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 1978
in an excerpt below and in her book, Unrepentant
Whore: Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot
Inventing Sex Work
Originally published in Whores and Other Feminists, Routledge,
Unreptentant Whore: Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot, Last
In 1978 I attended a conference in San Francisco organized
by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. This
conference was part of a weekend of activism featuring Andrea
Dworkin and an anti-porn march through North Beach, San
Francisco's "adult entertainment district," during
which the marchers embarrassed and harassed the strippers
and other sex industry workers in the neighborhood.
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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