Sex Industry

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Sex Industry

The term sex industry refers to the people and organizations that provide sexual products, services, or performances in exchange for monetary compensation. The term encompasses a variety of enterprises, including print, video, and Internet pornography, prostitution, sex shows, phone sex operations, sex shops, peep shows, massage parlors, sex tourism, and strip clubs. Those employed in the sex industry are typically known as sex workers and might include street prostitutes, call girls, escorts, strippers, exotic dancers, lap dancers, phone sex operators, brothel workers, actors and actresses in pornographic films, models for pornographic magazines, dominatrices, and bodyworkers or erotic masseuses. The sex industry also includes the managers, staff, owners, producers, directors, photographers, pimps, madams, businesses, organizations, and enterprises that provide the infrastructure and support necessary to this multi-billion-dollar industry.


Because of the nature of the sex industry, in which many enterprises are illegal or only semilegitimate and in which much earnings and activity goes unreported, estimates of the scope of the industry are necessarily flawed. Nonetheless, all available data suggest that the sex industry plays a very significant role in the U.S. economy, as in other countries. Since the rise of video recording technology and home videocassette players in the early 1980s, the consumption of hard-core pornographic videos in the United States has increased dramatically. A federal study in the 1970s estimated that the total value of hard-core porn in the United States was under $10 million; by 1996 estimates indicated Americans were spending more than $8 billion per year on pornographic videos and magazines, sex shows, peep shows, and sex toys (Schlosser 1997). This figure included 665 million hardcore video rentals, $150 million spent on pay-per-view adult movies, and $175 million on pornographic movies viewed in hotel rooms. Additionally, the United States exports a high volume of pornographic videos overseas, where it dominates the European market (Schlosser 1997). Americans in the mid-1990s spent close to $1 billion annually on phone sex; many of these calls were routed through overseas companies to foreign operators in order to evade U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrictions on obscene communication. As with hard-core video production, the number of strip clubs in the United States rose astronomically throughout the 1980s. As of 1996 there were 2,500 major strip clubs in the United States, each of which earned between $500,000 and $5 million annually. Much of the revenue generated by these clubs comes from booking well-known porn stars as dancers. A very small percentage of these actresses can earn as much as $20,000 per week dancing at a club (Schlosser 1997). And though it generates less income than the adult film industry, pornography on the Internet is almost ubiquitous and often quite lucrative.

Although data on prostitution are much harder to come by, national surveys have suggested that between 15 percent and 20 percent of the American population has paid for sex at one time or another; the figures are somewhat lower for British and Canadian men. In most countries prostitution is illegal, and because prostitutes are susceptible to harassment and prosecution, they tend to be cautious and secretive, rendering it difficult to assemble accurate data. Estimates of the prevalence of prostitution are thus highly variable and incorporate a substantial margin of error. Even in countries where prostitution is legal, such as Germany and the Netherlands, estimates of the number of prostitutes vary widely because prostitutes may not be registered or they may be in the country illegally. Estimates from the mid-1990s suggest that in Germany, 50,000 to 400,000 prostitutes transacted with some 1.2 million clients daily. Some studies have suggested that in the 1980s, there were between 250,000 and 350,000 prostitutes in the United States. Other studies have suggested that there were more than 200,000 prostitutes in Poland and between 140,000 and 300,000 in South Korea in the mid-1990s. In many European countries a substantial percentage of prostitutes are foreigners, often from developing countries (Oppermann 1998). In Spain, where the legal status of prostitution is somewhat ambiguous, many prostitutes work for mega brothels. A 1998 report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that in some Southeast Asian countries revenue from prostitution comprised 2 percent to 14 percent of the gross domestic product. In Thailand prostitution generated around $25 billion between 1993 and 1995.


