ArticlePDF Available


Stigma is ubiquitous in sex work and is well documented in studies of sex workers. But rarely have scholars examined the vital question of whether, and if so how, stigma can be reduced or eliminated from any type of sex work (commercial stripping, pornography, prostitution, etc.). After a brief review of the issues related to stigma, this Commentary proposes a set of preconditions for the reduction and, ultimately, elimination of stigma from sex work.
2018, Vol. 21(5–6) 717–729
!The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1363460716684509
Review Article
Resistance to sex
work stigma
Ronald Weitzer
George Washington University, USA
Stigma is ubiquitous in sex work and is well documented in studies of sex workers. But
rarely have scholars examined the vital question of whether, and if so how, stigma can be
reduced or eliminated from any type of sex work (commercial stripping, pornography,
prostitution, etc.). After a brief review of the issues related to stigma, this Commentary
proposes a set of preconditions for the reduction and, ultimately, elimination of stigma
from sex work.
Commercial stripping, pornography, prostitution, labeling theory, stigma
Stigma is one of the most important problems in sex work. It is omnipresent in
sexual commerce, although its substance and intensity vary somewhat by gender,
by occupational sector, and by national context. Research on sex workers, their
managers, and their clients offers abundant evidence of the harmful consequences
of stigmatization.
Stigma has been described as an imputation of inferior status to those who have
either a visible discrediting trait (e.g. physical disability) or some perceived moral
defect. Erving Goffman defines stigma as ‘‘an attribute that is deeply discrediting,’’
but what is key is not the attribute itself: instead stigma is a product of a relation-
ship between at least two actors, not something inherent in a type of behavior or
physical condition (Goffman, 1963: 3). It applies to entire categories of people
(e.g. gays, drug dealers) as well as to specific individuals. It is manifested in
public opinion polls, media representations, political discourse, face-to-face
encounters, and the ways in which individuals internalize stereotypes, conceal
their stigmatized identity, and lead double lives.
Corresponding author:
Professor Ronald Weitzer, Department of Sociology, 801 22nd Street, George Washington University,
Washington DC, 20052, USA.
Goffman’s landmark book, Stigma (1963), offers a compelling analysis of key
dimensions of stigma. But the book has a striking deficiency: It says almost nothing
about the possibility of resistance (by individuals or collectivities) nor does it con-
sider whether stigma can be reduced or eliminated over time. These lacunae were
mirrored in the original formulations of labeling theory, which ignored the possi-
bility of defiance on the part of individuals who are labeled deviant – what John
Kitsuse (1980) later called ‘‘tertiary deviance’’ and Edwin Schur (1980) examined at
the group level in his discussion of ‘‘deviance liberation movements.’’ Goffman and
the founders of labeling theory seem to have assumed that once an individual or
category of people had been stigmatized, it is internalized by them and is basically
This stickiness is perhaps a function of the time period when Goffman
and the early labeling theorists were writing (1951–1963) insofar as they saw few
examples at that time of resistance by stigmatized individuals or a broader identity
Instead of defiance, Goffman focuses on the ways in which individuals manage
stigma: concealing it from others (‘‘passing’’ for normal); selectively revealing it to
some confidants (‘‘covering’’); isolating themselves within a group of similarly
stigmatized others; withholding biographical information about themselves; or
otherwise coping with what he called a ‘‘spoiled identity.’’ Stigmatized individuals
are presented as resigned to their devalued status, and their agency consists of
creatively limiting exposure. Another striking feature of Goffman’s book is a neg-
lect of the origins and functions of stigma toward particular categories of people –
for instance, the ways in which stigmatization reinforces conventional norms and
promotes dominant interests by legitimizing established power hierarchies (Link
and Phelan, 2001; Schur, 1980). Examination of the structural causes of stigma
might have led Goffman to explore the corollary ways in which stigma can be
reduced. Instead, we are left with a rather static analysis, one where individuals
internalize others’ discrediting attributions and cope with them in daily life.
Two prominent literature reviews mention the issue of change, but only in
passing and with skepticism regarding the potential for eroding stigma (Link and
Phelan, 2001; Pescosolido and Martin, 2015). And the few studies that have
examined resistance are largely limited to the individual social-psychological
level (e.g. Thoits, 2011) and ignore the larger question of how stigma can be
reduced or eliminated vis-a
`-vis an entire category of people (exceptions include
Anspach, 1979; De Young, 1988; Estroff et al., 2004; Schur, 1980). A recent
book discusses programs designed to reduce stigma toward the mentally ill, includ-
ing the World Psychiatric Association’s 1996 initiative, Open the Doors Global
Program to Fight Stigma Because of Schizophrenia, and similar national campaigns
(Stuart et al., 2012). Such programs seek to disseminate knowledge, decrease preju-
dice, and end discrimination against those with a mental illness. These programs
have been targeted less at the general public than specific groups such as youths,
journalists, police, health officials, and policy makers. Such programs appear to
have had some success in reducing stereotyping among the targeted groups.
718 Sexualities 21(5–6)
Stigma in sexual commerce
The field of sex work mirrors the larger scholarly literature in that stigma itself is
rarely problematized. Again, the default is to treat it as an immutable constant, not
a variable, and to assume that it is utopian to imagine its erosion.
Stigma is a universal in the sex work arena: well-documented in research on
pornography, prostitution, and commercial stripping as an obstacle that sex
workers and their associates confront on a regular basis. It varies in intensity,
being generally more severe in prostitution (especially street prostitution) than in
commercial stripping and porn. It varies somewhat by society, with some nations
taking a more tolerant approach than others, although stigma remains an occupa-
tional hazard for sex workers in all nations (Abel and Fitzgerald, 2010; Weitzer,
2012). It is easier for migrant sex workers to shield themselves from the kind of
stigma that is of most concern to them – discovery by family and friends in their
home country – than for domestic workers who live with the daily threat of detec-
tion from people they know (Scambler, 2007). But the black cloud of stigma affects
migrant sex workers as well. And it persists even after a person stops selling sex
(e.g. Sallmann, 2010). Its omnipresence is evident in the ways sex workers lead their
work and personal lives: typically concealing the type of work they do from their
families, acquaintances, neighbors, and even some friends; denying that they are
involved in sexual commerce when asked; using pseudonyms at work and fabricat-
ing personal biographies; and leading double lives in other ways (Abel and
Fitzgerald, 2010; Koken, 2012; Koken et al. 2004; Morrison and Whitehead,
2005; Sanders, 2005). Some analysts may view these techniques as implicit resist-
ance (Sallmann, 2010), but I argue that coping is best seen as a form of stigma
management rather than defiance. The few exceptional prostitutes who have ‘‘come
out’’ in public only illustrates that the prevailing coping strategies are those of
passing for normal or very selective disclosure to trusted others.
