In most countries, even those where sex work is legal, sex workers may be stigmatized and marginalized, which may prevent them from seeking legal redress for discrimination (e.g., racial discrimination by a strip club owner), non-payment by a client, assault or rape.
Sex worker advocates have identified this as whorephobia.
One report on the underground sex trade in the United States used known data on the illegal drug and weapon trades and interviews with sex workers and pimps in order to draw conclusions about the number of sex workers in eight American cities.
However, studies like this one can come under scrutiny for a perceived emphasis on the activities and perspectives of pimps rather than those of sex workers themselves.
Sex workers can act independently as individuals, work for a company or corporation, or work as part of a brothel.
All of the above can be undertaken either by free choice or by coercion.
These include: striptease, go-go dancing, lap dancing, neo-burlesque, and peep shows.
Sexual surrogates work with psychoanalysts to engage in sexual activity as part of therapy with their clients.
One Canadian study found that a quarter of the sex workers interviewed started sex work because they found it "appealing".Sex workers may be any gender and exchange sexual services or favors for money or other gifts.The motives of sex workers vary widely and can include debt, coercion, survival, or simply as a way to earn a living.Other sex workers are paid to engage in live sexual performance, such as webcam sex and performers in live sex shows.Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience.Another criticism is that sex trafficking may not be adequately assessed in its relation to sex work in these studies.Depending on local law, sex workers' activities may be regulated, controlled, tolerated, or prohibited.Some people use the term sex worker to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute.Using the term sex worker rather than prostitute also allows more members of the sex industry to be represented and helps ensure that individuals who are actually prostitutes are not singled out and associated with the negative connotations of "prostitute." In addition, choosing to use the term sex worker rather than prostitute shows ownership over the individuals career choice.For example, one study of sex work in Tijuana, Mexico found that the majority of sex workers there are young, female and heterosexual.Many of these studies attempt to use smaller samples of sex workers and pimps in order to extrapolate about larger populations of sex workers.Some sex workers are paid to engage in sex acts or sexually explicit behavior which involve varying degrees of physical contact with clients (prostitutes and some but not all professional dominants); pornography models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which are filmed or photographed.Phone sex operators have sexually-oriented conversations with clients, and do auditive sexual roleplay.Thus, although the term sex worker is sometimes viewed as a synonym or euphemism for "prostitute", it is more general.