Beyond the Stereotypes: A Deep Dive Into Sex Work

Produced by the HRC Foundation

Sex work. We all see it across tv, in the news, or maybe even on platforms like OnlyFans, but the diverse experiences of those involved in this profession are deeper and more comprehensive than you may know. Dispelling misconceptions, challenging stigmas, and promoting a perspective that recognizes the agency, rights, and well-being of sex workers is how we can ensure that we have a more holistic approach to ending health care disparities.

Spectrum of Sex Work

Sex work is the exchange of sexual services for money or something of value (erotic dancing, adult film actors, BDSM workers, etc.). Individuals engage in sex work for a variety of reasons, which could include choice, circumstance, and coercion.

Sex Work As Survival

Sex work is often part of a survival economy. When society makes access to health care, education, food, water, and shelter extremely inaccessible or unaffordable to many people and families across the country, biased political leaders strategically use those barriers and the gaps they create to target marginalized communities or any group they deem as an “other.”

The criminalization of sex work is rooted in stigmatization and a sex shaming culture. Society over-polices and shames sex work under the guise of ‘keeping the community safe,’ but all it ultimately does is punish and dehumanize sex workers while perpetuating the existing societal structures that may have coerced or placed people in a circumstance where sex work becomes survival. This practice threatens human rights for vulnerable communities, deprives them of access to essential social, economic, and health systems, and makes it that much harder to end epidemics such as HIV, mpox, and health care disparities.

In addition to the desperation someone may feel in this situation, imagine the added burden for those who are medically dependent, such as individuals who need gender-affirming services and/or whose health and life depends on their adherence to sexual health services such as HIV treatment.

The “Legal” Targeting of Poverty

Social Determinants of Health are disproportionately impacted by current policies and legislation against sex workers. The policies affect historically marginalized identities such as LGBTQ+ communities, and have especially targeted transgender folks.

These policies negate the survival economy sex workers are forced into, demonize and dehumanize them, and paint them not as people but “threats.”

Systemic Barriers that Sex Workers Face:

Shame & Stigma Prevents Ending the HIV Epidemic

Institutional punishment such as incarceration, and discriminatory policies in health care interfere with attempts to solve current health issues—such as the global HIV epidemic and the transmission of STD’s and STI’s across the country—and cause economic hardship and worsened access to health care. This hurts the ability for non-profits and health focused organizations to provide care towards ending the epidemic and dealing with public health crises, which worsens health outcomes for society as a whole.

A red umbrella symbolizes the sex workers rights movement across the globe.

The simple fact is that we can’t end HIV without providing support to both sex workers and their sexual partners, and the key to that is removing stigma and providing social aid. The prevalence of HIV in sex workers is 12x that of the average population. Our international goal of ending the HIV epidemic involves taking care of sex workers as an important factor in finding success. As Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

How You Can Support

Learn & Live into Sexual Health:

Learning about sex practices is empowering and important for everyone. Take control of your sexual health by checking out our My Body, My Health initiative to find sexual health resources, services on prevention, testing, treatment options, U=U, sex positivity, local providers, and more!

Embrace Your Sexuality

We're building a generation free of HIV and stigma. Embrace sex positivity with My Body, My Health campaign. Are you in?

The Human Rights Campaign reports on news, events and resources of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that are of interest to the general public and further our common mission to support the LGBTQ+ community.

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