“What does a sex worker do?” is like asking what any other freelancer does. The answer? It varies. From client to client, freelancer to freelancer - there isn’t a “sex work rulebook” that says to be a sex worker you need to check all these boxes.
Sex workers can offer a range of different things from escort and experience services (attending parties together, vacationing together, being a discrete confidant, etc) to sexual activities and experiences and more.
As for what “sex work” really is - the line isn’t as drawn-in-the-sand as you may think. Some say content creators who work in the online sex industry (porn actors, erotic audio performers, NSFW OnlyFans creators, etc) are sex workers. Some have a more “defined” version of sex workers which usually refers to someone who is a prostitute (earns an income in exchange for physical sexual favors).
This is a super complicated question. The short answer? It’s legal in some places, yes. But the laws surrounding sex work are messy, complicated, and sometimes make no sense (as you will see in some of these places listed below).
Where sex work is (mostly) legal:
Keep in mind, this can vary as each region may have a very different label of what qualifies as a sex worker and what sex work really is in terms of the law. There are a lot of different types of legality when it comes to prostitution and sex work.
Prohibitionism: means that it is completely illegal
Neo-abolitionism: considers prostitution to be “violence”, which means pimps and brothels are prosecuted and prostitutes are considered victims
Abolitionism: where prostitution is legal but public solicitation and operating brothels are not
Along with these differences, it’s important to note the difference between “legalizing prostitution” and “decriminalizing prostitution.”
Legalizing prostitution allows the employment of prostitutes to be legal (while staying regulated). Decriminalizing prostitution treats sex work like any other labor job and means it would be subject to minimal or no special regulations. Most sex workers are working towards “decriminalization”, as they would like their jobs to be treated as any other freelance job.
For more information on where prostitution is legal (and illegal), check out this page.
Does anyone enjoy their job? Some do, and some don’t. Sex work is the same. Sex work should be treated (in my opinion), like any other job, unless there is something nefarious and nonconsensual going on.
That being said, according to an older survey (2015, so keep that in mind) led by the University of Leeds, 91% of sex workers surveyed said they considered their jobs “flexible”, 66% said they considered their jobs to be “fun” and over half of the 240 sex workers interviewed said they enjoyed what they do and found their jobs to be rewarding.
It was really only a matter of time before we got an “OnlyFans” related question up in here. OnlyFans has revolutionized the online sex worker industry. Mainstreamed it (somewhat), and made it more accessible for everyone, both workers and people interested in buying sexy content.
OnlyFans was created as a platform that allows content creators to earn an income for creating content for their fans. It became so closely associated with sex work because it allows explicit content (such as nudity), where other platforms do not. As of August 2020, OnlyFans has more than 700,000 content creators. Not all of them are in the NSFW spaces, but a lot of them are.
Posting NSFW content online in exchange for tips or payments of some kind is entirely legal (as long as you are declaring the money you’re making in your taxes, as with any other service you’d sell online). However, some laws (in some places) make it risky to do this. Why is it risky if it’s legal?
In 2018, the extremely controversial FOSTA-SESTA bill became law. This was originally meant to police online prostitution rings, but it’s actually made it so much harder to get into consensual sex work both on and offline. After the bill became law, sites like Reddit, Tumblr, and Craigslist (which were originally safe havens where sex workers could meet and vet potential clients before arranging sales or in-person meetings) banned the parts of the platform that allowed that. Why? According to FOSTA-SESTA, each and every website is legally responsible for the “arrangements” made on that site. As a website, they just couldn’t be legally responsible for an infinite amount of meetings and goings-on between sex workers and their clients.
OnlyFans falls into a bit of a legal gray area here, as at its core, OnlyFans is used for content creation purchasing, regardless of the nature of that content. This is a bit of a loophole in the laws that have made sex work illegal in some places.
This, to me, is a very good question. Why is it legal for consenting adults to have sex, but as soon as that service is paid for, it’s illegal in some places? Isn’t that a bit like making massages illegal? In some places, prostitution is outlawed and when you’re charged with prostitution, it’s a form of “disorderly conduct” for which you can be arrested and prosecuted.
