Women in Voluntary Sex Work: Review, Perspectives, and Implications for Practice

17 Oct

This is a rather long, intensive, academically written paper from early in my graduate studies on different perspectives in sex work, from several feminist perspectives, as well as implications for social work practice. I am putting it up here (even though it’s more dry and paper-ey than blog-ey) because I think it offers a good introduction to the  topic, and some of you may find it interesting. I, myself, am a giant geek, and love reading and writing these kinds of things- I will trust that some other giant geeks are following the blog! 🙂  Here is an outline of sections, so you can know what you’re in for before diving in:

  • A Brief History of Modern Prostitution 1900 – Present
  • Structures of Modern Sex Work
  • Outdoor Sex Work
  • Indoor Sex Work
  • Perspectives on Sex Work (this is where all the juicy stuff on sexism, racism, and arguments about sex work within the world of feminism is hiding)
  • Implications for Social Work

A Brief History of Modern Prostitution 1900 – Present

   Early anti-prostitution crusaders began forming cohesive groups in the 1830s, and were comprised primarily of social workers who were interested in saving fallen women from the aggressive sexual appetites of men. These concerns were easily overshadowed by the events of the Progressive era, and sex work flourished as cities grew, bringing flocks of lonely, single men with money and sexual curiosity (Sloan & Wahab, 2000). While some social crusaders attempted to rescue women, the earliest attempts to control prostitution involved violent physical and sexual assaults meant to scare them out of towns (Gilfoyle, 1992). The early 1900’s brought the onset of a white slavery panic, which quickly turned the eye of social scrutiny on sex workers. The media exploded with plays and books that explained in lurid detail the process by which young white women with weak wills were seduced into a lifestyle of sexual debauchery. It remains unclear if these productions were meant to shock citizens into action, or provide titillating and scandalous stories under the guise of social action. Regardless of intention, the media portrayals of white slavery created social discourse and legislative action meant to inhibit the growing problem of sex work (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1997).

The Charity Organization Society introduced the idea that sex workers were not, in fact, innocent prey, but weak willed and of poor character. Anti-vice crusaders began to attack places that prostitutes would find clients, mainly saloons, bars, parlor houses and the like. Statewide investigations were launched to expose establishments that promoted lewd behavior, and police raids on red light districts began happening across the country. At the same time, federal investigators insisted that the practices of sex work had been imported by Europeans, and was perpetuated stateside by Jews who seduced and kept young girls as sex slaves. Laws were enacted to enable deportation of foreign women who engaged in sex work, insisting that they had brought venereal diseases to innocent families by trapping male clients. This idea persisted through World War I, in which prostitutes were painted as predatory succubi, weapons of the enemy used to infect the young soldiers through sexual seduction. One pamphlet, Keeping Fit to Fight, announced that, “women who solicit soldiers for immoral purposes are usually disease spreaders and friends of the enemy (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1997).” The social hygiene movement and anti vice crusaders joined forces to educate children, single adults, and GIs on the dangers of venereal disease and virtue of celibacy.

   Early social work perspectives maintained a woman’s innocence in the exchange. In 1911, Jane Addams said prostitution was a great social evil that rendered women powerless to save themselves. Female social workers would gain acceptance into brothels, and attempt to persuade the women participating to leave. As social work grew into a more formalized profession in the 1920’s, social workers began to treat sex workers with psychotherapy. They maintained that sex work was due to the neurotic and frigid natures of wives, and masochistic and weak natures of the women working as sex workers. Sex work, at this point, became pathologized as the product of character flaws, and those in the occupation treated as disturbed individuals.    The idea of sex workers as mentally unwell vectors of disease and social unrest persisted for the next several decades. During the sex wars of the 1980’s, sex work in all of its forms came under fire from feminist groups, and became a topic of heated debate in a schism that continues to exist in feminist communities today.

Structures of Modern Sex Work

   Modern sex work exists in a variety of forms and venues, and can include anything from pornography, peep shows, erotic dancing, escort services, or streetwalking. For the purposes of this discussion, sex work will be defined as sexual transactions including French kissing, manual stimulation (hand jobs), oral sex, vaginal or anal penetrative sex, Dominance/submission, Sadomasochistic play, or specialty services.    Although no formal organization exists, modern sex work can be organized into several strata of prestige, defined by working environment, client population, and earnings per job. At the lowest rungs of the hierarchy are women who walk the street. Up one rung are “love and tug” operators, usually masseuses who end massage sessions with a hand job. The next level of work is escorting, either independently or through an agency. These workers usually service wealthy businessmen in hotel rooms or private hot tub spas. The top of the sex work hierarchy is reserved for women of very classic definitions of beauty and style, high-end escorts that provide services to some of the top rungs of society. Where a sex worker rests on this informal hierarchy can have drastic consequences for pay. A hand job may cost $30 from a street worker, $80 from a masseuse, $300 from an escort, and $800 from a high-end escort (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005; Jane, 2011).

