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Social Issue: Sex Work

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: General Studies
Wordcount: 4136 words Published: 17th May 2017

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Sex work is a complex social issue that has historical and current underpinnings. It is perceived and performed differently with regards to different periods that construct it. Various perspectives that pertain to violence used, social perceptions, different ways sex is understood while different factors that shape it are examined. Current and future literature and research consider the way sex work is socially constructed and used as commodity. It is such perceptions that shape the way prostitution is performed and the way it influences society. Through methods employed involving research on literature pertaining to sex work further research has been conducted that unveils pertinent factors that shape sex work and its industry.

Perceptions on sex as work in literature

Literature on sex work pertains mostly to the nature and consequences that is stimulated by political agenda. It has been influenced to a high degree by feminist perceptions that view sex work as a form of male domination. It is not only exhibition of violence but violence itself. There is no forced or voluntary prostitution that is always coerced in certain way even if there is lack of awareness. The motivation behind prostitution has been explained as the expression of hatred towards female body although empirical studies fail to confirm this. Various publications view prostitution as oppression, violence, impinging human rights (Weitzer p. 212, 2005).

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Even though violence towards women is found to be less likely committed by customers feminist writing rejects terms that describe sex work as prostitution as politically motivated to enforce lack of choice that is exerted. Rather than prostitutes workers should be called survivors. Some women claim certain economic control they can exert through sex work. The oppressive values of society are part of cultural and legal production as part of marginalization and degradation that leads to its oppressive characteristics (Weitzer, p. 213, 2005).

According Weitzer, it is the way prostitution is viewed in legal terms as not entirely legitimate that allows for marginalization and social discrimination. With reduced police protection, oppressive values can be maintained and culturally approved (Weitzer, p. 214, 2005).

Research is needed in terms of dynamics of recruitment, socialization, surveillance, exploitation, coercion, and trafficking. Such research would shed light on power relations, types of workers who experience more domination than those who experience less domination (Weitzer, 2005).

Perspectives on coercion

Violent behaviour is exhibited physically, sexually, through intimidation, psychologically, intensly, infrequently, impulsively, sustainability, planning, rituals, verbally, cognitively, emotionally, linguistically, visually and through representation. Its purpose is to control the victim cognitively, verbally, and their interaction. The consequences can be life long. Its effects are apparent in anger, world-views, future endeavours, self-worth, the ability to deal with success and failure, to grow and develop growth. Violence may have effects that last throughout the entire life while they can also be reproduced when dealing with others.

Most frequent perpetrators of violent behaviour are men but women may also exhibit violence under pressure. Males develop attitudes toward violence to exhibit their masculinity in sport, society, and military. Also Western organizations remain predominantly managed by men. Violence can also involve the denial of promise, cancellation of a project, theft, or destruction of something of value (Brewis & Linstead p. 22, 2000). Organizational pressure that enforces certain behaviour organized around certain organizing principle so that sentiment, passion, and unpredictability are banished (Brewis & Linstead p. 23, 2000). According to Marx and Weber organizations are constructed in such a way as to impose domination, where violence is adopted through authority and command.

Sex work definition

Prostitution unveils human desire while it can also be part of exploitation of victims. Some views propose feminist views opposing prostitution while others emphasize the importance to improve conditions that influence prostitution including patriarchal masculinity. Moral ethical positions incorporate views that stem from sex education and AIDS prevention programs. Some views reflect complexity of sex work, where those engaged in it may be ethical and moral while breaking social norms. Prostitutes as a diverse group are perceived differently in modernity and differently in post-modernity, where uncertainty, changing culture, lack of predictability leads to the fragmentation of desire as part of counter force to capitalist coercion towards uniformity and control (Brewis & Linstead p. 190, 2000).

To understand sex work relates to the way sexuality is understood along with masculinity and femininity. According to Foucalt, the Ancient Greeks regarded healthy existence as dependent on the way humans engaged in sex. Through self-mastery, such as that of senses mastery of others could be achieved (Brewis & Linstead p. 190, 2000).

Sexuality only became important around the eighteenth century. For the Ancients it was the diet that was the main focus of maintaining healthy human existence. The Western culture transformed the way we viewed our bodies, individuality and history. Sexuality changed through different conceptualization and forms in different periods and cultures (Brewis & Linstead p. 191, 2000).

