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Sex Work: What It Is and Isn't


What It is and What It Isn’t

The CSPH believes people have the right to control their own bodies and as such, advocates for the decriminalization of sex-work in order to ensure safety for sex workers.

Sex work is term to explain providing an erotic labor in exchange for an agreed upon exchange of money, goods or services. Examples of sex work could involve prostitution, phone sex dispatching, professional submissive/dominatrix services and/or working in the pornography industry. One does not necessarily engage in touching another person to be involved in sex work. For instance, someone could be a sex worker if they are the lighting director on a porn set. The person is not engaged in any direct physical contact with another person, but they are making money off of their service in the sex field. Not every in this field uses the same terminology, though, so individuals involved in any sex-related industry may use other words to describe their participation as well as their identities.

It has been implied many times that people who are sex workers are all victims of sexual trafficking. These are two separate, though related issues. A number of sex workers are in their job freely, consensually, and sometimes even happily. Trafficking, on the other hand, specifically sex trafficking (as The CSPH focuses on sexual issues), is a non-consensual activity, and is illegal. Also known as “sexual slavery,” it involves people being sexually exploited through the use of force, coercion, deceit, or other similar means for another’s commercial gain. While some might still call this “sex work” because there’s usually a sexual service or encounter being monetized, we prefer to separate them. We feel that discussing these things with the same term conflates the issues and actually does a disservice to those who are being exploited as well as those who are consensually engaging in this kind of work.

Understanding the difference between sex trafficking and sex work is important to combat trafficking and ensuring that individuals are safe in the jobs they perform. Decriminalizing sex work ensures that sex workers are more likely to disclose their employment to medical providers (ensuring better health care) and to report abuse (being assaulted or robbed) to the proper authorities.

At the same time, not all sex work is created equal. While there are people who engage in sex work happily and because it is a fully informed choice (Turn Off the Blue Light did a wonderful poster campaign about this), others do so primarily for survival. The term “survival sex work” refer to people who engage in this work due to outside factors/circumstances. According to Shift Calgary in their blogpost about this term, “survival sex workers are not engaging in sex work of their own volition but out of environmental factors & need that could be related to poverty, addictions or mental health concerns as example. There is a sense of vulnerability related to survival sex work because those involved may have an increase chance that they will take risks to obtain and maintain clients.”

They make the important distinction, though, that survival sex work and sexual exploitation (or trafficking) are not the same thing. “A person may experience sexual exploitation if [they are] being forced into sex work without their consent and do not have control or choice over their work, earnings, services provided etc.” If there is that consent and control/choice, then it’s not sex trafficking/exploitation. We recommend taking a look at their page and their breakdown on the terminology, as it’s informative and

It is important to note that consensual sex work involves a person being able to legally give consent to engage in this field. Those that are under the influence of drugs, coercion, under legal age or duress cannot consent to performing sex work in a safer, fully present manner.

Sexual freedom involves understanding, choice, safety and control of one’s body.


Shift Calgary

Shift provides support services to adults currently and formerly working in the sex industry to improve their quality of life and achieve individualized goals. Their approach is based on a harm reduction and human rights framework. They recognize that sex work can be a choice for many, but that not everyone has an active choice in sex work, and so their services “will meet you where you are at – whether you want to stay in the industry, get out of the industry or anything in-between.”

Turn Off the Blue Light

TOBL is a sex worker led association campaigning against calls to criminalize the purchase of sex, and for the health, safety, human, civil and labour rights of sex workers in Ireland. They are in active opposition to the “Turn Off the Red Light” (TORL) campaign being run by an alliance of other organizations, which seeks to end prostitution and sex trafficking through the criminalization of those who purchase sex. TOBL believes that the real agenda of TORL is “to have their own ideology on sex work enacted as law. Further criminalisation would drive the sex industry deeper underground and make it more dangerous for everyone. Our priority is the well being of persons in sex work, not any moral agenda, thus we strongly oppose the TORL campaign.” TOBL is behind the popular poster campaign about sex workers choosing the job that best suits their needs.

Desiree Alliance

The Desiree Alliance is a diverse, volunteer-based, sex worker-led network of organizations, communities and individuals across the US working in harm reduction, direct services, political advocacy and health services for sex workers. They provide leadership and create space for sex workers and supporters to come together to advocate for human, labor and civil rights for all workers in the sex industry.

Global Network of Sex Work Projects

NSWP is a legally constituted international organization for promoting sex workers’ health and human rights. With member organizations in more than 40 countries, the Network develops partnerships with technical support agencies to work on independently-financed projects. The standard paradigms through which sex work is currently viewed – AIDS, trafficking, and violence against women – fail to fully address the human rights of sex workers. It is therefore crucial that sex workers represent their own realities and fully participate in dialogues and decision making about issues that affect them. Achieving these requires sex workers to organize at local, national, regional and international levels.

