The Complex Lives of Sex Workers

From Wednesday, November 4th

Trigger warning

We will be discussing sex work, sexual abuse, and rape in this post.

Safe space

CWO is a safe space for everyone to express their opinions and share their experiences should they chose to do so. If an individual invalidates or disrespects someone’s experience, that individual will be asked to leave.

What is sex work?

The provision of sexual services for money or goods

Discussion question

What are the connotations (positive or negative) associated with sex work, sex workers, and those that solicit sexual services?

Different types of sex work

  • Commercial sex work
    • Indoor
      • Escort services
      • Brothel work
      • Massage parlor work
      • Bar or casino work
    • Street
  • Phone sex operation
  • Exotic dancing (stripping)
  • Webcam nude modeling
  • Pornography
  • Peepshow performing

What isn’t sex work?

  • Sex trafficking
  • Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt, bondange, or other forrms of coersion to force women, men, and children to engage in commercial sex against their will
  • Under federal law, any person under 18 that engages in sex work is considered to be a victim of sex trafficking
  • People that come from foreign countries to engage in sex work are all considered victims of sex trafficking



  • Commercial sex work – exchange of money or goods for sexual services which involves a sex worker and a client
  • Full service sex worker – prostitute
  • Survival sex
  • Harm reduction – methodology that seeks to reduce potential harms of high risk behavior, rather than restrict the behavior
  • Independent
  • Agency – the ability of a person to act for themself
  • Pimp
  • John
  • Incall
  • Outcall
  • Trick

The history of sex work in the U.S.

  • Present since the early American settlements
    • Some of the first women to arrive to the U.S. settlements
  • The introduction of Red Light Districts
  • Sex work was transformed into a “social evil” during the turn of the 20th century
    • Sex work becomes viewed as a “social disease” that can be legally prohibited and abolished

Discussion question

What are some of the reasons that people enter into sex work?

Why do people go into sex work?

  • Money
  • Autonomy/independence
  • Shelter
  • Drug dependency
  • Inability to escape
  • Survival sex
    • Sexual abuse as children
      • Girls that are survivors of sexual abuse are 3 times more likely to go into prostitution than girls that were not sexually abused
      • Given that one of the strongest predictors of engagement in survival sex is a prior history of sexual abuse by adult caregivers, some researchers theorize that rather than being driven to survival sex out of desperation, street children might be reproducing familiar behaviour and relationship patterns.[4]
  • Average age of entry into sex work: 16

The complexity of agency

  • Free will
    • Many people go into sex work of their own volition
  • Survival sex
    • Can be consensual
    • Can change what consent looks like for the sex worker

Locations of sex work

  • Indoor Sex Work
    • 63% Cisgender Women
    • 33% Cisgender Men
    • 4% Transgender
      • 70% Women
      • 27% Men
      • 3% Non-Binary
  • Street Sex Work
    • 83% Cisgender Women
    • 7% Cisgender Men
    • 10% Transgender Women
  • Indoor Sex Work
    • 44% White
    • 27% Latinx
    • 15% Black
    • 12% Asian
    • 2% Mixed
  • Street Sex Work
    • 21% White
    • 27% Latinx
    • 52% Black


  • Street workers
    • 50% experienced violence
    • 27% victims of rape
  • Indoor workers
    • 26% experienced violence
    • 8% victims of rape
  • Police
    • 14% of sex workers have been threatened with arrest if they didn’t sleep with an officer
    • 8% obliged and were arrested
    • 5% refused and were arrested


  • What it means: All aspects of full service sex work are illegal, including johns, pimps, and the workers themselves
  • Where in the World: Mostly everywhere! (Including MOST of America)
  • Pros: Some sex workers with drug addictions may appreciate being removed from their environment when in a downward spiral, and others resent stringent health inspections imposed in legalization
  • Cons: Institutionalizes workers both in prison and within sex work, increases incidences of violence and disease, unfairly targets transgender workers and workers of color, as well as people of low income, rarely targets johns and pimps


