A sex worker is a person who provides sexual services in return for payment.
The term 'sex worker' has various advantages as compared with 'prostitute':
- It places prostitution and other sex work in a clearly economic context. This is appropriate given the reasons that generally lead people to this kind of work.
- It avoids the negative connotations of the word 'prostitute.' Although 'prostitute' and 'prostitution' are theoretically purely descriptive terms, unlike 'tart,' 'hooker,' 'rent boy,' and the like, they have nonetheless been contaminated by the moralising contexts in which they have so frequently been used, as also by their metaphoric use: to say of someone that they have prostituted themselves or prostituted their art, for example, is quite clearly to state something negative.
- It makes it clear that the sex worker is a worker, often dependent on and exploited by an employer. Although it might be expected that in a job where the main item of capital is ones own body, very few sex workers are in a position to work independently. The use of the term has proved useful to attract the attention of the Trade Union Movement, other NGOs, governmental and international agencies to the problems of exploitation, health and safety facing sex workers, by describing those workers in familiar terms with a clear relationship to the organisations' mandates.
- It is more general than 'prostitute,' also covering pornographic actresses and actors, telephone sex operators, other sexual performers, and sexual masseuses. Since the businesses providing these various services and the working conditions found in them have much in common, and their ownership often overlaps, this could be seen as a useful generalisation.
In general, the term is usefully neutral. Some of those who oppose prostitution on religious, moral or feminist grounds object to it for precisely that reason, arguing that it tends to legitimise or hide immorality or exploitation. I personally tend to the view that it is useful to be able to separate the description of a phenomenon from an assessment of its political, moral, or theological status.