There’s never been a time in American history — or human history, really — without any form of sex work. The rapid explosion of our digital world has meant that all kinds of forms of sex work have become not only more accessible to consumers but that the barrier to entry to the industry is lower, too. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the lockdown of in-person jobs, hundreds of thousands of people have joined platforms like OnlyFans — and a looming recession may mean that many more make decisions like it. Sex work is inextricable from our cultural and economic reality — but what is it, actually, and what are you supposed to make of it? Here’s what I think you should know.
What does “sex work” mean in our current era?
The term “sex work” can encompass a huge variety of activities — anything that involves exchanging some kind of sexual services or content for money or goods is included under the umbrella of sex work or erotic labor.
This can include but is not limited to stripping; performing for streaming audiences, or camming; erotic conversations with clients on the phone or via text; selling photos or videos on a platform like OnlyFans; performing sexual acts like handjobs or penetration for money, also called full-service sex work, or escorting; performing unconventionally sexual acts like kink scenes or professional domination; spending time with clients socially and sexually in an established long-term dynamic, like a sugar baby — the list goes on. Sex work also includes porn performers of all stripes, from those who have made a full professional career out of it to those who moonlight, create their own amateur work or work behind the camera.
Much of how sex work is now contracted and performed involves the internet — in-person sex workers often find clients and communicate and schedule with them online, and the advent of digital video and payment platforms means that some people have sex work careers based entirely online. Despite all these differences, all of these forms of labor have in common that they’re heavily stigmatized in the US and that all are, in fact, labor: a job that’s performed at will upon the condition of fair compensation, and which doesn’t define the worker as a person outside of working hours.
What’s the difference between sex work and prostitution?
There are a few differences between these terms, both in their meaning and in the cultural connotations of their use. First, while “sex work” encompasses a wide range of labor, as we said above, “prostitution” is usually used to refer to only a narrower range: specifically, escorting or full-service sex work.
The second key difference to remember is that while no group is a monolith, including sex workers, the term “sex worker” is generally preferred by sex workers themselves rather than “prostitute.” For many, the term has negative and stigmatized connotations, and they feel it links them inherently to criminality and immorality rather than the more neutral association with paid labor. This info sheet from Stella, a community organization run by and for sex workers, explains further:
“Some of us call ourselves prostitutes, but recognize its negative connotations when outsiders use it. People use the word prostitute in different contexts: to refer to legislation where the word prostitute is written into law; to refer to sex work that involves intercourse with clients; to refer to street prostitution; to refer to debasing oneself, not necessarily in a sexual context; and to refer to history when the word prostitute was used with pride. how and when we use these terms
will differ depending on our audience. Sex workers’ rejection of the term is often based in how the public perceives prostitutes and prostitution rather than an inherent shame in the word itself.”
Is paying a sex worker immoral, or cheating?
At the end of the day, anyone performing sex work is a skilled and experienced provider of services who offers them in exchange for money or something else of value. Although sex itself is culturally fraught in the US and sex work is heavily stigmatized, the moral impact of engaging the services of a sex worker isn’t meaningfully different than seeing a skilled hairstylist or tattoo artist.
As far as the moral component of seeing a sex worker if you’re in a relationship with someone else, that’s entirely dependent on your relationship. Speaking extremely broadly, for most monogamous relationships, seeing a full-service sex worker would probably be considered cheating, and not unreasonably. There are some forms of sex work that are more normalized in the US, especially in some specific social contexts — for instance, someone who doesn’t like the idea of their partner going to a strip club may feel this is more acceptable on the occasion of a bachelor party.
There is also a huge range of preferences and agreements possible within individual relationships — there are plenty of partners who would have no problem with their partner going to a strip club on an ordinary Tuesday night. It’s considered common enough that many people find it unobjectionable for men to watch porn even if they’re in relationships, but some of those same people might have more of a problem with it if their partner were watching live cam shows. It’s crucial to do the work of communicating openly within your relationship about your boundaries and preferences when it comes to sex work, managing expectations, and being clear about your requirements for a partner.
Is sex work legal?
As a huge variety of activities comprise sex work, there’s also a wide range of legality and legal connotations related to it. Many activities under the sex work umbrella are technically completely legal to sell and to buy, including stripping, camming, phone sex, OnlyFans, and more. Full-service sex work is illegal across the US except in Nevada, where it’s regulated by the state and there are specific contexts in which a licensed worker is able to work.
While this delineation may seem clear-cut, the reality of the legality of sex work is more complex. Full-service sex work is illegal, but it’s still widely practiced; some forms of it, like kink scenes that involve no penetration and in some cases not even nudity, are technically legal (although they may still be subject to criminalization).
At the same time, many forms of sexual labor that are fully legal, like porn performing or camming, are still effectively criminalized. Though there are no laws that prohibit it, policies like the ones that discourage payment processors from working with sexual service providers mean that sex workers experience punitive measures like having their payments frozen.