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5 Things to know about the history of sex workers

Modern-day sex workers defy common stereotypes, even though they’re typically reviled as “the other woman,” or embraced as a symbol of opulence, extravagance and sexual expression. Here are five things you may not know about modern sex workers, and the history of their fight for human rights.

Disclaimer: Since sex work is often an underground activity, cross-national studies and statistics are notoriously challenging to come by, and estimates change year-round. However, available research thematically demonstrates that many sex workers start young, some are trafficked and most are at an increased risk of violence and human rights violations.

1. Sex work typically starts very young

Every sex worker must start somewhere, and research from various sources, like the University of Pennsylvania and Shared Hope International, suggests that many workers begin as minors between the ages of 12 and 14. These young girls are particularly at-risk for violence, addiction and disease due to the nature of their work and the few precautions available to them. By federal law, any young woman who begins sex work as a minor is considered a victim of human trafficking.

2. Many sex workers were victimized as children

Furthermore, a study published by the National Institutes of Health found that nearly all sex workers experienced some form of childhood abuse and neglect prior to their entry into the industry. The study found that 73 percent of the surveyed sex workers were physically abused as children, 33 percent were sexually abused, 87 percent were emotionally abused and between 85 and 93 percent were neglected. These high rates of abuse, in fact, are often responsible for the early age of entry into sex work, when young teenagers run away to escape the home abuse.

3. Sex workers are 40 times more likely to die

Even for the sex workers who enjoy their work and find it empowering, the industry is rife with grave danger. According to a study published in Women’s Law, prostitutes have a death rate that is 40 times as high as that of non-prostitutes. Their risks are multifaceted, in that they’re far more likely to be murdered or raped than the average woman — and they’re also more likely to contract life-threatening disease or addiction while working.

4. Sex workers have to fight for human rights

Although the issue of sex work is highly contentious, most people can agree that sex workers deserve physical protection and equal rights as humans. Unfortunately, sex workers have historically experienced harassment by police, discrimination by employers and exclusion of themselves and their children from entire communities of people.

In the 1970s, a former American sex worker formed COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) to lobby for the decriminalization of sex work, elimination of stigma and prevention of disease and violence against sex workers. COYOTE built steam until the 1980s, when AIDS arrived and public opinion about sexual freedom shut down the movement toward decriminalization of the industry. Now, the major push of the sex worker rights movement is to educate the public and protect the health and well-being of sex workers from disease, violence and the legal system.

5. Sex work is a contentious issue of feminist concern

The feminist jury is out on whether to embrace or condemn sex work. One feminist camp says that sex work is empowering, economically advantageous and only dangerous because it’s unregulated and illegal. The other camp says that sex work is, by its very nature, exploitative of women, highly dangerous and based upon abuse, trafficking and violence.

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