The male sexual drive has been considered to have been formed through the perception of the male sexual drive as need and drive as part of biology, patriarchal expression of family, where male fidelity is not that important, and where sex is viewed in a permissive way that can incorporate two men and two women (Brewis & Linstead p. 191, 2000). Since the late eighteenth century visiting prostitutes was permitted as part of male behaviour. Finding desire and love in different than married relationships was pathological according to Freud who thought that married men engaged in sex with prostitutes as it allowed them to respect their wives better as perverse tendencies were expressed in other contacts (Brewis & Linstead p. 192, 2000). Women engaging in prostitution were seen as fallen while also being demonized. Post-modern view of sexuality encompasses the meaning of transaction rather than romance in sexuality while permissive space is established. It is also more than the exercise of power, where both parties play equal role. Prostitution reflects transactional nature as part of social consumption, where emotional and moral constraints are rejected. In this way prostitution is part of commodification of relations (Brewis & Linstead p. 195, 2000).

Current research

There are various considerations involving sex work, such as criminal, moral, and legal aspects, including health risks. Other aspects also involve diversity, social determinants, stigma, and social exclusion on life chances. Critical issues that also concern government interest moves from social inclusion and harm reduction aspects. There is need to reduce harm, such as violence against those working in sex industry. The research deals with them more as one dimensional rather than people with lives of various dimensions. There are different regions, different sectors, and different sellers and buyers and various aspects of sex as work or exploitation (Benoit & Shaver, 2006).

Prostitutes that work on streets have been found to suffer greater exposure than those that work in massage parlours due to drug use. They suffer greater health problems, vein thrombosis, chest infections, hepatitis B and C, anxiety, and depression. Sex workers in sex parlours suffered only half as much as those that worked on streets and had different health needs (Anonymous, 2007).

Media has been found to contribute to the construction, reproduction, and social stigmas associated with sex industry. Historical and spatial variability along with examination of roots is important in understanding the way stigmas are socially constructed. Stigmas reproduced in media narratives, where it concentrates on the way individuality is lost (Benoit & Shaver, 2006).

The complexity of issues involving sex work pertains to the diversity of people that are part of the industry, where different ways of participation and diverse relationships are formed. Various perspectives incorporate prostitution and its exploitative aspect in terms of work, slavery, and freedom. Previous research may have included certain flaws in the way it was conducted through standardization. Social-legal environments may encourage sex work access to resources (Benoit & Shaver, 2006).

A research in Netherlands showed the level of burnout reached three dimensions involving emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal competence. The reasons given included lack of choice, negative social interactions including violence, and lack of control in interaction with clients. Depersonalization was used to handle interactions with clients and was part of handling negative experiences. High level of emotional stress led to depression, anxiety, and hostility. Depersonalisation is common among sex workers who have to act in a way that is false, transforming feelings, and using personality as an instrument. Indifference and distancing help with handling difficult situations. Depersonalisation is used as part of emotion work (Vanwesenbeeck, 2004).

Literature on sex work indicates that victimization and negative social interactions are part of stigma that involves burnout factors. Role-conflict, lack of social support, excess workload, lack of control, insufficient rewards as part of the burnout literature are most important. Literature also claims that there are higher levels of burnout in addition to age factors, duration of sex work, use of drugs, as well as the site of work, nature of interaction and the type of clientele influence also the levels of burnout. Sex workers that engage in window work deal with less affluent clientele but face more risks. Other symptoms involved lack of appetite, sleeplessness, tiredness, palpitations, dizziness, and headaches (Vanwesenbeeck, 2004).

In the last year frequent bullying and pestering were experienced. Motives were negative for half of the studied group, and positive only for a quarter. Female indoor sex workers showed similar level of work-related emotional exhaustion to female health care workers, such as nurses. There were higher scores on depersonalization or cynicism than that of nurses and similar to those of patients. They showed a clinical level of cynicism, and the younger women suffered higher depersonalization and less personal competence. The main factors were lack of job autonomy, social support, role conflict, and negative social reactions (Vanwesenbeeck, 2004).

Men who purchased sexual services displayed certain sex-buying behaviour. A significantly low proportion of buyers were responsible for violence towards sex workers. They rarely robbed, raped, and murdered sex workers although the research may have also been empirically inadequate (Benoit & Shaver, 2006).

Strip clubs induced income generating activities through a certain type of atmosphere created. The most attractive part of the job was claimed to be economic benefits. The evidence also showed that it was careful decision rather than coercion that led them to pursue their career choices. Attempts to organize were mostly unsuccessful while competition led to the deterioration of working conditions. Hence through sex wars in Canada, confusion led to distorted judgments although certain concerns were identified (Benoit & Shaver, 2006).

