Prostitution and escorting are what most people think of when "sex work" is discussed, and then, often only street-based workers are considered. Various flavors of escorts and prostitutes exist across all regions, races, genders, and income levels, and while there is no single reality for all of them, there is a common desire to be treated with respect, and to be safe from violence and the current laws that enable violence against sex workers. Maggie McNeill, a retired escort, gives an overview of the issues.

Old cartoon, "The Great Social Evil," depicting a prostitute.

History

Prostitution is called the “world’s oldest profession”, and given that even chimpanzees are known to practice it (by trading sex for food) that’s probably an accurate assessment. Classical cultures from Greece to Japan usually tried to control the trade in one way or another, whether by licenses or restrictions on dress or segregation, but until the end of the 19th century the idea of actually attempting to abolish it entirely was almost unheard of. Individual rulers might ban brothels, harass street workers or even put courtesans on trial, but such measures were merely local and nearly always very short-lived. In places on the North American frontier, prostitutes were often the only women available; then, as now, many chose the lifestyle as a means of securing independence, and some of the freedoms modern women take for granted (such as the right to own property) were first won by prostitutes. In every society for which records of such transactions still exist, free prostitutes of even the lowest social strata enjoyed a comparatively higher income than their non-prostitute peers, and an attractive and talented prostitute might pull in enough to live far above the level of the social class into which they were born. But toward the end of the 19th century, Protestant Christian ideas about the perfectibility of humanity combined with Victorian ideas of scientific progress to give birth to the “Social Purity” movement in England and the United States; followers of this philosophy lobbied legislators to criminalize such “vices” as alcohol, prostitution and even masturbation.

The work and terminology

There are many different words used to describe the people who do this work: prostitute, streetwalker, brothel worker, escort, call girl, rent boy, etc, but all of us (no matter how expensive) earn our bread in exactly the same way: we provide sex and companionship, which for some clients is more important than actual sex. Though most people immediately think of the stereotypical “lady of the evening” standing beside a lamp post, in truth most of us look pretty much like any other people you might know, and it’s entirely possible that there are escorts living in your neighborhood, shopping at the same grocery stores as you do and sending their kids to the same – sometimes even private – schools.


This is the top Google Image search result for "prostitute". Despite the popularity of cliche photos like this in the media, the vast majority of escorts and prostitutes work indoors and out-of-sight. Street-based sex workers may be the most visible, but they are just one small part of the overall picture.

Prostitution and escorting is like any job in that it has its benefits and risks, and it's not right for everyone. Though some people like to pretend that sex is somehow different from all other human activities, in an objective sense, sexual services are no more “immoral” than any other personal services such as getting a manicure. The popular view of prostitution and escorting is that it’s easy money, and that all a person has to do is lie back and collect the money. But in reality, it's a service-based business like any other, and low effort produces low income just as it would in any other field. Any successful businessperson must advertise and spend time, money and effort on maintaining professional facilities and equipment – which in an escort’s case could mean maintaining an apartment or house in which to receive clients (an “incall”), plus time at the gym, tanning salon, beauty parlor and the like. And just as those who sell cars or real estate must spend time doing credit checks on prospective clients, escorts perform their own “credit checks”: screening prospective clients by checking their references or even performing background checks. (This is why some workers prefer to employ managers or escort agencies; they handle advertising, receive phone calls or answer emails, check references and the like, and in return receive a percentage just as a literary or theatrical agent does.) The most important part of this screening is not to protect prostitutes from bad clients but rather from the police, whom many sex workers consider the single greatest threat to our lives, liberties and livelihoods.

Since there are so many different kinds of prostitutes and escorts, it’s difficult to describe what a typical day might be like, since it can vary widely; one of the primary reasons people choose sex work is its flexibility, so there might be as many schedules as there are people. Those who enjoy working late hours might not get up until the afternoon, while those with children need to get them up early for school just like anyone else; many of these even confine their work hours to the time the kids are in school. An agency escort might then call the agency to let the operator know she’s available, while an independent would head for the computer to check emails, update advertising, screen potential clients or interact with other professionals and clients on industry message boards. Most like to intersperse errands between appointments, but some prefer to remain “at work” all day and save the personal chores for later (this would certainly be true for those who work in brothels or massage parlors). Some escorts like to work a set schedule, while many agency escorts prefer to just remain available until it’s time for bed. As in any form of self-employment, the hours can be very long and greater time investment generally brings higher income.