Associates of sex workers are also stigmatized: their partners, family members,
clients, and third parties who assist or manage them (e.g. Birch 2015; Hammond,
2015). Brothel owners, strip club managers, porn distributors, and other third
parties are often reluctant to reveal the nature of their occupation to strangers.
Individuals involved in illegal enterprises are forced to operate in the black market
or to conceal the source of their income in opening bank accounts, from the tax
authorities, and in other dealings with conventional businesses. But even legal
owners, managers, and other third parties routinely grapple with stigma
(Weitzer, 2012). And finally, we know that some researchers who study sex work
have been stigmatized – subjected to derogatory comments and unfounded allega-
marginalization from colleagues, altercations at professional meetings, and
an exceptional level of scrutiny by institutional review boards – sometimes resulting
in denial of permission to conduct research on the basis of unfounded presump-
tions about the proposed study (Dewey and Zheng, 2013; Hammond and
Kingston, 2014; Siegel and de Wildt, 2015).
Weitzer 719
While this literature documents the existence of stigma throughout the sex work
arena, it mirrors Goffman by focusing almost entirely on how individuals manage
their tainted identities, rather than inquiring about whether, and if so how, some of
them actively resist expressions of prejudice and outright discrimination in face-to-
face encounters or collectively as members of organizations that seek to change
popular attitudes and public policies. There is a separate research literature on sex
workers’ rights organizations in different countries, which documents group-level
struggles for normalization. These organizations are discussed later in the article.
Reducing stigma
Destigmatization is both an academic and a political issue. Politically, we can
identify a set of practical strategies for fighting stigma, based on the tactics of
deviance liberation movements (Schur, 1980). Academically, we can identify a set
of preconditions for reducing, and ultimately eliminating, stigma from a category
of people. Link and Phelan (2001) point out that such change requires a multifa-
ceted approach, but they say nothing about what these changes might consist of. At
the individual level, resistance by a sex worker may take the following forms:
announcing that he or she had full agency when entering sex work; is currently
in control of his/her working conditions and interactions with clients; defines the
work as a service profession like any other or as a form of support or therapy for
clients; denial of harm; condemnation of the stigmatizers; or distinguishing their
echelon (e.g. escorting) from what they consider disreputable forms of sex work
(e.g. street prostitution). Evidence of each of these practices is scattered throughout
the literature on sex work but, again, these efforts tend to be confined to the psy-
chological or individual level (e.g. Koken et al., 2004; Morrison and Whitehead,
2005; Sanders, 2005; Thompson and Harred, 1992). Isolated acts of resistance by
individuals may have little or no impact on the wider society, and can also be
dangerous for the resistors if their actions provoke attacks from others.
At the societal level, philosopher Lars Ericsson (1980: 362, 366) writes that
reducing stigma requires allowing prostitution ‘‘to function in a social climate
freed from emotional prejudice... In order to improve prostitution, we must
improve our attitudes toward it.’’ His argument is somewhat limited – neglecting
the crucial question of how to improve societal attitudes – but it does highlight a
central requirement for normalization. Fundamental and widespread attitudinal
change is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for destigmatization. In the
following, I outline some additional preconditions for reducing stigma.
Neutral language
Derogatory names must be erased from public and private discourse for normal-
ization of any stigmatized condition or behavior to occur. As Michel Foucault
observed, power relations are embedded in language, with dominant groups typ-
ically engaging in ‘‘naming and shaming’’ of subordinates. Words such as whore,
720 Sexualities 21(5–6)
hooker, harlot, john, and punter should be replaced with worker, provider, client,
and manager. It should be noted that discredited groups sometimes expropriate
pejorative terms: they may call themselves ‘‘whores’’ or ‘‘johns’’ for purposes of
shock value and to reclaim and invert negative identifiers. Examples include the
1985 World Whores Convention in Brussels; the Hookers Ball dance events that
COYOTE sponsored in San Francisco in the 1970s; the magazines Whorezine and
Johnzine published by American sex workers in the 1990s; and Chester Brown’s
(2013) defense of clients in his book Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir about
Being a John. It can be argued that those who participate in sexual commerce
should be free to call themselves whatever they wish. But to reduce stigma,
others should cease using derogatory terms because of the asymmetrical power
relationship that their usage reproduces over time.
The mass media
For the most part, there is a negativity bias in mass media representations of sex
work. The news media highlight worst cases of abuse, conflate prostitution with
human trafficking, and rarely offer a positive (or even neutral) picture of sex work-
ers and their clients. Television newscasts, newspapers, and online news reports
often center on victimization, nuisances, street prostitution, trafficking, arrests, or
raids on prostitution ‘‘rings’’ or businesses (Farvid and Glass, 2014;
Hallgrimsdottir et al., 2006; Van Brunschot et al., 2000). News reports and maga-
zine articles seldom offer a contrasting picture, although some prominent outlets
have done so on occasion (e.g. Economist, 2014; Goldberg, 2014). Most documen-
taries also highlight economic exploitation and physical victimization, depicted
with the help of extremely emotive imagery. And the same slanted representations
pervade the entertainment media. Some feature films and television shows roman-
ticize sex work, but these are exceptions to the dominant framing as sordid cau-
tionary tales (Campbell, 2006).