The Sex Worker’s Project

Using human rights and harm reduction approaches, the Sex Workers Project (SWP) protects and promotes the rights of individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance, or coercion. In addition to providing direct legal and social services to over a hundred individual clients a year in immigration, criminal legal, civil, and police misconduct matters, they offer “know your rights” trainings for sex workers and people who have been trafficked, and conduct training and outreach to service providers and community organizations who may come into contact with trafficked persons or sex workers.

Sex Workers Outreach Project

Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy. SWOP, at its most basic, is an anti-violence campaign. As a multi-state network of sex workers and advocates, they address locally and nationally the violence that sex workers experience because of their criminal status.

Prostitutes’ Education Network

The Prostitutes’ Education Network is an information service about legislative and cultural issues as they affect prostitutes and other sex workers. The service is comprised of information for sex workers and activists/educators who study issues of decriminalization, human rights in the context of prostitution, violence against prostitutes and women, sex workers and pornography, as well as current trends in legislation and social policy in the U.S. and internationally.

Prostitutes of New York (PONY)

PONY (Prostitutes of New York) was formed in 1976 by Jean Powell. They are a support group for all sex workers, whether current, former or transitioning. Their members come from every part of the industry. They have worked in the streets, clubs, agencies, bordellos, bedrooms, peep shows, BDSM parlors and other sex markets of New York. They provide support and advocacy for sex workers, providing legal and health referrals, as well as a point of contact for the sex work community.

The Best Practices Policy Project

The Best Practices Policy Project is an organization dedicated to creating excellence amongst organizations and advocates working with sex workers, people in the sex trade, vulnerable and related communities in the United States. We produce materials for policy environments, address research and academic concerns and provide NGOs with technical assistance. Everything that they do is guided by principles that protect the rights of people who engage in commercial sex in all its forms.



Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, provides information for sex workers and others about diverse sex industries. BAYSWAN links individuals to resources provided by sex workers’ and other rights based organizations. BAYSWAN organizes to improve working conditions, increase safety and services for workers, and to eliminate discrimination on behalf of individuals working within both legal and criminalized adult entertainment industries.


St. James Infirmary

St. James Infirmary offers free, confidential, non-judgmental medical and social services for sex workers (current or former) of all genders and sexual orientations. They are the first occupational safety and health clinic for sex workers run by and for sex workers!

The Red Umbrella Project

The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) amplifies the voices of people who have done transactional sex, through media, storytelling, and advocacy trainings, at monthly storytelling series in New York City, and with support for advocacy projects and campaigns that promote the human rights of people who trade sex for something they need.


Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive was founded in 1993 by a coalition of service providers, advocates, and law enforcement officials as an outreach and referral service. HIPS’ mission is to assist female, male, and transgender individuals engaging in sex work in Washington, DC in leading healthy lives.
Utilizing a harm reduction model, HIPS’ programs strive to address the impact that HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, discrimination, poverty, violence and drug use have on the lives of individuals engaging in sex work. HIPS is a nationally recognized program that meets the needs sex workers and assists them in their efforts to eliminate the transmission of HIV, increase sexual health, and reduce violence and harm associated with sex work and drug use. HIPS programs serve an estimated 2,000 sex workers a year on the streets and at a drop-in center, providing a full spectrum of programs to address basic & immediate needs, long-term goal setting and life skills development.

The PROS Network

The PROS Network (Providers and Resources Offering Services to sex workers) is a coalition of sex workers, organizers, direct service providers, advocates, and media makers. They exist to collaborate on programs and campaigns around sex work-related issues in the New York metropolitan area. They work with people of all genders who, by choice, circumstance, or coercion, engage in sexual activities for money, food, shelter, clothing, drugs, or other survival needs. Grounded in principles of social justice and human rights, the PROS Network embraces a non-judgmental, harm reduction approach.

Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You

SWAAY’s tagline “Advocating for understanding, respect, and change by connecting the public with the people and facts behind sex work” illustrates their three-pronged approach. They aim to draw in people who are new to sex workers’ rights issues and help them understand what sex workers do and who we are, give them information about how to be respectful allies and ethical customers, and motivate them to support sex workers in changing the bad laws and social stigmas that affect sex workers’ lives.


FIRST is a Canada-based coalition of feminists who have come together to support the rights of sex industry workers and advocate for the decriminalization of adult sex work. They are guided by the fundamental principle that sex industry workers should have equal benefit of the human rights protections that are available to all members of Canadian society.

Paulo Longo Research Initiative

The Paulo Longo Research Initiative is a collaboration of researchers, policy analysts and sex workers working within the sex workers rights movement to improve the human rights, health and well-being of women, men and transgender individuals who sell sex. Led by sex workers, and named after sex worker activist Paulo Henrique Longo, PLRI is committed to developing, consolidating and disseminating useful, ethical information about sex work.