Coercion in sex industry

Prostitution as part of psychological repression is difficult to ascertain as it can stem from ideology or individual features. Desire and need for certain type of experience can stimulate the demand for such an experience (Brewis & Linstead p. 196, 2000). Even though prostitution reflects certain imbalance, it is unlikely to disappear along with the disappearance of such imbalance. Freud implicated desire as the desire for the desire of another person rather than the desire of such person only. Such perspective incorporates a symbolic aspect rather than the expression of domination.

According to Lyotard, there are two forms of desire, where its central aspect is wish and when it is based on lack and represents coercion. In a similar way to Freud, Lyotard also perceived desire as the outcome of energy that is part of psychic means leading to the expression of energy flow. Along with Deleuze he conceives of postmodern desire as part of sensation rather than signification (Brewis & Linstead p. 199, 2000).

For Lyotard, through the fragmentation of desire the experience can be intensified along with authorization of existence (Brewis & Linstead, p. 203). As emotions become part of pleasure leading to imaginative hedonism expressed through modern consumption. For Baudrillard, modern consumerist society adopted hedonistic morality based on pleasure in place of previous puritan morality (Brewis & Linstead p. 208, 2000).

Drug use is a way of coping with sex work. Under the influence of drugs, workers can alter their conception of their own self, adopting also a different identity. Hard drugs can also numb the awareness of the act. Through the use of drugs the work itself can be handled better along with better management of safer sex negotiation (Brewis & Linstead p. 212, 2000). Another manner of coping involves psychological barrier.

For a prostitute, work involves selling herself rather than just the product. Selling skills involves also certain right to the person of the worker during employment in a similar way to gaining control of the body when having sex. Prostitution incorporates the person and the body as opposed to profits that result from certain activities executed by employees although prostitutes receive money for the use of their body in a more real way (Brewis & Linstead p. 227, 2000). Some prostitutes experience victimization through the lack of control over their bodies and what is being done to them. They feel anger due to their powerlessness that often can be result of coercion through those who are close to them, such as their boyfriends who are pimps. Threats that drive women on the streets encourage fear, forcing them to follow what they are told (Brewis & Linstead p. 228, 2000).

According to Vanwesenbeeck (2001), the reasons behind engaging in sex work stemmed from early victimization as part of the literature in the 20th century, where a high number of prostitutes were victims of abuse. Childhood abuse and prostitution were part of coping behaviour as part of stress work while others indicated that stagmatization along with various factors that involve institutionalization, association with pimps, drug abuse, and low employment possibilities led to engaging in prostitution. Childhood sexual abuse and prostitution were also linked through the above factors.

Sexual victimization has been connected with prostitution in the Western world. Physical and sexual abuse, difficult family upbringing, and sexual precocity encouraged engaging in sex work. Lack of family attachment in females led to the association with older and a larger number of partners. Also running away would lead to prostitution. Such backgrounds would facilitate engaging in sex work. Sexual victimization during childhood was a higher determinant behind getting into prostitution than running away that was higher even than drug use.

In non-Western countries it is economic situation that forces engaging in sex work rather than abuse. In some Taiwanese families the sense of obligation forced certain women to engage in prostitution or debt repayments, lifestyle satisfaction, while fraud or force constituted only a small proportion.

There has also been migration as part of prostitution although due to lack of documented research it is difficult to estimate the actual number of those that engage in prostitution in this way (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). Economic necessity along with sex work illegality enables traffickers to exploit the situation although there is insufficient data that can provide insights on patterns and exact numbers. Research concerning victimization data on the part of prostitutes indicates that sex work is traumatizing (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

Motivating factors

Literature pertaining to motives behind seeking sexual activities differ at different time periods. Before 1990, sexual activity was desired because of its variety and freedom to experiment while certain features, such as lack of emotional involvement seemed attractive. There have been less shame, pregnancy fear, more mystery, excitement while also being part of ego-boosting made it attractive. There have also been certain activities involved in such pursuit, such as business trips, army service, wife's pregnancy, or even seeking companionship.

The participation of men in prostitution as clients has been viewed more favourably than that of women who have been perceived in a more degrading way than men retaining some of their identity.