Destigmatization requires a more balanced portrayal than what is typically
depicted in the media. For example, documentaries on prostitution can portray a
range of settings, echelons, and workers’ experiences, rather than focusing exclu-
sively on a single type, usually presented disparagingly. By examining radically
different arrangements in several nations, the A&E channel’s documentary Red-
Light Districts (1997) and the National Geographic Television documentary
Prostitution (2010) highlight cross-cultural variation – which may help reduce
sweeping, stigmatizing generalizations. CNBC’s documentary Dirty Money: The
Business of High-End Prostitution (2008) and National Geographic’s American
Escort Girls (2014) also contain positive representations of individuals who work
in the escort sector. And the Showtime and ITV2 television series, Secret Diary of a
Call Girl, includes both erotic and routine aspects of escorting in addition to
encounters with a variety of clients, which may also have some normalizing
effect on audience perceptions of the escort sector. The mass media can also be
used as a vehicle for public education, including evidence-based Public Service
Weitzer 721
Announcements or paid advertisements on television. An example of the latter is
the advertisements placed in the Canadian media by the advocacy group, Stepping
Stone, in 2011 (Griner, 2011). And the Red Umbrella Project has conducted train-
ing sessions for sex workers when they engage with the media, to help them counter
the standard caricatures and better advocate for their rights.
The experience of the gay rights movement shows that the repeal of discriminatory
laws is vitally important but hardly sufficient for normalization. This applies to sex
work as well. In places where commercial stripping, pornography production, and
prostitution are legal and regulated by the state, stigma persists, even if in a diluted
form. Gallup polls show that only 29% of Britons (in 2008) and 31% of Americans
(in 2013) think that viewing pornography is ‘‘morally acceptable’’ (Gallup, 2015).
The state of Nevada legalized rural brothels in 1971, but three decades later only a
slim majority of Nevadans (52%) supported retaining this system, and only 35%
endorsed the idea of permitting legal brothels to operate in the city of Las Vegas –
where they are illegal under state law (cited in Weitzer, 2012: 51). Stigma persists
as well in nations that have more recently decriminalized prostitution (e.g.
Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands), although it may be some-
what muted in such places compared to nations where criminalization reigns
In the sex work area we should expect cultural lag in the aftermath of
legal reform: it can take considerable time for social norms to mesh with legal
norms. Decriminalization is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for
Industry mobilization
The owners and managers of erotic businesses can play an important role in sup-
porting destigmatization and lobbying for rights. The pornography industry in the
USA, for example, has its own advocacy organizations and legal support network
(Voss, 2015). Owners of legal brothels and escort agencies in some countries also
have organizations that advocate not only for their own interests but also for sex
workers to the extent that their interests overlap (Weitzer, 2012).
An important caveat is that some of the interests of business owners may conflict
with those of sex workers. The former naturally pursue their economic interests,
which may conflict with those of sex workers. They may find themselves in align-
ment on some issues – such as fighting what they consider to be unwarranted
regulations – but may be opponents on other issues, such as whether the owners
should be compelled to provide social security benefits to workers. Still, the quest
for destigmatization will be advanced to the extent that owners of erotic businesses
advocate for industry normalization and insofar as industry elites (e.g. Hugh
Hefner, Larry Flynt) publicly support sex workers’ rights and contribute resources
to end legal and social discrimination.
722 Sexualities 21(5–6)
Sex worker activism
Policy change can be a top-down process, orchestrated by the state. Some legisla-
tors have initiated decriminalization bills with little pressure from the beneficiaries
(e.g. in Nevada, Czech Republic, Western Australia). But legal change has also
been catalyzed from below – by individuals and organizations. To be successful,
research shows that sex worker rights groups require:
.savvy or charismatic leaders who are able to withstand counterattacks;
.sufficient resources (material, personnel);
.connections to media organizations;
.alliances with other organizations and social movements; and
.widespread support from beneficiaries (sex workers, clients, business owners).
Sex worker organizations in some countries have enjoyed one or two of these
factors (e.g. a charismatic leader) but not all of them. Such organizations tend
to be grossly under-funded, lack strong leadership, recruit few sex workers as
members, are marginalized by potential allies (women’s organizations, labor
unions), and have few connections to mainstream media (Gall, 2010; Jenness,
1990; Majic, 2014; Mathieu, 2003; Oselin and Weitzer, 2013; Weitzer, 1991;
West, 2000). Sex workers lack solidarity across the sex work hierarchy; many
view their work as temporary, are disinclined to activism; and most perceive
little advantage in unionization, especially if they are self-employed (Gall, 2010;
van der Poel, 1992).
There are important exceptions. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, for
example, played an instrumental role in the process leading up to parliamentary
decriminalization in 2003, and continues to influence policy via its permanent seat
on the nation’s Prostitution Law Review Committee, which periodically reviews
policies and practices related to prostitution. Regarding allies, in 1973 America’s
premier women’s rights organization – the National Organization for Women
(NOW) – passed a lengthy decriminalization resolution declaring that NOW
‘‘opposes continued prohibitive laws regarding prostitution, believing them to be
punitive’’ and ‘‘therefore favors removal of all laws relating to the act of prostitu-
tion’’ (NOW, 1973). Such support from an influential mainstream organization did
little to advance the quest for sex worker rights in the USA (NOW engaged in no
subsequent reform efforts), but this kind of support can nevertheless be considered
vital for destigmatization purposes. Amnesty International, the World Health
Organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the UN’s Global
Commission on HIV and the Law have advocated decriminalization, which if
well publicized, might help to challenge the stigma associated with sex work. In
May 2016, Amnesty International formally endorsed decriminalization as a way of
reducing victimization and marginalization of sex workers. The decision was widely
publicized and is regarded as a major victory for the sex worker community
(Amnesty International, 2016).
