Sex worker
A sex worker is a person who works in the sex industry
Sex industry
The sex industry consists of businesses which either directly or indirectly provide sex-related products and services or adult entertainment...

. 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
Prostitution is the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. The person who receives payment for sexual services is called a prostitute and the person who receives such services is known by a multitude of terms, including a "john". Prostitution is one of...

, escort
Call girl
A call girl or female escort is a sex worker who is not visible to the general public; nor does she usually work in an institution like a brothel, although she may be employed by an escort agency...

s, some but not all professional dominants); pornography
Pornography or porn is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual arousal and erotic satisfaction.Pornography may use any of a variety of media, ranging from books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video,...

 models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which are filmed or photographed. Phone sex
Phone sex
Phone sex is a type of virtual sex that refers to sexually explicit conversation between or other persons via telephone, especially when at least one of the participants masturbates or engages in sexual fantasy...

 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
Cam whore
A camwhore is an individual who performs sexual services on the Internet with webcam software in exchange for money, goods, or attention. Some of the common ways of doing this is by a fixed per minute fee, by encouraging viewers to purchase items on their wish lists or add to their online accounts...

 and performers in live sex show
Sex show
A sex show is a form of live performance that features one or more performers engaging in some form of sexual activity on stage for the entertainment or sexual gratification of spectators. Performers are paid either by the spectators or by the organisers of the show. A performance would involve an...

s. Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience (striptease
A striptease is an erotic or exotic dance in which the performer gradually undresses, either partly or completely, in a seductive and sexually suggestive manner...

, Go-Go dancing
Go-Go dancing
Go-go dancers are dancers who are employed to entertain crowds at a discotheque. Go-go dancing originated in the early 1960s when women at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City began to get up on tables and dance the twist...

, lap dancing, Neo-burlesque
Neo-Burlesque is the revival and updating of the traditional burlesque performance. Though based on the traditional Burlesque art, the new form encompasses a wider range of performance styles; Neo-burlesque acts can be anything from classic striptease to modern dance to theatrical mini-dramas to...

, and peep show
Peep show
A peep show or peepshow is an exhibition of pictures, objects or people viewed through a small hole or magnifying glass. Though historically a peep show was a form of entertainment provided by wandering showmen, nowadays it more commonly refers a presentation of a sex show or pornographic film...


Thus, although the term is sometimes viewed as a synonym
Synonyms are different words with almost identical or similar meanings. Words that are synonyms are said to be synonymous, and the state of being a synonym is called synonymy. The word comes from Ancient Greek syn and onoma . The words car and automobile are synonyms...

 or euphemism
A euphemism is the substitution of a mild, inoffensive, relatively uncontroversial phrase for another more frank expression that might offend or otherwise suggest something unpleasant to the audience...

 for prostitute, it is more general.

History of the concept

The term "sex worker" was coined in 1980 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh
Carol Leigh
Carol Leigh, aka The Scarlot Harlot, is an artist, author, film maker, and prostitutes' rights activist. She coined the term "Sex worker"in a conference in 1978....

. Its use became popularized after publication of the anthology, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry in 1987. 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
World Health Organization
The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations that acts as a coordinating authority on international public health. Established on 7 April 1948, with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, the agency inherited the mandate and resources of its predecessor, the Health...

. The term is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

 and Merriam-Webster
Merriam–Webster, which was originally the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, is an American company that publishes reference books, especially dictionaries that are descendants of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language .Merriam-Webster Inc. has been a...

's Dictionary.

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 prohibitionists. 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. In the view of Melissa Farley
Melissa Farley
Melissa Farley is an American clinical psychologist and researcher and feminist anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist. Farley is best known for her studies of the effects of prostitution, trafficking, and sexual violence....

 and other anti-prostitution feminists, all forms of sex work, including stripping and performing in pornography, are simply different types of prostitution. Some anti-prostitution feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys
Sheila Jeffreys
Sheila Jeffreys is a lesbian feminist scholar and political activist, known for her analysis of the history and politics of sexuality in Britain. She is a professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia...

, prefer the term prostituted woman (and analogous terms such as "prostituted child") to emphasize the victimization they see as inherent in such activity.