There are limited opportunities for upwards mobility in the sex work industry, and many women mention increased pay and a personal website as the top indicators of success. Unfortunately, many sex workers who start their work on the streets tend to maintain unsafe sex practices (particularly unprotected sex for higher pay) that are more common in street work than escort work (Cunningham & Kendall, 2011).    A majority of the research on prostitution separates sex work into one of two broad categories: Outdoor sex work, which is often opportunistic in nature, and happens or is solicited in public spaces, and indoor sex work, which is planned and often happens in private spaces such as homes or hotels.

Outdoor Sex Work

Street sex work has historically and internationally been the most common form of sex work. It is the highest risk form of sex work due to an imbalanced power dynamic in favor of the client, low fee for services, high rates of client turnover, and frequent involvement of alcohol and drugs (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005). As a highly visible form of sex work, it is most commonly represented in criminal proceedings. The majority of the research and policy regarding sex work is based on convenience samplings from vice arrests (Hughes, 2005).

“There’s this huge class divide and educational divide between indoor and outdoor sex workers. In the bay it was primarily white people being escorts, and people of color doing street work,” (Jane, 2011).

Outdoor sex workers frequently come from disadvantaged life situations. In a sampling of 1999 arrests for prostitution related crime, 89% were of women providing the services, as opposed to the 9.6% arrests of johns, and .6% of pimps. Of the sex workers arrested, 74.6% of them were black women. In addition to increased rates of arrest, black women who perform sex worker pay higher fines and do more jail time than their white peers (Hughes, 2005). Despite the fact that demands for sex work are spread across race and income levels, the majority of outdoor sex work is located in predominantly black neighborhoods with low income and low mobility (O’Flaherty & Sethi, 2010). This may be due to the decreased accessibility of off-street opportunities afforded to black women, and a cultural history of treating black women’s bodies as a commodity that can purchased (Sloan & Wahab, 2000).    Drug and alcohol use are a common theme among outdoor sex workers. Many of women report growing up with drug addictions, and initially entered sex work as a way to maintain access to drugs (Murphy L. , 2010; Hughes, 2005). Over 90% of outdoor sex workers report drug use during the work, which is often correlated with decreased condom use and increased violence from boyfriends, clients, police, and pimps (Murphy & Venkatesh, 2006). Often laws to address violence against women are not used to protect women from pimps or customers, and women who are working are afraid to report crimes for fear of being prosecuted themselves for prostitution (Sloan & Wahab, 2000).

For sex workers that are willing to assume the risks of unprotected sex, it comes with an average of 25% increase in pay from the client (Gertler, Shah, & Bertozzi, 2005). While the risks of unprotected sex are certainly great, the desire to earn more can overcome that. To serve as further disincentive to carry protection, in San Francisco, the possession of condoms can be used as circumstantial evidence of the intent to commit prostitution. It is not uncommon for sex workers to not carry condoms due to fear of prosecution (Lutnick & Cohan, 2009).

Women working the streets face a very high risk of physical and sexual assault, as well as arrest. In addition to occupational stigma, they often face the burdens of racism and classism.

Indoor Sex Work

   As cities have increased prosecution of vice crimes, sex work has increasingly been driven off the streets and into homes, hotels, brothels, and bathhouses (Murphy & Venkatesh, 2006). Indoor sex work is understood to be medium to low risk of STI transmission or physical assault. In private environments, the worker has increased control and safety while working. The power dynamic is closer to equal between worker and client within the context of an agency or brothel transaction (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005).

Due to the increased security and privacy of indoor social work, rates of arrest are significantly lower among this population, and most likely to happen when they were doing a misdemeanor in public. Because of this, very little is known about the demographic makeup of indoor sex work, beyond individual experiences of women doing the work and willing to discuss it (Murphy & Venkatesh, 2006).

In place of walking the streets, indoor sex workers frequently solicit clients through referrals from other sex workers, calls to escort agencies, or websites. The Internet has had one of the most significant impacts on the sex work industry; Escort websites function similarly to dating websites and are one of the primary methods of information sharing about client screening and satisfaction (Rocha, Lijeros, & Holme, 2010). These websites may list prices for various services, special services (such as the girlfriend experience, bondage, couples), and offer places for customers to provide detailed reviews of a particular sex worker (Castle & Lee, 2008). Studies suggest that indoor sex workers who seek clients online are at lowered risk for physical assault, arrest, and have higher rates of condom use (Cunningham & Kendall, 2011).