Weitzer 723
Some recent actions illustrate the ways in which sex workers have tried to destig-
matize sex work, in conjunction with other goals. In 2001 a San Francisco organ-
ization that provides health care to sex workers (the St James Infirmary) placed
advertisements on city busses that included photos of sex workers and quotations
intended to challenge stereotypes: ‘‘sex workers rights are human rights,’’ ‘‘sex work
is real work,’’ and ‘‘someone you know is a sex worker’’ (Schreiber, 2015: 256). In
September 2015 the Scottish sex worker organization Scot-Pep launched a proposal
(with Scottish Parliament member Jean Urquhart) for legislation that would decrim-
inalize prostitution, along the lines of New Zealand’s model. The Prostitution Law
Reform (Scotland) Bill challenges the Scottish Government’s current position that
sex work is tantamount to ‘‘commercial sexual exploitation’’ and seeks to repeal the
laws against soliciting, client kerb-crawling, and brothel-keeping. The bill would
permit more than one sex worker to operate within the same premises (current
law restricts this to one worker) and would increase penalties against those who
coerce sex workers. In November 2015 the English Collective of Prostitutes, along
with sex worker rights advocates from other nations, testified at a special symposium
on decriminalization in the British House of Commons.
Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of prostitution laws are another strat-
egy pursued by sex worker activists. A major court case of this nature was success-
ful in Canada in 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled the nation’s three
prostitution laws unconstitutional.
A similar legal challenge was recently mounted
in the USA, challenging California’s prostitution laws. Insofar as the public is
aware of these legislative and judicial efforts, as covered in the media, the initiatives
may have some effect in challenging popular misconceptions regarding sex work.
Other recent events move policy in a more repressive direction. Legislation by
the French Parliament is a case in point, with the Assembly and Senate proposing
different bills in 2013 and 2015: One would implement the Swedish system of client
criminalization while the other rejects this and would enhance penalties against
prostitutes who solicit on the streets. The client criminalization bill, which passed in
April 2016, was opposed by a variety of organizations and more than 70 French
celebrities, and the vast majority of the French public opposes client criminaliza-
Hundreds of sex workers staged a protest on the streets of Paris condemning
the bill, and one activist (Franceline Lepany) declared, ‘‘This bill seeks to even
further stigmatize prostitutes.’’
Sex worker activists have also been active in oppos-
ing client criminalization bills in Canada in 2014, the European Parliament in 2014,
and Northern Ireland in 2015. Each measure passed despite vocal opposition from
critics. But their impact on sex work stigma may be mixed, because each initiative
provoked opposition from sex workers and their supporters – resistance that may
help to enlighten the public and generate greater support for sex workers’ demands.
The academic community
The academic community can play an important role in destigmatizing unconven-
tional behavior. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed
724 Sexualities 21(5–6)
homosexuality from its compendium of mental illnesses (the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders), and the World Health Organization followed suit in
1990. Professional and academic associations can help reduce stigma by passing reso-
lutions in support of marginalized groups or by directly sponsoring anti-stigma cam-
paigns, as several mental health organizations have done. This kind of intervention is
rare in the sex work arena, but there is at least one prominent example: In October
2011 the board of directors of the Society for the Study of Social Problems passed a
resolution declaring its formal support for: ‘‘(1) bipartisan legislation to decriminalize
prostitution, (2) public education regarding the costs of policing sex workers, and (3)
normalization of the occupation.’’
Other scholarly and professional associations
could pass similar resolutions, which can be widely publicized afterwards.
Scholars can intervene in other ways, such as writing columns for news sources,
appearing on talk shows, and publicizing research findings that challenge prevailing
fallacies. This happens to some extent now – e.g. scholars participated in the UK
Parliamentary symposium mentioned earlier – but more robust expert involvement
would offer an evidence-based corrective to policies based on myths regarding sex work.
This list of preconditions is not exhaustive but it does cover major areas where
change is needed. As noted earlier, stigma is frequently mentioned by scholars and
activists in the sex work field, but it is typically not problematized as a variable
subject to change. This Commentary is intended to catalyze more direct analyses of
the conditions for reducing stigma for all participants in sexual commerce.
It is important to note that any such normalization efforts will be opposed by
established institutions. If the national legal context is one where prostitution is
criminalized, the legal order itself compounds stigmatization and the authorities
have a vested interest in treating sex work as deviant. On top of this, we know that
mainstream social institutions and many powerful, well-organized interest groups
are committed not only to blocking any normalization of commercial sex, but also
to perpetuating and intensifying stigmatization. The anti-prostitution movement is
strong and growing in most parts of the world, bolstered by its successful conflation
of prostitution with trafficking (Weitzer, 2007). And there is a growing anti-porno-
graphy movement as well, which has succeeded in imposing new restrictions on
erotic material and performances in some nations – Britain, Iceland, India –
(Attwood and Smith, 2010; Burke, 2015; Helgado
´ttir, 2014). But since stigma is
not inherent in any kind of behavior and is instead a social construction, it can be
countered and deconstructed. And such destigmatization can have important con-
sequences for other aspects of sex work: If prostitution is allowed ‘‘to function in a
social climate freed from emotional prejudice’’ (Ericsson, 1980: 362), it then
becomes ‘‘imaginable that prostitution could always be practiced, as it occasionally
is even now, in circumstances of relative safety, security, freedom, hygiene, and
personal control’’ (Overall, 1992: 716). This essay has outlined some preconditions
for broader normalization.
Weitzer 725
A version of this article was presented at the COST Action IS1209 conference, ‘‘Troubling
Prostitution: Exploring Intersections of Sex, Intimacy, and Labour’’ in Vienna, Austria, 18
April 2015. The COST Action is known as Comparing European Prostitution Policies:
Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance (ProsPol) ( I am grateful
to Susan Dewey, Juline Koken, and Sharon Oselin for their comments on an earlier version
of this article.
1. Goffman (1963: 7) writes, ‘‘The stigmatized individual tends to hold the same beliefs
about identity that we do; this is a pivotal fact.’’ He mentions, but only in passing,
some examples of attempts by representatives of a stigmatized category to give voice
to their shared feelings (Goffman, 1963: 24–27).
2. This applies less to individuals whose work is highly visible, such as porn stars and
webcam performers, who are already ‘‘out’’ by virtue of their on-screen appearances.