Labor, legal, and other issues

Prohibition (criminalization) is an absolute ban on prostitution; it is based in the religious or political belief that transactional sex is somehow intrinsically harmful to prostitutes, their clients, or both. Legalization is the restriction of prostitution by various laws; it is based in the idea that prostitution is either a “necessary evil” or an unavoidable “social ill” which must be controlled to as great a degree as possible. Decriminalization is the treatment of prostitution like any other kind of work, based in the recognition that it is both natural and irrepressible.

SWAAY, along with almost all sex workers, is in favor of full decriminalization of all forms of sex work involving consenting adults. If adult prostitution were decriminalized providers could report dangerous clients or abusive pimps to the police, and clients could report shady agencies which offered them underage teens. Because of marginalization prostitutes have a long history of supporting each other, and though they have on occasion tried to point police in the direction of criminals (such as the serial killers Gary Ridgeway and Robert Pickton), their information is generally ignored or dismissed by authorities until they become desperate enough to act on any tip at all. No one is in a better position to hear about trafficking, underage workers and other problems than prostitutes, but because they are treated as victims or criminals their words and offers of help go unheeded. If American politicians really wanted to fight sex trafficking they would decriminalize prostitution and thereby instantly gain a million allies against the real bad guys.

One problem with our current laws is that it's not always easy to tell prostitutes and escorts apart from other sex workers (or non-sex workers). Aggressive anti-prostitution enforcement relies on overly-broad definitions of law-breaking, circumstantial evidence (such as the possession of condoms) or even police hunches to sweep up dominatrixes, massage therapists and even provocatively-dressed non-sex workers in the dragnet. Police departments are also known to arrest transgender individuals as suspected prostitutes just for being out in public. Even places where prostitution is legalized have problems resulting from erroneous assumptions; for example, because the abusive pimp stereotype is so common, many countries have laws against prostitutes supporting others with their earnings, thus preventing them from hiring security or secretaries or even working together for safety. As with many ill-conceived efforts directed at stamping out the sex industry, anti-pimp laws generally don't save the truly downtrodden and abused, but criminalize methods employed by sex workers to protect themselves from violence and abuse. Some radical feminists, especially those in power in the Scandinavian countries, believe that it’s not possible to protect sex workers from violence because they define all prostitution as “male violence against women” despite the fact that not all prostitutes are female, not all clients are male and male-male transactions don’t even involve women at all.

Countries like the United States, China and Islamic nations prohibit prostitution; a few countries like Australia and New Zealand have decriminalized it, and most others (including the State of Nevada) have opted for one form of legalization or another. Some legalization frameworks (such as those common in Europe) are fairly liberal and mostly take the form of licensing, compulsory health checks and zoning restrictions; others (such as those in the UK and Canada) are more onerous and may prohibit a prostitute from supporting relatives, hiring employees, advertising or even working indoors. And one increasingly-popular form of legalization, called the “Swedish Model” for its place of origin, allows prostitutes to do whatever they like but places heavy criminal penalties on anyone who tries to hire them.

Common myths and misconceptions

Myth: The average age at which a prostitute enters the trade is 13.
Fact: This myth is derived from a misunderstanding of the 2001 Estes & Weiner study, which actually found that the average age at which underage prostitutes enter the trade is 16.

Myth: Most prostitutes are coerced into the business, do so to pay for drugs or have no other options.
Fact: Most prostitutes choose the work for the same reason as anyone chooses a job: it fits that person’s needs and preferences. Prostitutes don’t use drugs any more or less often than people in other jobs, can be of any educational level, and many have “regular” jobs and merely “moonlight” as sex workers for extra income.

Myth: Prostitution is inherently degrading, and no woman would freely choose to prostitute herself.
Fact: Everyone is different, and different people are comfortable with many different kinds of work and many different kinds of sex. Most sex workers feel that their work actually increases their self-esteem.

Myth: All prostitutes have pimps, and most prostitutes work on the street.
Fact: Pimps are actually quite rare; most prostitutes and escorts work independently, and only a small minority work on the street.

Myth: Only desperate, ugly men hire prostitutes or escorts.
Fact: Men of all kinds and all levels of income and attractiveness hire prostitutes or escorts; the only thing they share is an interest in discretion. Affairs and one-night-stands can lead to troublesome complications, but sex workers have a vested interest in maintaining their own privacy and that of their clients.

Myth: Prostitutes spread disease.
Fact: The great majority of prostitutes and escorts are scrupulous about condom usage and other safer-sex practices because they understand the risk, and sexually transmitted diseases of all kinds are much more common among the sexually active general population than among sex workers.