Migration and tourism has raised awareness of the global nature of the sex industry. Both Germany and the Netherlands have large red-light districts in major cities; studies suggest that many of the prostitutes are immigrants, and a substantial percentage of the districts' clients are tourists. Though sex tourism occurs in most areas of the world, some countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines, are particularly known for it. Although the Europe and North America tends to conceive of the sex tourist as a white heterosexual male visiting an exotic Asian or tropical locale, the evidence provides a more varied picture. In Thailand, for example, the vast majority of sex tourists are from nearby countries rather than from the United States. There is additionally a $10 billion industry surrounding homosexual sex tourism, and in locations such as Kenya, female sex tourists are more common than male sex tourists. Though in many cases the sex tourist is from an economically richer country than the local sex worker, evidence suggests that there is often a high local demand for sexual services as well.

Sex traffickers and marriage brokers also comprise part of the global sex economy. Just as tourists travel to other nations to visit sex workers, so, too, do many sex workers. This may be voluntary on the workers' parts, but very often they are forced into sexual labor or—because of economic exploitation and their often-illegal immigrant status—are unable to leave the service of pimps, brothel owners, or managers. In addition many companies offer matchmaking services that pair men from industrialized nations with women from poorer countries. Although women often enter such contracts willingly in hopes for greater opportunity in another country, they are at the mercy of their fiancés and frequently have little financial or legal recourse.


Despite the importance of the sex industry to both the international economy and the economies of individual nations, the legal status of the industry and its workers is often ambiguous. Even those industries that operate legally are often somewhat unregulated or subject to ambiguous or conflicting legislation. Strip clubs in the United States and Canada, for example, are subject to various local ordinances aimed at defining the acceptable limits of exotic dancing and delineating the difference between legal client-dancer physical contact and illegal paid sexual activity. Such regulations are necessarily somewhat arbitrary, difficult to enforce, and may criminalize those actions—such as lap dances or manual stimulation—that are most lucrative for the dancers.

Additionally, the extralegal or semilegal operation of much of the sex industry tends to increase the workplace exploitation of sex workers. Prostitutes, for example, report extremely high rates of rape and assault by both pimps and clients, but—because their injuries are sustained in the context of illegal sexual activity—are less likely to report crimes to the police for fear of themselves being arrested. Even in cases in which prostitutes do report assaults to the police, they often find that police are unwilling to file charges or a judge unwilling to hear the case. Sex workers in legal industries are similarly more subject to exploitation by managers or owners. Strippers in the United States, for example, are sometimes required to pay house fees to a club in order to work. At times these fees are so high that the majority, if not all, of the dancer's tip money is owed to the club manager or owner. As with other sex workers, the stripper has little or no legal recourse in such a situation.


Widespread exploitation of sex workers has led to a sex workers' rights movement in the United States and other countries. Although some argue that legalization and regulation of all facets of the sex industry is the best means of ensuring worker rights and safety, such measures are often not the goals of these sex workers' rights organizations. Many prostitutes, for example, worry that legalization and regulation of prostitution might adversely affect their profits or—as in the case of Nevada's brothel system—unfairly concentrate power in the hands of owners and managers rather than the workers themselves. There are, however, a number of organizations in the United States that advocate for workers' rights, improved disease prevention, and educational programs for both sex workers and the general public. Although in the United States such organizations—including Prostitutes of New York (PONY) and Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE)—wield relatively minimal political power, sex workers unions in other countries are a part of the larger labor movement and—as in the case of De Rode Draad (The Red Thread) in Amsterdam or the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Kolkata (Calcutta)—may have a more substantial political voice in their respective governments.


Chapkis, Wendy. 1997. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge.

Delacoste, Frédérique, and Priscilla Alexander, eds. 1998. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

International Labour Organization. 1998. "Sex Industry Assuming Massive Proportions in Southeast Asia." Press release, August 19. Available from

Oppermann, Martin, ed. 1998. Sex Tourism and Prostitution: Aspects of Leisure, Recreation, and Work. Elmsford, NY: Cognizant Communication.

Rasmussen, Debbie. 2006. "Carnal Knowledge: Talking Labor with Sex Work Magazine $pread." Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, 33: 46-51. Interview with Rachel Aimee, Rebecca Lynn, Audacia Ray, and Eliyanna Kaiser.

Schlosser, Eric. 1997. "The Business of Pornography." U.S. News and World Report 122(5): 42-50.

Weitzer, Ronald, ed. 2000. Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry. New York: Routledge.

                                        Maureen Lauder