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The Sex Industry

Many women earn all or part of their living as sex workers or in other areas of the sex industry, including pornography, nude dancing, telephone sex, and computer pornography. Contrary to the ugly stereotypes of prostitutes as fallen women, dope addicts, or disease carriers,* sex workers are women at work--supporting children as single parents, trying to save money to go to school, surviving economically in a job market that underpays women at every economic level.

Once politically voiceless and isolated from other women, sex workers have organized over the past 25 years for support and political action.* As adult sex workers speak out, they expose the many forms of violence that they experience:*

  • Poverty that forces women, especially women of color and runaway teenagers, into work as sex workers

  • Sexism in the job market that means that even middle- and upper-class women can earn more in sex work than in most other jobs available



Toward an Understanding of Male Violence Against Women

Race, Class, and Violence Against Women

Blaming the Victim

Sexual Harassment

Domestic Violence

Sexual Assault

Incest and Sexual Abuse of Children

The Sex Industry

Defending Ourselves Against Violence

Ending Violence Against Women



  • Intimidation and beatings by pimps, to whom many sex workers must give their earnings in return for protection
  • Police harassment and lack of police protection when we are victims of crime such as robbery, battery, and rape
  • The arrest and prosecution of prostitutes while clients go free

  • The racism and class bias that lead to the arrest and imprisonment of far more prostitutes of color and women with low incomes than white, middle-class women, even though the majority of sex workers are white and middle-class

As a middle-class white woman, trained as a registered nurse, I could work in a private call business instead of hitting the streets. I was arrested but never did time in prison; the system isn't aimed at putting me in jail. Women of color have less easy access to places like upper-class hotels, where if you're a black woman and alone you're automatically tagged as a hooker. So they're in the streets and in the bars, where they are more visible and more vulnerable to exploitation and arrest--and they're the ones who end up in jail.

Some feminists have been critical of prostitutes for reinforcing sex-role stereotypes by allowing themselves to be sex objects or for participating in the sex industry, which many think contributes to violence against women. Many see sex work as violence in and of itself, especially when children and young girls are involved. (See chapter 26, The Global Politics of Women and Health, for more information.) Others insist that it is a legitimate way for women to earn money from men. As one prostitute said, "It's my body; why shouldn't I be the one to decide how I should use it?" Some sex workers find that the experience is generally positive, and the negative parts arise from the violence and harassment that they may be more at risk for because of their profession. Others enjoy parts of the work and hate other parts. Still others name their experience as violence. Prostitutes point out that they are no different from most women in having to sell their services to men. In the words of an ex-prostitute:

I've worked in straight jobs where I've felt more like I was prostituting my being than in prostitution. I had less control over my life, and the powerlessness wasn't even up front. People didn't see me as selling myself, but with the minimum wage so little and my boss so insulting, I felt like I was selling my soul.

Prostitutes have organized in the U.S. and Europe to demand decriminalization, the abolition of all laws against prostitution. With decriminalization, prostitutes would have more control over their work and the money they earn. Most of all, they would no longer go to jail for providing a service that society itself puts in such high demand and for choosing the highest-paying work available to them.


Copyright 1984, 1992, 1998 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. All rights reserved. Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

To order Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century


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