Although a relatively low proportion of men visiting prostitutes has been noted in Netherlands, the UK, and New Zealand, they tended to represent a diverse group. Literature indicates that in Thailand it is the influence of other men that leads them to buying behaviour, along with the desire for certain sexual acts, and the limited nature of contact. Among German men one distinguishing feature was a higher aggressive behaviour tendency, lower reactive behaviour while being dissatisfied with their lives (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

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Zimbabwean men tended to exhibit lower achievement, be more impulsive, seeking pleasure, exhibitionism and defensiveness. In Australia clients were less socially effective and sensation seeking while for Dutch men sexual sensation was most desirable among those seeking transsexual and transvestite sex. In New Zealand, relaxation, reluctance to engage in game playing and obligations were behind engaging in commercial sex (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

Sex work perceptions

Only a small number of American population perceived prostitution as legal. They included mostly Catholics, men, and Whites. Western feminists attach stigma to sex workers while receiving a paradoxical view due to its different attitude as work. Prostitution is considered to represent certain power exerted by men over women. Prostitution in this way can be part of double standards. Male prostitution received less interests as based on power relations to a lesser extent. In Thailand, sex workers are viewed with acceptance (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

When prostitution is voluntary it is treated with particular criticism as forced prostitution encourages certain exonerating. When occurring without force its ill effects can be justified. It is more common that policies that are part of prostitution are more restrictive to the point of infringing on the rights of sex workers (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

In Netherlands prostitution has been legalized and licensed although leading to the exclusion of migrant workers as legal advantages failed to be realized. Its only advantages seem only to be part of institutional arrangements, such as tax office, immigration, and police. In other countries, such as Germany, where prostitution is legal, it results in low insurance protection in terms of social security or health insurance. Legal status thus fails to guarantee that sex workers' rights are protected (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). One of the main factors that inhibits assuring adequate conditions in sex work is their ignorance on the part of the state. As part of structural economic inequalities, improvements in the way sex work is treated are limited. Such improvements as part of social stigma attached are impeded. Through the illegal status and social stigma sex workers are forced to endure the treatment they receive. It is through gender discrimination hence that adequate policies cannot be effected (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001).

While Lyotard views sex work as an inner expression of certain unfulfilled desires that are manipulated by society itself, Vanwesenbeeck perceives is legal status and socially constructed behaviours responsible for the way prostitution is effected.

The lack of acceptance of sex and race that are viewed negatively leads to the lack of acceptance also in the public life. According to Morgan, cited by Sojourner, it is the lack of acceptance of desires and their perception as troublesome that allows for the ability to be controlled. In this way society can impose certain wants and desires, where society accepts certain desires as its own even though they are exerted externally (Sojourner, 1988).

Future research

According to Weitzer, inadequate findings so far result from the concentration of research on street sex workers where different factors are involved as part of such work. Less research has been conducted in relation to indoor prostitution, male and female clients, transgender workers, and managers. Addressing such perspective can lead to a better view on work experience, power relations involved, gender inequality as part of different types of prostitution. It would also provide a more balanced view than the radical feminist view that is one-dimensional (Weitzer, p. 230).

Management of prostitution exercised those who control workers while deriving profit from them. Although pimps most frequently promote prostitution and have almost complete control of their workers their protection is often viewed as inadequate while they themselves engage in rape and assaults. A small minority of sex workers admitted that their pimps offered them protection while engaging most frequently with fighting other pimps and competition. Different practices employed different pimps, in the same way that different establishments treat differently their sex workers (Weitzer, p. 228).

Sex at work poses problems pertaining to sexual harassment or gender discrimination. There can be various manners and means employed that can deal with these issues, such as admitting any affairs taking place at work, where consensual agreements are reached and pertinent rules can be specified (Brewis & Linstead, 2000).


There are various factors responsible for the way sex work influences society. Apart from motivating factors that drive participation, different means of coercion transform the way sex work is conducted. Viewed previously as the expression of prohibited desire, prostitution evolved into commodification of such desires. Socially constructed perceptions of sex work at the same time stimulate its participation. Although the radical feminist view perceives sex work as the expression of male domination, there are also other pertinent issues that are part of complex issues as well as relationship, including power relations involved. Sex coercion as part of human trafficking is another outcome of the social dilemma that involves sex work, constituting a serious although insufficiently documented issue.


ANONYMOUS, 2007. Street sex work takes its toll. New Scientist, vol. 194, iss. 2608

BENOIT, C. & SHAVER, F., M., 2006. Critical issues and new directions in sex work research. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. Vol. 43, iss. 3.

BREWIS, J. & LINSTEAD, S., 2000. Sex, work and sex work: eroticizing organization. London: Routledge.

SOJOURNER, S., 1988. Sex work: prostitution. Off Our Backs, vol., 18, iss. 5.

VANWESENBEECK, I., 2001. Another decade of social scientific work on sex work: a review of research 1990-2000. Annual Review of Sex Research, vol., 12 p. 242.

VANVESENBEECK, I., 2004. Burnout among female indoor sex workers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 34, no 6.

WEITZER, R., 2005. New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law & Social Change, vol. 43, p. 211-235

Available through Springer database.


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