3. After 50 scholars signed a letter to the Rhode Island state legislature (in the USA)
opposing a new prostitution law in 2009 (Associated Press, 2009), two anti-prostitution
activists attacked the motives of the academics, who were labeled ‘‘sex radicals’’: ‘‘The sex
radicals are targeting Rhode Island for their own extreme sexual libertarian agenda of
preventing any legal limits on any sexual behavior’’ (Brooks and Hughes, 2009: 3). The
academics’ letter, which I co-authored with Elizabeth Wood, contains nothing that would
justify this conclusion and was instead organized around the principles of harm reduction
and labor rights (Letter to Honorable Members of the Rhode Island State Legislature,
Re: Prostitution Law Reform Bill, 31 July 2009).
4. The World Values Survey documents more tolerant attitudes toward prostitution in
nations that have legalized prostitution than where prostitution is illegal (see Weitzer,
2012: 80). Even in countries where criminalization is the norm, however, public opinion
may change over time: according to the World Values Survey, the view that prostitution
is ‘‘never justified’’ has decreased substantially in the USA: from 63% in 1981 to 40% in
2006: (accessed 25 May 2015).
5. Bedford v. Canada, ONSC 4264, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, 28 September 2010.
The case was heard by an appeals court in 2012 and culminated in a Supreme Court
ruling in 2013 (Canada [Attorney General] v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, Supreme Court of
Canada, 20 December 2013).
6. In five polls taken between 2011 and 2013, 70% to 82% of French respondents disap-
proved of the idea of criminalizing clients, and a 2013 poll reported that 74% of the
French public favored the ‘‘reopening of brothels’’ in the country (Weitzer, 2015).
7. This was quoted in (accessed 3 June 2015).
8. Resolution 3, Sex Work: available at:
392#R3 (accessed 20 May 2015).
Abel G and Fitzgerald L (2010) Decriminalization and stigma. In: Abel G, Fitzgerald L and
Healy C (eds) Taking the Crime Out of Sex Work: New Zealand Sex Workers’ Fight for
Decriminalization. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 239–258.
726 Sexualities 21(5–6)
Amnesty International (2016) Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect, and Fulfill the
Human Rights of Sex Workers. Policy 30/4026/2016.
Anspach R (1979) From stigma to identity politics: Political activism among the physically
disabled and former mental patients. Social Science and Medicine 13(3): 765–773.
Associated Press (2009) Academics oppose banning indoor prostitution in Rhode Island.
Boston Herald, 3 August.
Attwood F and Smith C (2010) Extreme concern: Regulating ‘dangerous pictures’ in the
United Kingdom. Journal of Law and Society 37(1): 171–188.
Birch P (2015) Why Men Buy Sex. London: Routledge.
Brooks M and Hughes D (2009) International sex radicals campaign to keep prostitution
decriminalized in Rhode Island. Citizens Against Trafficking.
Brown C (2013) Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir about Being a John. Montreal: Drawn
and Quarterly Press.
Burke J (2015) India blocks more than 800 sites in web porn crackdown. The Guardian,3
Campbell R (2006) Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema. Madison,
WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Dewey S and Zheng T (2013) Ethical Research with Sex Workers: Anthropological
Approaches. New York: Springer.
De Young M (1988) The indignant page: Techniques of neutralization in the publications of
pedophile organizations. Child Abuse and Neglect 12(4): 583–591.
Economist (2014) The sex business. The Economist, 9–14 August.
Ericsson LO (1980) Charges against prostitution: An attempt at a philosophical assessment.
Ethics 90(3): 335–366.
Estroff S, Penn D and Toporek J (2004) From stigma to discrimination: An analysis of
community efforts to reduce the negative consequences of having a psychiatric disorder
and label. Schizophrenia Bulletin 30(3): 493–509.
Farvid P and Glass L (2014) ‘It isn’t prostitution as you normally think of it. It’s survival
sex’: Media representations of adult and child prostitution in New Zealand. Women’s
Studies Journal 28(1): 47–67.
Gall G (2010) Sex worker collective organization: Between advocacy group and labor union?
Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion 29(3): 289–304.
Gallup (2015) Poll, 6–10 May, N ¼1,024.
Goffman E (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goldberg M (2014) Should buying sex be illegal? The Nation, 18–25 August.
Griner D (2011) Sex workers are people too, says ad campaign. Adweek, 13 July. Available
133371 (accessed 1 February 2016).
Hallgrimsdottir H, Phillips R and Benoit C (2006) Fallen women and rescued girls: Social
stigma and media narratives of the sex industry in Victoria, BC from 1980–2005.
Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 43(3): 265–280.
Hammond N (2015) Men who pay for sex and the sex work movement: Client responses to
stigma and increased regulation of commercial sex policy. Social Policy and Society 14(1):
Hammond N and Kingston S (2014) Experiencing stigma as sex work researchers in pro-
fessional and personal lives. Sexualities 17(3): 329–347.
Weitzer 727
´ttir A
´(2014) The Icelandic initiative for pornography censorship. Porn Studies 1(3):
Jenness V (1990) From sex as sin to sex as work: COYOTE and the reorganization of
prostitution as a social problem. Social Problems 37(3): 403–420.
Kitsuse J (1980) Coming out all over: Deviants and the politics of social problems. Social
Problems 28(1): 1–13.
Koken JA (2012) Independent female escort’s strategies for coping with sex work related
stigma. Sexuality and Culture 16(3): 209–229.
Koken JA, Bimbi DS, et al. (2004) The experience of stigma in the lives of male internet
escorts. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 16(1): 13–32.
Link BG and Phelan JC (2001) Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology 27:
Majic S (2014) Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision. Philadelphia, PA:
University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mathieu L (2003) The emergence and uncertain outcomes of prostitutes’ social movements.
European Journal of Women’s Studies 10(1): 29–50.
Morrison TG and Whitehead BW (2005) Strategies of stigma resistance among Canadian
gay-identified sex workers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 17(1/2): 169–179.
NOW (National Organization for Women) (1973) Resolution Calling for the
Decriminalization of Prostitution. Resolution 141, passed at national NOW convention.
Oselin SS and Weitzer R (2013) Organizations working on behalf of prostitutes: An analysis
of goals, practices, and strategies. Sexualities 16(3): 445–466.
