Below is a working document on Sex Work.
Please contact us if you would like an annotated copy of this piece that includes citations to scholarly articles referenced.
You can also find the following resources under the ‘Learn about Sex Work’ top-bar:
- A list of recommended academic publications on all sectors of the sex trade
- A list of books written by sex workers
- A list of sex worker blogs
- A list of other sex worker organizations
- Media tool-kits – introductory information on the sex trade and suggested etiquette for interviews with sex workers.
What is Sex Work?
Sex work is any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client. Sex work includes prostitution, but it also includes a bunch of other things like erotic dancing, pro-dom/pro-sub work, web-camming, sensual massage, adult film, phone sex, being a sugar baby, etc.
In virtually every type of sex work, from domming to street work to porn-acting, other things, like massage, intimacy, talk-therapy, companionship, non-sexual entertainment, etc. accompany pure sexual stimulation and release.
Media Myths on Prostitution
Most media coverage on the sex trade focuses on street prostitution, youth prostitution and trafficking. Incidentally, a substantial portion of the facts and figures referenced are misconstrued or based on studies of particularly vulnerable populations of sex workers globally. For example:
Myth: 300,000 children are trafficked in the U.S. each year.
Fact: This statistic, collected by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2001, is the high-estimate of all male and female children not living at home, who are viewed as vulnerable to exploitation of any kind.
Myth: The average adolescent prostitute is a female who is virtually a slave to a pimp.
Fact: According to a study of New York adolescents in the sex trade, nearly half of adolescents are male or transgender. Only 8% were coerced into entering the sex industry.
Myth: 68 per cent of sex workers report post-traumatic stress disorder on the same level as those who served in military combat.
Fact: This statistic refers to individuals in nine countries who were contacted via social service organizations, and the methodology behind this study has never been released to the public. The psychological affects of prostitution are remarkably variable depending on the sector, country, and individual worker.
Myth: The average age of entry is 13 or 14.
Fact: This figure references: informal knowledge of social workers working with adolescents and ‘survivor’ organizations. Indoor sex workers, who comprise over 80% of the industry, are significantly less likely to enter as adolescents.
Myth: Prostitution is violence against women (or gang rape, or slavery)
Fact: Although violence, particularly against street workers, is common, most violence is perpetrated by non-clients, individuals who pose as clients, law enforcement officials and a very small proportion of clients. The same goes for clients of indoor workers. While news reports frequently vilify clients of sex workers, even abolitionist organizations recognize diversity in what motivates clients to solicit prostitutes.
In other words, the overwhelming majority of sex worker clients do not perpetrate violence against sex workers. And the central cause of violence is institutional alienation of sex workers from law enforcement protection and a justice system that leads most sex workers to distrust and fear law enforcement officials: Violent individuals do not fear repercussions and prey on sex workers in particular. Most interactions between sex workers and law enforcement involve arrest, and law enforcement and judicial system officials frequently ignore or doubt reports by sex workers. So sex workers either do not report sexual and physical assault to law enforcement or law enforcement officials do not sufficiently respond to complains, and individuals remain free and continue to perpetrate crimes against sex workers.
Diversity in Prostitution
Prostitutes vary tremendously in their reasons for entry, risk of violence, freedom to refuse clients and particular acts, dependence on and exploitation by third parties, experiences with the authorities, public visibility and number of clients, relationships with coworkers, and impact on the surrounding community.
Prostitution includes of street-work, bar work, brothel work, agency escort work, and independent escort work. Generally, conditions are much better indoors than outdoors; and conditions for all workers are better in countries where prostitution is decriminalized or legalized.
• 15-25%: percent of prostitutes who are street workers in the US, Britain and the Netherlands. These estimates do not take into account peripheral sex work, such as sugar dating or other types of work (S&M, stripping, porn, phone and web-camming).
• 84%: Australian call girls who entered the industry after the age of 19. (76% for brothel workers).
• 20%: UK street prostitutes who entered before the age of 16. (48% had entered after age 19)
• 3.5: – prostitutes under-age in New Zealand
• <1: Individuals forced or coerced to enter or remain in the sex trade in Germany after legalization.
• 86%: indoor workers in Manhattan with a high school diploma.
• 95%: call girls who reported an increase in self-esteem after entering the industry (compared with 50% of brothel workers, 8% of street-workers).
• 75%: Midwestern US indoor sex workers who believe their life has improved since entering the industry (the remainder reported no change.)