What constitutes sex work?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they’re talking about. Today, we ask dancers, dommes, and social workers and sex work experts what exactly counts as a “sex worker.”
Like any community or industry that bears the stigma of limited legality, sex work is notoriously difficult to classify—in part because it’s so tough to quantify. From a policy standpoint, its fringe status in the eyes of the law means there’s very little hard and fast data with which to paint an accurate picture of the field.
But who exactly qualifies as a sex worker? Porn stars, cam girls, strippers, phone sex operators, agency escorts and street prostitutes all sell their sexual services in some form or another, but through different channels and with varying degrees of exposure to clients. The striking disparities in the associated risks and benefits imply that there’s no such thing as a unified “market” for sex work, nor universal labels agreed upon by its various communities. (In fact, a Facebook group for sex workers recently limited its membership to exclude cyber sex workers like cam girls as well as those who weren’t earning the majority of their income through sex work.)
Hopes&Fears spoke with current sex workers and various experts to find out exactly how broad—or narrow—the industry really is.
Co-editor of Tits and Sass, a group blog run by sex workers
The first thing you have to keep in mind is that “sex work” and “sex worker” are political terms. It’s an umbrella term to create alliances between marginalized groups of workers. The term “sex work” was coined in the early 1970s by sex worker activist Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot to counter derogatory terms used by whorephobic second-wave feminism. Before the term “sex worker” existed, there was an idea that these people could ally politically. Even now, there exists a hierarchy among sex workers. We refer to it jovially as the “whorearchy.”
There’s another useful term, “lateral whorephobia,” which is where one kind of sex worker is maybe more privileged than another kind of sex worker, so they’ll look down upon and stigmatize them, which happens so often in the community. Pro dommes will say things like, “Well, at least we don’t fuck our clients” or “At least we’re not whores.” Porn stars will say that escorts are dirty. Escorts will say full-service pro-subs take too many risks.
I’m part of the Facebook group that you referenced, and I feel safer now that we have [limited membership], not because I don’t want to ally with cam girls, but because I face far more stigmatization and criminalization than they do, and sometimes I just want to talk to people who understand that. You know, cam girls, they do have political commonalities with me and I do want to organize with them, but I don’t necessarily want to be in the same secret Facebook group talking shit with them.
There’s also real difference between survival sex workers and people who do it as a side job, as well as between online and in-person sex workers. That’s why the group originally specified it was limited to in-person sex workers who relied on sex work as their main source of income.
That said, cam girls are sex workers. Phone sex operators are sex workers. Online workers are sex workers. The two pillars of the definition of sex work are “stigmatization” and “criminalization.” For the most part, with few exceptions, what we’re talking about is someone who trades sex or sexualized services to a client of some sort. Even porn workers do, to some extent, because even though it’s indirect, they are selling videos of themselves to people.
Where I draw the line—and this is contested territory—is with people who have recently attempted to appropriate the term, like erotica writers and burlesque performers. A lot of older sex workers’ rights activists who are not sex workers themselves anymore have lost touch with living the definition of sex work. But most contemporary activists I know would agree. The stigmatization isn’t there, and certainly the criminalization isn’t there. I'm glad those folks feel sex work is a positive enough label to want to apply to themselves, but they'd be more effective utilizing their privilege for us as allies rather than muddying the waters with appropriation.
Now, when I talk about “whorearchy” and “lateral whorephobia,” I feel that the politicized term "sex worker" actually helps diffuse that. For example, one way I know that a stripper or exotic dancer that I’m talking to won’t look down on me for being an escort, and is someone who might be up to collectively organizing with me on issues that affect us both, is if that person identifies as a sex worker, rather than disassociating herself from that label entirely and saying, “I’m not a sex worker. I don’t sell sex. I dance. I’m not like those whores.”
But, on the other hand, grey-market sex workers like strippers and pro-dommes, and legal sex workers like cam girls and PSOs, need to remember that they don’t feel the brunt of criminalization and stigmatization the same way full-service sex workers do. In fact, a lot of their stigma originates from the extent to which they are associated with prostitution. And the more they distance themselves from prostitution, the more they earn respectability politics points back. In-person sex work is simply more stigmatized, criminalized, dangerous, fraught—just an all-around dicier proposition than online sex work.
Bikini dancer; former dominatrix
I believe that sex work is when you have a job that stimulates sexual thoughts in a person mentally or physically. Some sex work is mental like dancing at strip club, posing for Playboy, or writing dirty stories. Other sex work is physical, like being a porn star or a prostitute. I worked in a dungeon as a dominatrix way before I had even had sex (when I say “before I had sex,” I mean “before I lost my virginity”).