Overall C (1992) What’s wrong with prostitution? Evaluating sex work. Signs 17(4):
Pescosolido BA and Martin JK (2015) The stigma complex. Annual Review of Sociology 41:
Sallmann J (2010) Living with stigma: Women’s experiences of prostitution and substance
use. Affilia 25(2): 146–159.
Sanders T (2005) Sex Work. Cullompton: Willan.
Scambler G (2007) Sex work stigma: Opportunist migrants in London. Sociology 41(6):
Schreiber R (2015) ‘Someone you know is a sex worker’: A media campaign for the St.
James Infirmary. In: Laing M, Pilcher K and Smith N (eds) Queer Sex Work. London:
Routledge, pp. 255–262.
Schur E (1980) The Politics of Deviance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Siegel D and de Wildt R (eds) (2015) Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking.
New York: Springer.
Stuart H, Arboleda-Florez J and Sartorius N (2012) Paradigms Lost: Fighting Stigma and
the Lessons Learned. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thoits P (2011) Resisting the stigma of mental illness. Social Psychology Quarterly 74(1):
Thompson WE and Harred JL (1992) Topless dancers: Managing stigma in a deviant occu-
pation. Deviant Behavior 13(3): 291–311.
Van Brunschot E, Sydie R and Krull C (2000) Images of prostitution: The prostitute and
print media. Women & Criminal Justice 10(4): 47–72.
Van der Poel S (1992) Professional male prostitution. Crime, Law, and Social Change 18(3):
728 Sexualities 21(5–6)
Voss G (2015) Trade associations, industry legitimacy, and corporate responsibility in porn-
ography. In: Comella L and Tarrant S (eds) New Views on Pornography: Sexuality,
Politics, and the Law. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, pp. 191–216.
Weitzer R (1991) Prostitutes’ rights in the United States: The failure of a movement.
Sociological Quarterly 32(1): 23–41.
Weitzer R (2007) The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization
of a moral crusade. Politics & Society 35(3): 447–475.
Weitzer R (2012) Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business. New York:
New York University Press.
Weitzer R (2015) Researching prostitution and sex trafficking comparatively. Sexuality
Research and Social Policy 12(2): 81–91.
West J (2000) Prostitution: Collectives and the politics of regulation. Gender, Work, and
Organization 7(2): 106–118.
Ronald Weitzer is a professor of sociology at George Washington University. He
has published extensively on sex work, including his books Sex For Sale:
Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry (2000 and 2010) and Legalizing
Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (2012). In 2014 he co-edited a
volume on human trafficking for the Annals of the American Academy of Political
and Social Science.
Weitzer 729
... The criminalization of sex work in many countries has exerted a multiplicative effect on perceptions of the industry, rendering it difficult to talk openly about sex professions and contributing to a pervasive stigma (Bernier et al., 2021;Hammond & Kingston, 2014;Weitzer, 2018). Sex work is also a dangerous profession, leaving many workers in precarious positions (Hammond & Kingston, 2014). ...
... Conversations in r/SexWorkers also implied that the legal system itself contributes to stigmatization, given that prostitution is criminalized under national law, while also suggesting that the government has a vested interest in viewing sex work as deviant behavior. Likewise, many influential and traditional social institutions (e.g., religion) are described as preventing the normalization of sex work and upholding and intensifying stigma (Weitzer, 2018). The commercial sex industry and its actors exist within the larger social, cultural, and political landscape, and the findings of this work suggest that users of r/SexWorkers have curated an open-minded space for dispelling stigma associated with sex work. ...
The growth of digital technologies has enabled the creation of online platforms for sex workers to share, create, and gather information. To elucidate how this community leverages social media, the current study analyzed how sex workers and related groups (e.g. clients) communicate in a pseudonymous online space – r/SexWorkers. A content analysis of 103 posts and 967 comments submitted to r/SexWorkers between March 13, 2021, and February 22, 2022 was performed, evaluating 1) the prevalence of risk (i.e. to sex workers and clients) within the community’s discourse, 2) types of information shared within the community (e.g. legal, health, and support), 3) features of information exchange (e.g. seeking and providing), and 4) the emergence and confrontation of stigma. The findings of this study indicate that users took specific interest in the risks sex workers face (as opposed to clients), providing information predominantly about economic and health concerns, discussing potential abuses, and providing support to one another. Moreover, while stigma was not commonly discussed by the community, users who did engage with stigma (especially professional stigma) sought to counteract prevailing beliefs about sex work. Accordingly, r/SexWorkers seemingly provides a beneficial online space for sex workers and clients to discuss risk, safety, and stigma.
... Finally, the choice to resist and manage stigma is one that is constantly navigated by people who trade sex (Grittner & Walsh, 2020;Morrison & Whitehead, 2005;Weitzer, 2018). In their 2018 article, Weitzer outlines the comprehensive stigma faced by sex workers in addition to laying out actions and efforts needed to decrease and ultimately eliminate this stigma. ...
... In doing so, this article also highlights the need to understand and implement non-stigmatizing language when referring to sex workers and their associates (e.g. client, worker, provider, manager;Weitzer, 2018). ...
Full-text available
Introduction People who trade sex face violence and discrimination across individual, community, and systemic levels. The goal of the current study is to examine the impact of the terms used for people who trade sex (e.g., sex worker, prostitute, individual who sells sex, whore, escort) on people’s perceptions of individuals who trade sex within the United States. Methods The current study used a prototype methodology to understand the impact of these terms. Data were collected in 2022 and participants were asked to provide 5 characteristics of each term describing a person who trades sex and designate these characteristics as positive, negative, or neutral. Results Participants attributed more negative than positive characteristics to people who trade sex, broadly. When describing a Prostitute, an Individual who Sells Sex (ISS), and a whore, participants reported markedly more negative characteristics than when describing a Sex Worker or an Escort. Conclusion Greater attention to the language used to describe people who trade sex is needed. Policy Implications At present, the term prostitute and/or prostitution is used consistently in legal statutes and literature. Given the markedly negative perceptions associated with these terms, reforming social and legal policies utilizing this and other stigmatizing terms is warranted.
