and Their Clients.” AIDS Care 26.9 (2014): 1100-104. Web.
6. Logan, Trevon D. Economics, Sexuality, and Male Sex Work. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
7. Horning, Amber, and Anthony M. Marcus. Third Party Sex Work and Pimps in the Age of Anti-Trafficking. Springer, 2018.
8. Hernández, Antonia. “‘There’s Something Compelling about Real Life’: Technologies of Security and Acceleration on Chaturbate.” Social Media Society, vol. 5, no. 4, 2019, pp. Social Media Society, December 2019, Vol.5(4).
9. Nayar, Kavita Ilona. “Sweetening the Deal: Dating for Compensation in the Digital Age.” Journal of Gender Studies: Mediated Intimacies: Bodies, Technologies and Relationships, vol. 26, no. 3, 2017, pp. 335–346.
10. “Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized.” Human Rights Watch, 7 Aug. 2019.
11. “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth in Illinois.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2008): n. pag. Web.
12. Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Columbia University Press, 2017.
13. “Sex Trafficking in the U.S.” Polaris | Combating Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
14. “About Us.” Sex Workers Outreach Project | Sex Workers Outreach Project, 14 Feb. 2019.
15. “National Hotline Overview.” National Human Trafficking Hotline, 3 May 2019.
Last Updated: 12 May 2020