The International Prostitutes Collective

Since 1975, the International Prostitutes Collective has been campaigning for the abolition of the prostitution laws which criminalize sex workers and their families, and for economic alternatives and higher benefits and wages. They provide information, help and support to individual prostitute women and others who are concerned with sex workers’ human, civil, legal and economic rights. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS) are part of the International Prostitutes Collective.

Project SAFE

Project SAFE’s mission is to promote human rights-based public health among women working in prostitution on the street of Philadelphia. SAFE is an organization dedicated to ensuring the health, safety and survival of women on the street by providing advocacy, education and support using the harm reduction model. They aim to reduce the spread of STDs and STIs among working women and promote health and safety by arming them with relevant resources and connecting them to programs and services that are appropriate to their needs and interests.


Persist Health

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 1.29.29 PMPersist Health is a peer-led health organization based in Brooklyn by and for sex workers, trafficking survivors, and anyone who has traded sex for money, food, drugs, or other resources. They provide health referrals, health education, and peer support. They believe that taking control of our health and wellness together, it is an act of empowerment and a tool for positive change.


Books & Magazines

$pread Magazine

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$pread was a quarterly magazine by and for sex workers and those who support their rights. The magazine had a focus on personal experiences and political insights, and contains practical information like news, features, health columns, and resources related to the sex industry. $pread built community in the sex trade by featuring the honest and diverse perspectives of those who know it best: the women and men, including transgender persons, who work within this sensationalized, highly stereotyped industry. Unfortunately $pread went out of print in 2010 but we have issues of it at the CSPH!


Live Nude Girls Unite!

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This first person documentary follows Julia Query, lesbian/stand-up comedian/peepshow-stripper, and daughter of a feminist activist, on her raucous journey to help organize the only union of strippers in the United States. Shot on a variety of formats, Live Nude Girls Unite! weaves backstage and dancing footage with labor organizing, street protests, stand-up comedy and comic-book style “animation” making an intelligent and dramatic cutting-edge film.



Scarlet Road

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Scarlet Road follows the extraordinary work of Australian sex worker, Rachel Wotton. Impassioned about freedom of sexual expression and the rights of sex workers, she specializes in a long overlooked clientele – people with disability.



Online Resources


Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 12.54.52 PMGrassroots non-profit program by, for, and about men in the sex industry. Very informative website with resources on everything from how to get started in the industry to tips on dancing to disclosing to family. They also have created a handbook detailing the basics of the business. This is one of the only resources dedicated specifically to men in the industry.


Global Resources

The International Committee on the Sex Workers Rights in Europe

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 12.59.40 PMICRSEstrives to raise awareness about the social exclusion of female, male and transgender sex workers in Europe, to promote the human and civil rights of all sex workers at national, regional and global levels and to create strong alliances between sex workers, allies and other civil society organisations. The ICRSE maintains strong links with existing sub-regional, regional and global networks, supports the further development of nascent groups and networks of sex workers and provides a platform for the voices of sex workers in Europe to be heard in local, regional and global policy debates.


International Union of Sex Workers

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Based in the UK, the International Union of Sex Workers brings together people from all sectors – people who sell sexual contact or BDSM services, people who work for or run agencies, websites or brothels, strippers, erotic dancers and glamour models, porn actors and film makers, phone sex workers and web cam models; men, women and transgender people; straight, gay and bisexual. They believe that everyone in the industry, whether they are there through choice, circumstance or coercion, deserves the same human, civil and labour rights as other citizens.


Scarlet Alliance

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Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association, through their objectives, policies and programs, aims to achieve equality, social, legal, political, cultural and economic justice for past and present workers in the sex industry, in order for sex workers to be self-determining agents, building their own alliances and choosing where and how they work. Scarlet Alliance works towards sex worker rights (legal, health, industrial, civil) and uses health promotion approaches to achieve this. The tools Scarlet Alliance recognises as best practices include peer education, community development, community engagement, advocacy etc.


Sex Worker Open University

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UK-based Sex Worker Open University is a project created by and for sex workers. Whether you are  working as an escort, rent boy, porn actress/actor, professional dominatrix or submissive, cam model, erotic masseuse, sexual healer or street worker; this is a place to socialize, learn new skills, and create events together. Their aim is to empower our community through workshops, debates, actions and art projects as well as fighting against our criminalisation.

Turn off the Blue Light

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Turn off the Blue Light is an association of Irish sex workers and others with an interest in the welfare of sex workers in Ireland. They are led by sex workers. Membership of Turn Off the Blue Light is open to all individuals and organisations who support their objectives. They are campaigning against calls to criminalise the purchase of sex, and for the health, safety, human, civil and labour rights of sex workers.