... The connection between stigma and sex work is a point of debate gaining popularity in the academic world (Armstrong, 2019;Benoit et al., 2018;Bruckert & Hannem, 2013;Lazarus et al., 2012;Phillips et al., 2012;Sanders, 2018;Stardust et al., 2021;Toubiana & Ruebottom, 2022;Treloar et al., 2021;Weitzer, 2009Weitzer, , 2010Weitzer, , 2012Weitzer, , 2018. ...
... In the Netherlands, where sex work is legalised, almost 80 percent of the surveyed population consider sex work as a legitimate form of work (Weitzer, 2010). Weitzer (2018) suggests several ways in order to resist sex work stigma: ...
Full-text available
The legalisation of sex work could have significant effects on sex workers' lives, particularly on their health, safety and income. Research on the relationship between legislative approaches to sex workers and their effect on sex workers is scarce. However, it demonstrates that criminalisation could have a detrimental effect on sex workers' well-being and perception by the public eye. Nevertheless, not enough research has dealt with the positive effect of legalisation on sex workers' lives. I use literature from Germany and countries where sex work has either been criminalised or decriminalised to inspect the possible effects legislation has on sex workers' health, safety, and money. Contrary to what I anticipated, legalisation did not necessarily drastically improve sex workers' lives. My findings indicate that legalisation leads to heavier regulation and increased stigma, and the combination of both often exacerbates the vulnerabilities of many sex workers, particularly those with a migration background.
... The threat of stigmatization is pervasive and has mental health implications for sex workers and sex trafficking victims. Stigma and the associated discrimination and exclusion are known to have a detrimental impact on an individual's identity, self-concept, selfconfidence, agency and overall ability to seek and receive assistance Jansson, 2015, 2015a;Carlson, 2017;Weitzer, 2018;Turan et al., 2019;Rayson & Alba, 2019;Treolar, 2021). ...
... With derogatory comment such as the above statement reinforcing notions of sex work being connected to abuse or unethical reinforcing notion of "us" versus "them (Weitzer, 2018;Kempadoo, 2018)," consequently impacting policy crafting in states. ...
This study contributes to the relatively limited body of knowledge regarding sex work and the limited progress in the decriminalization of sex work as paid labour, which impacts the inclusion of sex workers in epidemic response. Since sex workers form part of vulnerable populations, the Covid 19 pandemic has also affected their socioeconomic status, further displacing them into poverty and exacerbate existing inequalities. In particular, South Africa has made great progress towards equality for all groups, such as the legalization of same-sex marriages in its Constitution. In spite of this, sex workers remain an underrepresented group of workers, since sex work is not legalized as a profession, which negatively impacts their representivity in epidemic responses. In this context, there is an abundance of literature on sex work, which has led to the development of theory and conceptual frameworks. Within the context of the Covid 19 pandemic, this study presents the context of sex workers in South Africa. Additionally, the study examines the barriers faced by sex workers as well as their legalization and professionalization as workers. There are numerous instances of the violation of sex workers and given that sex work isn't legalized they are not protected by the law and often find themselves confronted with criminals who break laws against them. Furthermore, the study critically examines how sex workers have professionalized their industry during the Covid 19 pandemic and in the age of 4IR. Last but not least the study concludes on the challenges that hinder the legalization of sex workers in South Africa. It would seem that the state should consider reviewing how it caters to severely socially excluded populations if they fail to represent, participate, or protect sex workers.
... While in the past years there is more acceptance of sex work (Cao et al., 2015), there is a lot of stigma around it (Weitzer, 2018;Benoit et al., 2018a,b). Thus, it is difficult to say to which extent respondents of this study felt stigmatized and whether it has impacted their inclination to give more socially desirable responses. ...
Full-text available
In this study, the motivations of 80 sex workers who provide camming services (76 females and 4 non-binary/trans/gender fluid individuals; aged from 20 to 49 years, M = 30.68, SD = 6.43; 56.2% married or in a committed relationship, 18.8% in a non-committed relationship and 25% - single) were compared in terms of engaging in sexual activity with their real-life partners versus their virtual partners (predominantly kink-oriented clients). Presented with 16 reasons to engage in sexual activity, the respondents rated the frequency to engage in sex for each of these reasons with their real-life and virtual partners. Results showed that there were five reasons in which there were differences in motivation to engage in sex with real-life versus virtual partners and 11 reasons showed no differences. Specifically, respondents reported engaging in sex more often with their virtual partners to get resources and to experience a specific type of sex (kink), while they reported engaging in sex more often with their real-life partners to experience physical pleasure, motivated by physical desirability of a partner and to express love and commitment. However, for all other reasons that motivate people to engage in sex, including stress reduction, experience seeking, self-esteem boost, social status, revenge, utilitarian reasons, emotional expression, duty or pressure, thrill of the forbidden, mate guarding, and desire to have sex with a person of other gender, respondents engaged in sex equally frequently with their real-life and virtual partners (clients) and there were no statistical differences. This study adds to the existing research on sex work by providing insights into the motivations of sex workers to engage in sex with different partners and demonstrates that apart from common sense differences the reasons to engage in sex with clients and real-life partners are vastly similar.
... Sex work is an almost universally stigmatized occupation (although this stigma is not intractable) [30], and stigmatized populations use humor in multiple ways. Humor can be a way of highlighting the structural discrimination and stigmatizing societal attitudes that a stigmatized person or group faces [31][32][33][34]. ...
Full-text available
Sex workers' humor has received comparatively little attention in the literature to date, and work that does consider this phenomenon focuses on humor in face-to-face contexts. Increasingly, elements of sex workers' labor and community building take place online. This article examines the emergence of sex work humor in online spaces, considering how this humor provides evidence of resilience within this community. The article uses a critical discourse analysis approach blended with a cultural studies lens to examine 171 discrete texts drawn from sex work communities in Australia and New Zealand. These include social media postings from peer-led organizations and correspondence between sex workers and their clients, which was profiled in news media during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The humor evident within these texts falls into three major categories: humor about clients; humor as a mechanism of discussing stigma and discrimination; and humor as an agent of activism and social change. The findings indicate that humor can be evidence of resilience among sex-working communities, that it is politically productive and effective from a communications perspective, and present the possibility that it may also contribute to resilience. The presence of humor in online sex work spaces of sociality further highlights the importance of these spaces for community building, and draws attention to additional harms created by deplatforming.