  • What it means: Johns and Pimps are illegal, sex workers are not so long as they display that they did not actively engage in their work
  • Where in the World: Sweden, with the Nordic Model
  • Pros: Potentially more helpful toward victims of trafficking than criminalization
  • Cons: Same cons as criminalization–workers can be arrested for carrying condoms, actively propositioning clients, negotiating prices themselves, etc., victims of trafficking may still experience police harassment


  • What it means: Legalized, but has special rules attached to it that aren’t applied to other industries (i.e. brothel work only, no independent work, certain health inspections across the board)
  • Where in the World: Nevada, since 1971
  • Pros: Police protection for brothels, ability to have open solidarity, violent crime no longer seen as an occupational hazard when working within a business
  • Cons: Unsavory working conditions, excessive health inspections, poor living conditions, reduces sex worker income by 30 to 50 percent


  • What it means: Everything is legal in regard to exchanging sexual acts for money/goods
  • Where in the World: New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of Australia
  • Pros: No difference in physical health, self-esteem, mental health, or “quality of social networks” between sex workers and non-sex workers in New Zealand. Also, allows sex workers easier avenues toward being able to find housing and other lines of work should they choose that
  • Cons: Does not appear to diminish stigmatization towards workers

The “War on Sex Trafficking” in America

  • Legislation meant to crack down on sex trafficking
    • Frequently targets sex workers in general
    • Legislation targets people that offer or solicit paid sex, people who live with sex workers, and those who run classified advertising websites
  • US government-funded sex trafficking sting operations
    • July 2015 – Homeland Security, the AZ Dept of Public Safety, and other AZ state agencies – “human trafficking enforcement operation,” stopped commercial trucks and checked license plates, 30 stops, 0 arrests
    • April 2014 – FBI released crime data on state-based trafficking investigations, 14 human trafficking incidents in 13 states, 4 arrests
    • 2008 – 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2515 suspected incidents of human trafficking, 6% of investigations resulted in arrests
  • Hurts sex workers
    • Wastes resources on “rescue” and sting operations that could be used to help sex workers and victims of trafficking
    • TVPA – 2006 – Bush administration gave US Conference of Catholic Bishops $19 million to oversee government services to women, no money given to counseling for abortion or birth control
    • Crackdown – Las Vegas – 2009 – received $500,000 federal grant to combat human trafficking, but money went towards paying cops overtime to arrest full service sex workers
      • Only resulted in 10 cases of trafficking
    • Victims – idea that sex workers wouldn’t go into their field voluntarily, affront to workers’ autonomy, workers get shipped off to counseling, which interferes with their work and ability to make money
    • Counseling is often religious – shaming, threats, and moralism
  • Anti-trafficking used to be a feminist issue
  • Used to be about sex workers’ rights, now it’s been co-opted by religious conservatives into an anti-sex movement that punishes sex workers

Global patterns of sex work: male sex tourism

  • Frequent destinations include regions where:
    • Prostitution is legal or decriminalised
    • The population of women is largely non-White
  • Men explain their solicitation of sex work as:
    • Satisfaction of immediate sexual needs
    • A way to select specific physical, racial, or sexual stereotypes
    • A way to make up for what is not being fulfilled in their current relationships
  • Women explain their participation in sex work as:
    • Their only option of work
    • Something during which they experience little positive emotion
    • Rape myth acceptance and rape endorsement

Global patterns of sex work: female sex tourism

  • Unusual in that it is a pattern of female – instead of male – sex tourism
  • Mixed reception to this growing trend
    • Fetishization versus Agency and Mutual Benefits
  • The sellers are typically of the following demographic:
    • Black men from Kenya, Gambia, the Caribbean, and Latin America
    • Moderate to Low socio-economic status
    • Young in age
  • The buyers are typically of the following demographic:
    • White American or White European women
    • High socio-economic status
    • Middle-aged

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