What is a Sex Worker?

Patrick Roland

A sex worker is any person, male or female, who engages in sexual activity in exchange for money. Prostitution is considered the oldest job in the sex industry but does not cover all of the legal and illegal types of work within the industry. Sex workers have vastly different rights depending on the country they practice in and what the laws are in that nation regarding sex.

In the United States, prostitution is illegal in every state except Nevada.
In the United States, prostitution is illegal in every state except Nevada.

For many, a prostitute is the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a sex worker. Prostitutes are hired by clients for a variety of sexual activities, commonly intercourse, and often get clients by soliciting themselves in public. Escorts are another form of prostitution but are less visible because they are located within brothels or contracted over the phone. Dominatrices are sex workers who deal specifically with bondage, discipline and submission fetishes. There also are niche forms of prostitution that appeal to specific segments of customers, like male-and-male, female-and-female, multiples and individuals who deal with bodily fluids.

Australia allows prostitution and provides legal protections for sex workers.
Australia allows prostitution and provides legal protections for sex workers.

The legality of a sex worker differs greatly from nation to nation. For example, in the United States, prostitution is illegal in every state except Nevada and is thereby considered a criminal offense. In countries such as Bolivia, though, sex workers are legal and must submit to licensing and regular health examinations. In Australia, an official sex workers union was established in 1996, ensuring not just the legality of prostitution but also a pension and health plan for workers.

There are several other types of sex workers who do not directly trade in intercourse but occupy a peripheral part of the industry. A stripper, erotic dancer or go-go dancer will partially or completely remove his or her clothes for money but will not engage in sex. Phone sex operators have erotic conversations with clients for money but do not meet the client in person and therefore do not engage in actual sexual activity. The Internet has brought many strip and sex shows to computer screens for paying customers. Many of these professions are viewed differently in moral context from country to country, but most of them are legal.

A sex worker can be a person who performs any of a variety of sexual acts for money. There are many types of acts that can be included in this profession and a variety of legal issues that can be involved. The same act might be legal in some places and illegal in others. Anyone who wants to become a sex worker or hire a sex worker should consult the local laws to learn more.

Sex workers often have low self-esteem.
Sex workers often have low self-esteem.

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Discussion Comments


I know a man that put himself through college as a sex worker. I do not know many of the details of what he did but he seemed to think the entire thing was a positive experience. He had no guilt or shame about it and he was able to get an education.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it seems kind of sad and gross. But on the other hand, most people have terrible jobs where they end up doing things they would rather not do. What is worse, being a sex worker or being a coal miner?


What do you guys think, would it be better for prostitution to be legal and regulated or illegal the way it is now? I can see good arguments on both sides.

If it was regulated there would be less violence, disease and many of the other negative side effects that come with the industry. But a position like that puts us on shaky moral ground.


When I was in college I took several women's studies course and there are attitudes amongst some academics that try to suggest that sex work is empowering. And while I think that may be true in a very select number of cases, I think that line of thinking mostly displays the distorted view from the top of the ivory tower.

The reality for most sex workers is that it is sad, violent work that they get forced in to because of circumstances or aggressive partners. We should not celebrate them but pity them and work to better their situation.

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