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A sex worker is a person who works in the sex industry.[1][2] The term is usually used in reference to those in the sex industry that actually provide such sexual services, as opposed to management and staff of such industries. Some sex workers are paid to engage in sexually explicit behavior which involve varying degrees of physical contact with clients (prostitutes, escorts, professional dominants); pornography models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which are filmed or photographed. Phone sex operators have sexually-oriented conversations with clients, and do auditive sexual roleplay. Other sex workers are paid to engage in live sexual performance, such as web cam sex[3] and performers in live sex shows. Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience (striptease, Go-Go dancing, burlesque, peep shows).

Thus, although the term is sometimes viewed as a synonym or euphemism for prostitute, it is more general.

History of the concept

The term "sex worker" was coined in 1980 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh. Its use became popularized after publication of the anthology, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry in 1987.[4][5][6] The term "sex worker" has since spread into much wider use, including in academic publications, by NGOs and labor unions, and by governmental and intergovernmental agencies, such as the World Health Organization.[7] The term is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary[1] and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.[8]

The term is strongly opposed, however, by many who are morally opposed to the sex industry, such as social conservatives, anti-prostitution feminists, and other prostitution abolitionists. Such groups view prostitution variously as a crime or as victimization, and see the term "sex work" as legitimizing criminal activity or exploitation as a type of labor.[9][10] In the view of Melissa Farley and other anti-prostitution feminists, all forms of sex work, including stripping and performing in pornography, are simply different types of prostitution.[citation needed] Some anti-prostitution feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys, prefer the term prostituted woman (and analogous terms such as "prostituted child") to emphasize the victimization they see as inherent in such activity.[citation needed]

Legality and social views

Depending on regional law, sex workers' activities may be regulated, controlled, tolerated, or prohibited. In most countries, even those where sex work is legal, sex workers are stigmatized and marginalized, which can prevent them from seeking legal redress for highley illegal, unsafe, and unfair employment methodes and practices which contributes to the growing underground economy in the US as well as further mistreatment of women discrimination (e.g., racial discrimination by a strip club owner), non-payment by a client, assault or rape. Social inequality and poverty are often seen as driving forces.[11][12]


Sex worker's rights advocates argue that sex workers should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people.[13] For example, the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour calls for the legalization of sex work, the elimination of state regulations that are more repressive than those imposed on other workers and businesses, the right to recognition and protection under labour and employment laws, the right to form and join professional associations or unions, and the right to legally cross borders to work.

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Oxford English Dictionary, "sex worker"
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, "sex industry"
  3. Weitzer, Ronald. 2000. Sex For Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry (New York: Routledge Press)
  4. Sex work: writings by women in the sex industry edited by Frédérique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander, Cleis Press, 1991 (2nd ed). ISBN 0939416115.
  5. "The Etymology of the terms 'Sex Work' and 'Sex Worker'", Accessed 2009-09-11.
  6. Whores and other feminists, edited by Jill Nagle, Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0415918227.
  7. "Violence Against Sex Workers and HIV Prevention" report published by the World Health Organization
  8. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "sex worker"
  9. "Prostitution, trafficking, and cultural amnesia: What we must not know in order to keep the business of sexual exploitation running smoothly" by Melissa Farley, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 18(1):109–144, Spring 2006. "Some words hide the truth. Just as torture can be named enhanced interrogation, and logging of old-growth forests is named the Healthy Forest Initiative, words that lie about prostitution leave people confused about the nature of prostitution and trafficking. The words ‘sex work’ make the harms of prostitution invisible."
  10. Baptie, Trisha (2009-04-29). "'Sex worker' ? Never met one !". Retrieved 2009-09-12.
  11. Ethiopia: Poverty forcing girls into risky sex work
  12. Kenya: Desperate times: women sell sex to buy food
  13. Weitzer, Ronald. (1991). "Prostitutes' Rights in the United States," Sociological Quarterly 32(1):23–41.

Bill Jenkinson (1992) A guide to successful prostitution.

External links

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North America

Anti-prostitution groups

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