“I worked with a guy, an ex-cop, who would come with me to see clients. He’d pat them down, and stand outside the room while I worked. He also knew how to spot cops.” (Cristina, 2011)

“I kept asking him what he liked, and he would just reply ‘well, what do you usually do?’ I ended up sending him home, I’m pretty sure he was a cop” (Rayne, 2010)

Increasingly, middle class women and students are entering the field of sex work (Brents & Sanders, 2010). Personal accounts of sex workers state that most of the women they know in the escort business have college degrees, have ‘good lives on paper,’ and entered the profession out of choice. All three left ‘legitimate’ jobs using their college degrees for the higher pay and increased flexibility and autonomy in sex work. As Jane proudly states, “some people start their own business. I am my own business.” (Rayne, 2010; Jane, 2011; Cristina, 2011). They report high levels of satisfaction with their work, and often view their work as a profession, providing clients with healing, acceptance, and comfort. Many indoor sex workers call it the best job they’ve ever had, and their work shapes their identity moreso than the stigma surrounding it (Murphy & Venkatesh, 2006).

   “There is irony in using the money I make working to pay off my student loans for a degree that gets me a job that pays less than a quarter of what I make as an escort.” (Cristina, 2011)

Perspectives on Sex Work

   It is important to note that the research on lifestyle, habits, and opinions of sex workers is seriously flawed, as most data is collected from sex workers in custody, on the streets, or in desperate life situations. In addition, reports of this research have often been written from a biased perspective, frequently by authors in support of abolishing sex work (Weitzer, Flawed theory and method in studies of prostitution, 2005).

It is clear that there are racial and class differences in women’s experiences as sex workers that impact their likelihood to be physically assaulted, contract an STI, or be arrested and prosecuted for sex work. Black women in impoverished areas may have fewer options to make money, and decreased access to the skills or technology needed to reach clients on a higher socioeconomic strata. Women in sex work are more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the police, and are less likely to report or have allegations of assault taken to court (Murphy & Venkatesh, 2006). The sexism and racism experienced by these women is clear in arrest records, with almost all of the prostitution arrests made being of women providing the service instead of clients or pimps, and of those women, primarily black women (Hughes, 2005; Harcourt & Donovan, 2005).

Of note is that, from what little research is available on the experiences of male sex workers, the primary differences include that they are less dependent on sex work as their primary source of income, feel a greater sense of career mobility, experience less violence from clients, are generally avoided by the police due to homophobia, are less likely to have pimps, enjoy sexual contact with customers more, and feel a greater need to clarify their sexual orientation (Weitzer, New directions in research on prostitution, 2005). It seems as though, even in the field of sex work, men have a social advantage and greater economic freedom.

Sex workers also face a form of institutionalized oppression known as dejure oppression. Their body choices are actively prosecuted under the law, and make them potential targets of judicial oversight or police brutality. As there is significant risk of arrest if their work is uncovered during an investigation of an assault, sex workers are less likely to report crime, granting them unequal protection under the law (Lutnick & Cohan, 2009). The criminal nature of their work makes it very difficult to leave the sex industry if they want to, and they may be denied certain social services if they continue to do sex work, including drug rehabilitation and domestic violence shelters. Sex workers rarely disclose their occupation to social service providers, even though this detail may be critical in constructing their care plan, as they are afraid of possible stigma or arrest (Sloan & Wahab, 2000; Lutnick & Cohan, 2009).

In the push for women’s equality and rights moves forward, there is a serious divide in the feminist movement about sex work. One group of feminists views all sex work as the product of the patriarchy, and a consequence of women being denied agency in their choices. Their opinions on the occupation range from Marxist feminism, which suggests that all work is oppressive, to domination theory, which suggests sex work increases female reliance on men, and that all acts of heterosexual sex are inherently violent. Another group of feminism that gained strength in the mid seventies as sex workers began to be allowed into conversations about them does not distinguish between the selling of one’s hands as a typist or body as a sex worker. They object to being treated as the symbols of oppression, and believe that decriminalization will make sex work safer and less stigmatized for women doing it. Liberal feminism suggests that sex work laws interfere with an individual’s rights to make their own body choices, and that stigma traps women in the profession. Radical sexual pluralist theory suggests that there exists a false sexual hierarchy of what is considered ‘right’ socially, and sex work should be treated as no more or less moral as any other sex act or occupation (Sloan & Wahab, 2000).