It is well known that sex workers experience high levels of stigma. This research examined the techniques sex workers use to ameliorate the emotional and practical impacts of that stigma. Twenty female sex workers with varying roles of escorts, porn actresses, camgirls and content creators were interviewed. Our participants revealed that they used avoidance techniques, such as selective disclosure and the construction of alternate personas. Interestingly, they also reported that they employed positive techniques, such as being unapologetic and deriving confidence from their profession. We suggest that teaching stigma management techniques could be an important tool for sex work organisations to support both established and newer sex workers.
This paper uses George Herbert Mead’s theory on time and the self in an analysis of qualitative interviews with sex sellers in Denmark. We show how exit from prostitution is associated with a gradual change of participants’ conceptions of commercial sex, bringing them in alignment with a ‘social problems’ approach to prostitution. From being conceptualised as a predominantly positive phenomenon, associated with ‘easy money’, power/self-affirmation and thrill, prostitution becomes a predominantly negative phenomenon, associated with ‘hard-to-earn-money’, subordination and repulsion. When transforming their conceptions of commercial sex, participants take over the view on prostitution that is dominant in Danish society – a view that defines commercial sex as inherently problematic and sex sellers as a ‘vulnerable group’ in need of rescue.
This resource challenges key paradigms currently held about the prevention or reduction of stigma attached to mental illness using evidence and the experience the authors gathered during the many years of their work in this field. Each chapter examines one currently held paradigm and presents reasons why it should be replaced with a new perspective. It argues for enlightened opportunism (using every opportunity to fight stigma), rather than more time-consuming planning, and emphasizes that the best way to approach anti-stigma work is to select targets jointly with those who are most concerned.
New Zealand was the first country in the world to decriminalise all sectors of sex work. This book provides an in-depth look at New Zealand’s experience of decriminalisation. It provides first-hand views and experiences of this policy from the point of view of those involved in the sex industry, as well as people involved in developing, implementing, researching and reviewing the policies. Presenting an example of radical legal reform in an area of current policy debate it will be of interest to academics, researchers and postgraduates as well as policy makers and activists. © The Policy Press 2010 and Chapter Eight: Ministry of Justice, New Zealand.
Sex work has been a contentious issue in a variety of ways throughout history - socially, morally, ethically, religiously and politically. Traditionally noted as one of the oldest professions in the world, sex work has commonly been demonised and is often viewed as a social disgrace. While sex work involves both providers of sexual services, most commonly women, and purchasers of sexual services, most commonly men, providers have attracted the most social commentary. Recent research shows that a limited number of studies have been conducted since 1990 concerning men who procure sexual services. This book aims to help reset this balance. In this book, Philip Birch examines the procurement of female sexual services with a focus on the personal and social aspects of men who procure such exchanges and offers insight into the demographics amongst men who purchase sexual services, alongside an analysis of the reasons why they purchase sex. This book brings together existing literature with analyses of new data to develop a multi-factor model reflecting men's procurement of sexual services and demonstrates the complexities surrounding the procuration of these sexual services in exchange for money. The book considers what contribution the understanding of the personal and social aspects of men who procure sexual services has on re-theorising the purchasing of sex in the 21st Century and will be of interest to academics and students involved in the study of criminology, criminal justice, social policy, law, sociology, sexuality and gender studies.
In San Francisco, the St. James Infirmary (SJI) and the California Prostitutes Education Project (CAL-PEP) provide free, nonjudgmental medical care, counseling, and other health and social services by and for sex workers—a radical political commitment at odds with government policies that criminalize prostitution. To maintain and expand these much-needed services and to qualify for funding from state, federal, and local authorities, such organizations must comply with federal and state regulations for nonprofits. In Sex Work Politics, Samantha Majic investigates the way nonprofit organizations negotiate their governmental obligations while maintaining their commitment to outreach and advocacy for sex workers’ rights as well as broader sociopolitical change. Drawing on multimethod qualitative research, Majic outlines the strategies that CAL-PEP and SJI employ to balance the conflicting demands of service and advocacy, which include treating sex work as labor with legitimate occupational health and safety concerns, empowering their clients with civic skills to advance their political commitments outside the nonprofit organization, and conducting and publishing research and analysis to inform the public and policymakers of their constituents’ needs. Challenging the assumption that activists must “sell out” and abandon radical politics to manage formal organizations, Majic comes to the surprising conclusion that it is indeed possible to maintain effective advocacy and key social movement values, beliefs, and practices, even while partnering with government agencies. Sex Work Politics significantly contributes to studies of transformational politics with its nuanced portrait of nonprofits as centers capable of sustaining political and social change.
In recent years, America has witnessed major trends in the normalization of some types of vice or previously stigmatized behavior. Marijuana has been decriminalized in some places; gay rights are increasingly protected by the law; casino gambling and state-sponsored lotteries have become quite popular; and pornography, strip clubs, and other sexual entertainment have proliferated. Prostitution is a glaring exception to these trends, not only in the United States but in many other countries as well. The very notion of legal prostitution is alarming to many people; they simply cannot fathom it.
Social science research on stigma has grown dramatically over the past two decades, particularly in social psychology, where researchers have elucidated the ways in which people construct cognitive categories and link those categories to stereotyped beliefs. In the midst of this growth, the stigma concept has been criticized as being too vaguely defined and individually focused. In response to these criticisms, we define stigma as the co-occurrence of its components-labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination-and further indicate that for stigmatization to occur, power must be exercised. The stigma concept we construct has implications for understanding several core issues in stigma research, ranging from the definition of the concept to the reasons stigma sometimes represents a very persistent predicament in the lives of persons affected by it. Finally, because there are so many stigmatized circumstances and because stigmatizing processes can affect multiple domains of people's lives, stigmatization probably has a dramatic bearing on the distribution of life chances in such areas as earnings, housing, criminal involvement, health, and life itself. It follows that social scientists who are interested in understanding the distribution of such life chances should also be interested in stigma.