Why prostitution is a crime in some places and not in others will remain a mystery as long as there are still places in the world outlawing such things.
Again, this is just such a vague question. Sex workers receive money in exchange for consensual sexual services. What that amount is depends on what the client wants and what the individual sex worker charges. It’s something similar to commissioning an art piece or paying for lawn maintenance. You discuss your wants with the contractor (in this case, the sex worker) and they give you a quote based on their individual rates.
Sex work isn’t just sex - it can include stripping, erotic massages, digital services (phone sex, sexual content), escorting services, and more. The rates for all of these services can be broken down into different ways - rates per hour, per service, tips, and more all contribute to “how much a sex worker earns” by doing their job.
According to PayScale, the “average stripper” makes just over $40,000 per year. One escort shared her earnings of nearly $2,500 per month (working only part-time hours) with this online magazine. And according to Yahoo Finance, a porn star can make as little as $300 per sex scene or as much as $2,000 per sex scene. Then, you get into sponsorships, events, escort services taking cuts, paying taxes...it’s nearly impossible to determine the “average income” of a sex worker because sex work is such a vast field.
I think that really depends on who you ask. There are tons of pros and cons as to why sex work can be both good and bad.
Sex work can be something someone is forced into, and it can (and has been) known to draw in criminal types who want to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations (such as soliciting sex for money), as sex is a relatively vulnerable thing we do. However, sex work can also be incredibly empowering and a way for people to feel strong and confident, and desired while earning an income on their own terms.
Whether sex work is good or bad really is a question that has to be answered on a case-to-case basis. Obviously, there are some people who are being forced to work as sex workers who would rather not, and the illegal sex trade is a very large problem. However, pointing to that and saying “sex work is bad” really undercuts people who choose to work in the industry and do so happily of their own will.
There are generally two sides to this debate: “sex work is only made dangerous by the unregulated status and the fact that sex workers can rarely turn to authorities for help” and “most prostitutes themselves are victims and human trafficking, slavery, and violence against prostitutes is a huge problem.”
I would say both sides have valid points, honestly. I don’t think sex work is solely dangerous because of the lack of support sex workers get, but it’s not helpful. And on the flip side, human trafficking is a giant problem - one that many wish to ignore.
However, pointing to the bad cases in a scenario and claiming that all who engage in sex work activities are going to end up like that is misguided and unfair. There are definitely dangers to sex work. According to recent statistics, the death rate for prostitutes in the United States is 204 out of every 100,000. However, this can be for a lot of reasons, including living conditions and health problems. And to put that number in perspective, the death rate for fishermen in the United States is 129 out of every 100,000.
Yes, sex work can be dangerous. However, many sex workers take every precaution they can, and this is exactly why many of them (and sex-worker advocates) are calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Decriminalizing it would make it easier for sex workers to protect themselves and make it so they can rely on the law to help protect them.
“Something you don’t want to be” is my answer - but let’s go with the more unbiased definition for now: SWERF is an acronym standing for “Sex-Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist.”
Someone who is a SWERF will support “mainstream” feminism and oppose the idea that women can be anything (including sex workers). The idea here is that many people still believe sex work is morally wrong, dehumanizing (even if it’s your chosen career and you’re happy doing it), and not something women should do.
Most people who identify as SWERFs will believe that sex work is anti-feminist. They could also believe that sex workers (particularly those in the prostitution and porn industries) are actually just victims of regular sexual objectification, which is, of course, something feminists stand against.
The issue with this train of thought is that being a feminist is simply standing for the idea that you (regardless of your gender) can do what you want, same as anyone else, as long as it’s consensual and not hurting anyone. Not all people in the porn and sex industries are subjected to negative objectification behavior - in fact, some women feel incredibly empowered and fulfilled by choosing a career that promotes sexuality and sex positivity.
This is a good question to end on. If you wanted to, here’s a myriad of ways you can support sex workers…
If you enjoyed this article, please check out some of the other articles on Sofia Gray:
Sex Worker Stigmas, Misconceptions & The Truth
What Are the Best Toys to Use If Penetration is Painful?
Google’s Most Commonly Searched Anal Sex Questions
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