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 discrimination (e.g., racial discrimination by a strip club
Strip club
A strip club is an adult entertainment venue in which striptease or other erotic or exotic dance is regularly performed. Strip clubs typically adopt a nightclub or bar style, but can also adopt a theatre or cabaret-style....

 owner), non-payment by a client
A customer is usually used to refer to a current or potential buyer or user of the products of an individual or organization, called the supplier, seller, or vendor. This is typically through purchasing or renting goods or services...

, assault
In law, assault is a crime causing a victim to fear violence. The term is often confused with battery, which involves physical contact. The specific meaning of assault varies between countries, but can refer to an act that causes another to apprehend immediate and personal violence, or in the more...

 or rape
Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse, which is initiated by one or more persons against another person without that person's consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority or with a person who is incapable of valid consent. The...

. Social inequality and poverty are often seen as driving forces.


Sex worker's rights advocates argue that sex workers should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people. For example, the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour
Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour
The Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour is a labour organization that promotes the rights for women and men, including transsexual/transgender individuals, in the sex industry in Canada....

 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

  • Weitzer, Ronald
    Ronald Weitzer
    Ronald Weitzer is a sociologist specializing in criminology and a professor at George Washington University, known for his publications on police-minority relations and on the sex industry.-Prostitution and sex trafficking:...

    . 1991. "Prostitutes' Rights in the United States," Sociological Quarterly, v. 32, no.1, pages 23–41.
  • Weitzer, Ronald. 2000. Sex For Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry (New York: Routledge Press).
  • Weitzer, Ronald. 2009. "Sociology of Sex Work," Annual Review of Sociology, v. 35
  • "Decriminalize sex trade: Vancouver report",, June 13, 2006.
  • Agustín, Laura Maria
    Laura María Agustín
    Laura María Agustín is a sociologist who studies undocumented migration, informal labor markets, trafficking and the sex industry. She is critical of the conflation of the terms "human trafficking" with "prostitution", arguing that the Rescue industry often ascribes victim status to people who...

    . Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed Books (2007) and The Naked Anthropologist.
  • International Human Rights Protection in the Citizenship Gap: The Case of Migrant Sex Workers

See also

    Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network , is a non-profit organization in the San Francisco Bay Area which works to improve working conditions, increase benefits, and eliminate discrimination on behalf of individuals working within both legal and criminalized adult entertainment industries...

     (San Fransisco, California, USA)
  • Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour
    Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour
    The Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour is a labour organization that promotes the rights for women and men, including transsexual/transgender individuals, in the sex industry in Canada....

  • Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (Canada)
    COYOTE, or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, is an American sex worker activist organization. COYOTE's goals include the decriminalization of prostitution, pimping and pandering, as well as the elimination of social stigma concerning sex work as an occupation.Though it is frequently described as a...

  • International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education
    International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education
    The International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education is a California corporation formed as an art and education and resource center for research about prostitution and sex work and for the collection and preservation of art by and about sex workers...

  • International Union of Sex Workers
    International Union of Sex Workers
    The International Union of Sex Workers is a United Kingdom based trade union for sex workers. It campaigns for the decriminalisation of prostitution, and to have sex work acknowledged as viable labour. In 2002, members voted to affiliate with the GMB, a general workers union. The union now has...

  • Scarlet Alliance
    Scarlet Alliance
    Scarlet Alliance is the national peak sex worker organisation of Australia and was formed in 1989. Scarlet Alliance, Australian sex workers Association, through its objectives, policies and programs, aims to achieve equality, social, legal, political, cultural and economic justice for past and...

  • Sex Workers Outreach Project USA
    Sex Workers Outreach Project USA
    Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA was founded by Robyn Few and others in 2003 as a US chapter of SWOP based out of Australia. SWOP-USA is the largest sex worker rights organization in the United States, with chapters in several states...

  • St. James Infirmary Clinic
    St. James Infirmary Clinic
    The St. James Infirmary, abbreviated SJI, was founded by members of the sex worker activist community in 1999 and is a peer-based, full spectrum medical and social service organization serving female, transgender, and male sex workers and their families. Located in the South of Market district in...

     (San Francisco, California, USA)

External links




North America

Anti-prostitution groups

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