“When second wave feminists talk about sex work as this bad degrading thing, my immediate feeling is ‘are you [expletive] kidding me? What’s more disempowering to women, than a feminist telling me what I can do with my body and my life?’” (Jane, 2011).

Sex workers also face defacto discrimination, as their occupation is highly stigmatized. While the economic acceptability of the occupation has improved, moralist attitudes still create a hostile social environment for women open about their occupation choice (Brents & Sanders, 2010). Sex workers may face social isolation and the resulting emotional consequences because of this stigma (Sanders, 2005).

Implications for Social Work

   Despite the divide in feminist ethics on the topic, both groups are in agreement that sex workers are often victims of abuse, and sex workers should not be prosecuted for their work (Sloan & Wahab, 2000). Sex workers face heavy occupational stigma that is often paired with sexism, racism, and classism. This stigma can decrease career mobility for individuals who desire leaving the profession, and create significant safety, legal, access to care and quality of life concerns for individuals who are satisfied doing sex work and would like to remain in their occupation. It may also act as a barrier to social services. Laws against prostitution only feed a cycle of violence these women experience, and grant them decreased protection under the law (Lutnick & Cohan, 2009).

Social workers who wish to promote equality and decrease oppression experienced by sex workers can promote prosecution of individuals who abuse sex workers, promote the creation of safe reporting laws by which a sex worker can report victimization without being charged for her occupation, destigmatize sex work, challenge sexism on all levels, support women who want to leave sex work, and provide women who want to stay in sex work with the skills and knowledge needed to effectively negotiate their safety (Sloan & Wahab, 2000). While members of the social work profession may not agree on the morality of sex work, the injustice and oppression faced by individuals in this occupation must be examined and challenged as a serious social disparity. 


Brents, B., & Sanders, T. (2010). Mainstreaming the sex industry: Economic inclusion and social ambivalence. Journal of Law and Society , 37 (1), 40-60.

Castle, T., & Lee, J. (2008). Ordering sex in cyberspace: a content analysis of escort websites. International Journal of Cultural Studies , 11 (1), 107-121.

Cristina. (2011, March 19). Experiences as a sex worker in the midwest. (C. Karathanasis, Interviewer)

Cunningham, S., & Kendall, T. (2011). Prostitution 2.0: The changing face of sex work. Journal of Urban Economics , 69, 273-287.

D’Emilio, J., & Freedman, E. (1997). Intimate Matters: A history of sexuality in America, 2ed ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gertler, P., Shah, M., & Bertozzi, S. (2005). Risky Business: The Market for Unprotected Commercial Sex. 113 (3), 518-550.

Gilfoyle, T. J. (1992). City of Eros: New York City, prostitution, and the commercialization of sex, 1790-1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Harcourt, C., & Donovan, B. (2005). The many faces of sex work. Sexually Transmitted Infections , 18, 201–206.

Hughes, D. (2005, December). Race and prostitution in the United States. Retrieved March 19, 2011, from University of Rhode Island: Women’s Studies Program : http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/race_prost.doc

Jane. (2011, March 20). Experiences as a sex worker in San Francisco . (C. Karathanasis, Interviewer)

Lutnick, A., & Cohan, D. (2009). Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, CA. Reproductive Health Matters , 17 (34), 38–46.

Murphy, A., & Venkatesh, S. (2006). Vice careers: The changing contours of sex work in New York City. Qualitative Sociology , 29, 129–154.

Murphy, L. (2010). Understanding the social and economic contexts surrounding women engaged in street-level prostitution. Issues in Mental Health Nursing , 31, 775-784.

O’Flaherty, B., & Sethi, R. (2010). The racial geography of street vice. Journal of Urban Economics , 67, 270–286.

Rayne. (2010, Dec 7). Experiences as a sex work in the midwest. (C. Karathanasis, Interviewer)

Rocha, L., Lijeros, F., & Holme, P. (2010). Information dynamics shape the sexual networks of Internet-mediated prostitution. PNAS , 107 (3), 5706-5711.

Sanders, T. (2005). ‘It’s just acting’: Sex workers’ strategies for capitalizing on sexuality. Gender, Work, and Organization , 12 (4), 319-342.

Sloan, L., & Wahab, S. (2000). Feminist voices on sex work: Implications for Social Work. AFFILIA , 15 (4), 457-479.

Weitzer, R. (2005). Flawed theory and method in studies of prostitution. Violence Against Women , 11 (7), 934-949.

Weitzer, R. (2005). New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law & Social Change , 43, 211–235.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: