How is sex related to commerce?

The increased visibility of commercial sex is often cited as a symptom and a cause of the sexualization of society. But commercial sex is not a new phenomenon; the exchange of sex for money was part of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian societies, for example. However, forms of commercial sex are more diverse today than in the past and include a broad range of occupations. Some commercial sexual transactions do not involve sexual acts, and sexual transactions which take place online, for example cam site sex may not involve physical contact of any kind.

Commercial sex involves people who work in the sex industry (prostitutes, escorts), or in pornography (performers, directors, producers) and other kinds of performance (erotic dance, striptease), but a much wider range of workers are also involved in these industries, for example as accountants, designers, drivers, lawyers and so on. Commercial sex takes place in a wide range of sites including bars, restaurants, cabarets, sex shops, and hotels[72]. In addition, if we consider any form of sexual activity or interest that involves commerce to be commercial sex we should include a much wider range of practices, including writing and reading erotica, running and participating in hen and stag parties, and manufacturing and using sex toys and so on.

Some kinds of commercial sex have become more socially visible. For example, glamorous sex boutiques for women and gentlemen’s clubs like Spearmint Rhino are more visible on the high street, while women’s sex toys are regularly discussed in the press. Other things are hidden away, for example street sex work is less visible than before in city centres. Sex work is more likely to take place indoors than outside in public space, and more likely to involve technology.

Commercial sex has long been regarded by some with suspicion, often depicted as immoral and unhealthy, and some feminists argue that sex work is always a form of violence against women, even where no material violence occurs and where sex work is clearly chosen. It has been argued that the presence of commercial sex makes women in general more vulnerable to violence but there is no evidence of this. For example, in twocases where it was claimed that the opening of lapdancing clubs in specific areas led to a rise in rape and assaults the statistics do not bear this out[73].

Sex work has been presented as an occupation where female workers are inevitably exploited by male clients and managers, or as work which promotes a form of sexual objectification that is harmful to women and is legitimized by a growing visibility. However, the understanding of sex work as exploitation has been demonstrated to be overgeneralized. From the perspective of sex workers’ rights, sex work should be recognized as a job not wholly unlike other jobs. This perspective is increasingly being used around the world by sex workers and sex work organizations. They have argued that the diversity of sex workers’ experiences and conditions are often ignored, with the consequence that sex workers are branded and stigmatized as ‘Other’’[74] . Sex workers have developed networks to challenge intolerance, stigma, and discrimination and to challenge legislation and policies that affect them[75].

Research suggests that the majority of sex workers practice safer sex in their commercial sexual encounters76. Factors which increase the possibility of risky practices include the pressure to maximize earnings, problematic drug use, pressure from coercers, the need to pay debts or fines, lack of information about sexual health, physical and sexual assault, and criminalization and law enforcement practices. Indoor sex work is safer than street based sex work[77] .

Is there more sex work than before?

72. Agustin, L. (2007). Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue
Industry. London & New York: Zed Books.
73. Magnanti, B. (2012). The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
74. Pendleton, E. (1997). Love For Sale; Queering Heterosexuality in Nagle, J. (Ed.) Whores and Other Feminists. New York & London: Routledge, 73-82.
75. Crago, A. L. (2008). Our lives matter: sex workers unite for health and rights. Open Society Foundation,; Ditmore, M. H., Levy, A. & Willman, A. (Eds.) (2010). Sex work matters. London: Zed Books; Sanders, T., O’Neill, M. & Pitcher, J. (2009). Prostitution Sex Work, Policy and Politics. London: Sage.
76. Jeal, N. & Salisbury, C. (2007). Health needs and service use of parlour-based prostitutes compared with street-based prostitutes: a cross sectional survey. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 114, 875-881; Sanders, T. (2008). Paying for Pleasure: Men who Buy Sex. Cullompton, Devon: Willan; Ward, H., Day, S., Green, K. & Weber, J. (2004). Declining Prevalence of STIs in the London sex industry 1985-2002. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 80(3), 374-376.
77. Brents, B. & Hausbeck, K. (2005). Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada: Examining Safety, Risk and Prostitution Policy. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(3), 270-295; Kinnell, H. (2008). Violence and Sex Work in Britain. Cullompton: Willan; Sanders, T. & Campbell, R. (2007). Designing Out Violence, Building in Respect: Violence, Safety and Sex Work Policy. British Journal of Sociology, 58(1), 1-18.

Is there more sex work than before?