If your intent is to stir up sexual thoughts, you are a sex worker. On the other hand, I do not believe if you are a nude model at an art school that you are a sex worker, because the job of nude modeling in that context is to be a human subject, not a sexual object.
Nude model and actress
it depends on the intent. Just because someone is attracted to someone else’s naked body in a photograph that, let’s say, was an “artistic nude,” doesn’t mean that photo was intended to create (or fulfill) a sexual fantasy. It was intended to show the human body in its natural form, create a mood, etc. I personally don’t always correlate nudity with sex. For me, this means it doesn’t fall under the category of sex work.
So, with the photographer and model, sometimes the intent is to convey sexual material through nudity. But then there are also times where the nudity is used with the intent to show the human body in different forms that aren’t sexual in nature. When it gets tricky, and when the line is blurred, is when you’re unsure of the photographer’s, director’s, model’s or actor’s intent.
Former phone sex operator
Anything erotic between two consenting adults that has a financial transaction attached to it is going to fall under “sex work.” So, phone sex, yes. Nude modeling, maybe. Certain kinds of massage, surely.
But it frustrates me that sexuality is both trivialized and stigmatized, which leads to this dialogue where people lump sex work into the categories of crime and victimization.
For me sex work, phone sex operating specifically, was something I could do on my own, especially at a time where jobs seemed scarce. I worked for myself, made my own hours, even developed some lasting friendships with subservient customers. I learned about SEO and marketing; I picked up a little HTML. I was able to be creative with my sexuality, which has always been on the hyper end of the spectrum. There were some creeps, yes. There were always people being sneaky for freebies, but nothing that made me feel bad for myself. I see some cam girls now that make me kind of jealous because of how they market their personality and sex appeal. It’s pretty exhilarating to be lusted after professionally.
All in all, I do not see a negative side to the social implications of being a sex worker. I mean, any negativity toward it seems to be more of society’s shortcoming than the sex worker’s.
percent of countries where prostitution is LEGAL
percent of countries where prostitution is ILLEGAL
percent of countries where prostitution has limited legality
New York State Licensed clinical
Different people have different perspectives; they’re entitled to that. One challenge is often speaking with people involved with sex industries, as they don’t always see that what they’re doing as exploitative.
“Sex Work” includes: pornography, stripping, erotic and nude massage, escort services, phone sex lines, private parties, street exploitation, gang and organized crime-based exploitation, familial pimping, and internet-based exploitation. At least, these are all considered to be “sex work” by most organizations that deal with children who are sexually trafficked.
I’ve also heard the other side: people claiming that they’re in control of their bodies and therefore they’re the ones really in charge. But in reality, they’re catering to a society of men who devalue women. Would those same men be cool with their sisters doing that same job? Or their daughters? I don’t think so.
Nude modeling, on the other hand, can definitely fall under the classification of art. I would say it’s about the “intent.” Picasso has a painting called Nude Boy and Horse. People here might be offended by a nude kid. People in Europe might not be as offended by it. But clearly there is a distinction between fine art and porn.
With women, teens, kids involved in actual “sex work,” there is often a social impact, emotional impact, physical impact, spiritual impact, etc.
“Lies, damned lies and sex work statistics”
The Washington Post
I would say if you’re making money off of your own sexuality, it’s sex work. My job is definitely sex work. It’s the most direct form of straightforward, immediate sexual stimulation. People want to cum: It’s the easiest and healthiest high we can enjoy as frequently as we want, and for many of us, porn is the easiest way to attain that high.
Sexy and simultaneously artful nudity rides a line. But I definitely think what makes a difference is that it’s part of the photography world. It has multiple facets, so it weaves around sex work; it’s more about photography and modeling than it is about the sex. If we were talking about an Instagram account run by one girl taking pictures of herself looking “slutty,” then it would feel like sex work to me. But it’s debatable. I see the elements of sex in nude photography and modeling, clearly, but we have different worlds and terms for this, different systems.
Perhaps in this regard it comes back to intent: With most pure sex work, the only goal is to tantalize as intensely as possible to make one want to fuck or cum so badly that they can’t resist paying for the offered product. With nude photography and modeling, people are also probably frequently looking for value in the photography and the modeling even more so than looking for something to jerk off to.
Melissa Gira Grant