The Etymology of the terms "Sex Work" and "Sex Worker"

The term sex work was conceived in it's modern usage by Carol Leigh as a reference to prostitutes and other workers in the sex industry with the political implication of a labor or workers perspective (as documented below in the Oxford English Dictionary). Although the term was not in common usage prior to the 80s, in the early 70s "sex work" was used in some academic contexts to refer to the work of sex researchers such as Masters and Johnson as noted below. One reference from 1971 in the New York Times (cited below) includes "sex workers" as a type of worker, although this was apparently a unique usage.

As indicated below, the earliest documented use (printed in mainstream media) of the term "sex worker" as it is currently used was found in an article from the Associated Press Newswire (cited below) from 1984 about the use of this term in Leigh's theatrical production. Leigh documents the inception of the use of this word in it's current form in an excerpt below and in her book, Unrepentant Whore: Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot

From Inventing Sex Work
From Whores and Other Feminists, Routledge, 1997 and in Sex Work, published by Cleis Press, 1987.

I attended a conference in San Francisco organized by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media in the late 70s or early 80s. I had intended to be a sort of ambassador to this group, educating feminists about prostitution. I planned to identify myself as a prostitute, which was almost unheard of at that time in a public and political context.

I found the room for the conference workshop on prostitution. As I entered I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase "Sex Use Industry." The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction?

At the beginning of the workshop I suggested that the title of the workshop should be changed to the "Sex Work Industry," because that described what women did. Generally, the men used the services, and the women provided them. As I recall, no one raised objections. I went on to explain how crucial it was to create a discourse about the sex trades that could be inclusive of women working in the trades. I explained that prostitutes are often unable to reveal themselves in feminist contexts because they feel judged by other feminists. The workshop participants were silent and curious. One woman, another writer and performer, came up to me after the workshop to tell me that she had been a prostitute as a teenager but was unable to discuss it for fear of being condemned.

The term "sex worker" resonated for me. Today, "sex work" and "sex worker" is used widely and internationally, throughout the media, by academics, health service providers, activists and more. I first used the term in my onewoman play, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, also titled The Demystification of The Sex Work Industry. "Sex workers unite!" shouts Scarlot as the play begins.


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