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Sex Work and Prostitution: Female  
 
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Throughout recorded history, and across much of the world, sex workers and women have shared a shadowy, illicit position on the fringes of society. Prostitution, often called "the oldest profession," has long been the last resort of desperate women and girls, who have usually fallen into sex work because lack of money, opportunity, and status left them few other choices.

In the nineteenth century, however, prostitution--like lesbianism--began to be seen through the lenses of the medical profession, and many sexologists labeled both prostitutes and lesbians as sexual deviants, thus linking the two as pathological identities.

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Social and Economic Factors

Lesbians and other queer women, rejected and stigmatized by society, have often found themselves with limited options for supporting themselves. With little to lose, many have chosen or been forced by circumstance to make their living providing sexual services to men. These services vary from stripping and exotic dancing to phone sex and peep shows to manual or oral sexual contact to intercourse.

When discussing sex work, it is important to distinguish between compulsion and choice and to acknowledge that there are many ways in which a woman or girl may be forced into prostitution. Sex trafficking rings operate all over the world, forcing women and children into lives of sexual slavery from which escape is difficult or impossible.

Even where actual slavery does not exist, poverty and hopelessness can force women into prostitution just as inexorably as the most organized trafficker. Women in these situations exercise little choice about their work. They often have little or no protection from mistreatment and frequently earn subsistence wages.

By contrast, in wealthy, liberal societies, sex work often pays very well, and some women choose to work at some form of prostitution, drawn primarily by the high wages, but also, in some cases, by a renegade ideology of sexual liberation. Some of these women identify themselves as sexologists and attempt to provide sexual education as well as stimulation to their clients. Many sex workers point out that heterosexual women regularly trade sex for favors or money in informal ways. For some women, sex work becomes an opportunity to control the marketing of their sexuality.

Prostitutes' Rights Movement

The liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s inspired some prostitutes to band together to demand rights and respect. During the early 1970s, a former prostitute named Margo St. James helped found Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), a network of sex workers and their supporters.

COYOTE, and other organizations like it that have sprung up around the world, continues to link prostitutes with health care, legal aid, and other resources, while working to change laws and police policies that target sex workers and victimize them.

The very term "sex work" emerged from this early prostitutes' rights movement. An activist named Carol Leigh, also known as the Scarlet Harlot, coined the term at a 1970s conference about the sex industry. A prostitute herself, Leigh wanted to replace degrading, patronizing, or euphemistic terminology about her profession with a phrase that recognized that prostitution, like many other jobs, was simply labor for hire.

Queer Women as Sex Workers

The intersection of queer women and sex workers, who mostly cater to heterosexual men, though paradoxical on the surface, has had some practical advantages. Lesbians, whose sexuality does not depend upon men, are often better able to separate their private sexual lives from their work in the sex industry, protecting them from some of the psychological damage that straight prostitutes experience.

However, lesbian sex workers do have their own unique challenges. While some are able to band together informally at work for support and safety, many lesbians remain closeted lest their sexual orientation alienate potential customers. Lesbian sex workers who wish to live in a lesbian community have often found themselves judged and criticized by other lesbians for their participation in the sex industry.

Debates within the Lesbian and Feminist Communities

While some feminists view prostitution and the sex industry as unequivocally oppressive to women, others have sought ways to oppose the objectification and victimization of women while supporting sex workers' right to safety, respect, and fair pay. Within the queer women's community, the debate has often been fierce between those who insist that women would not choose to work in the sex industry if reasonable and profitable alternatives were available to them and those who contend that sex work is not only a viable career choice, but an empowering one.

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