World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Sex work

Article Id: WHEBN0000236648
Reproduction Date:

Title: Sex work  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Shemale, Sex workers' rights, Ages of consent in Africa, Human trafficking, Prostitution
Collection: Human Sexuality, Human Trafficking, Organized Crime Activity, Prostitution, Sex Industry
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Sex work

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 1
  • History 2
  • Legal status 3
  • Emotional labor 4
    • Commodified Intimacy 4.1
  • Gender differences 5
  • Risks 6
  • Feminist debate 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9


Types of sex work include, but are not limited to, street prostitution, indoor prostitution (escort services, brothel work, massage parlor work, bar or casino work), 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 pornography film
adult 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 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.


  1. ^ a b c d Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, edited by Ronald Weitzer, Routledge, 2000.
  2. ^
  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. ^
  6. ^
  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
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c d e Brewis, J., & Linstead, S. Sex, Work and Sex Work, Routledge, 2000.
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ O’Connell Davidson, J. Prostitution, Power, and Freedom. Polity Press, 1998.
  17. ^


See also

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]

Feminist debate

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. Because of the varied legal status of some forms of sex work, sex workers in some countries also face the risk of incarceration.


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]

Gender differences

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]

Commodified Intimacy

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]

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]

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]

A prostitute in Berlin in 2001

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]

Emotional labor

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.

Legal status


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.