Abuse and Sex Workers

There are many forms of sex work, from phone sex workers to exotic dancers and professional dominatrices who push their clients to their limits consensually. Despite the various reasons people engage in sex work, abuse does not discriminate. Here are some of the ways sex workers are more vulnerable to abuse.

What is a sex worker?

The term “sex worker” refers to people involved in the sex trade in all its forms, whether indoors or outdoors, legal or illegal. A sex worker may trade sex for money, safety, drugs, hormones, or survival needs like food, shelter, clothing, immigration status, or documentation. Workers in the sex industry are vulnerable to abuse, including abuse by their intimate partners and sexual abuse.

Similarly to other fields of work, some sexual workers cannot find employment. Others engage in sexual work as a means of subsistence. Socially marginalized groups, including LGBTQIA+, non-English speaking populations such as immigrants, and people with mental health problems, are particularly prone to sex work.

Abuse and sex workers

When it comes to leaving an abusive relationship, people face obstacles both from their abuser and from a lack of understanding about remaining in abusive relationships. A sex worker who has been abused may face significant challenges when leaving safely, obtaining resources, or filing a lawsuit.

In the United States, sex work is generally illegal or unregulated. As a result, a sex worker’s partner may use specific abuse tactics. An abusive partner may threaten to call the police on their partner. Consequently, the survivor may be unable to work as a result. In addition to sexual abuse, a survivor may also suffer financial abuse from an abusive partner who withholds their money.

Tactics of abusive partners

Sex workers may experience the same behaviors as non-sex workers in abusive relationships, but they may also experience other behaviors. Abusive partners commonly use the following tactics to abuse sex workers:

  • Threatens to report the survivor or sex worker to law enforcement or immigration authorities if they are not a citizen.
  • Intimidates or threatens to “out” the survivor as a sex worker to family or friends.
  • Withholds or takes a percentage of the survivor’s earnings from sex work. The abusive partner may also punish the survivor for not earning enough, or deny them the right to use the money they make. These are forms of financial abuse.
  • Exploit the survivor through sexual coercion or sexual abuse due to their employment (e.g., “you have sex with people for money, so you should have sex with me”).
  • Uses reproductive coercion by denying medical care, including STI testing, access to birth control, abortion, or prenatal care.
  • Minimizes the survivor’s feelings by blaming them for their negative work experiences and abuse from clients (also known as a form of emotional abuse called gaslighting).
the effect of abuse on sex workers.
the effect of abuse on sex workers.

Safety plans and sex workers

When creating a safety plan, consider the types of abuse a survivor or sexual worker faces. If the abusive partner arranges employment for the survivor, it may be financially challenging to leave. But survivors are creative and resilient. Suppose the survivor works at a club or regular location. In that case, showing a photograph or describing the abusive partner to any security at the venue can ensure an abuser does not disrupt the survivor’s work or intentionally cause them to lose employment. Some states offer address confidentiality programs. So if a survivor moves, they can ensure their abuser does not find their address through public records.

Sex workers and law enforcement

Sex workers may not want to involve law enforcement when dealing with an abusive situation because they could be arrested. Bias against sex workers might lead law enforcement to characterize domestic violence as “a trick gone bad” or attribute abuse to “workplace hazards” rather than treat it as a crime. Police and law enforcement officials may also target sex workers, arresting them on vague charges like “loitering,” “lewdness,” or “public nuisance,” in addition to charging them with statutes that specifically target sex workers. For instance, in New York state, as well as in other states, police and courts can use condom possession as evidence of solicitation.

Social stigma and sex workers

Social stigma against sexual workers may also cause survivors to hesitate to contact local resources like shelters. There are some domestic violence organizations who may discriminate against sex workers who break the law. Regardless of criminal history, anyone who survives abuse is legally entitled to protection under the law. HIPS, a Washington, DC-based organization, is a helpful resource for survivors in the sex trade or exchange industry. Self-care and counseling can be powerful methods of processing and overcoming trauma for survivors. As part of a sex worker’s treatment plan after experiencing sexual abuse and assault, an article from RAINN describes how sex workers can determine if a therapist is right for them. The Hotline’s website also has some great tips for survivor self-care.

Sex trafficking

When anyone forces, coerces, or threatens someone into sex work, they are victims of sex trafficking. Anyone under 18 who engages in sex work is considered a trafficking victim under U.S. law. Sex traffickers recruit victims by promising lawful, paid work, often as models or dancers. But once lured into the situation, victims of sex trafficking cannot access their earnings or stop sex work. If you suspect that you or a loved one might be a victim of sex trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. You can also learn about human trafficking signs at the Polaris Project.

Helping sex workers

If you or the loved one of a sex worker is in an abusive situation, our advocates are here 24/7 to talk, chat, or text with you about your concerns. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at thehotline.org.

Additional resources

If you are looking for additional assistance, we’ve included more resources for sex workers to help you answer further questions you may have:

  • The Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) Hotline helps sexual workers impacted by sexual exchange or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance by phone at 1-800-676-HIPS (4477). 
  • FORGE offers anti-violence support for the trans community and referrals to local providers by phone at 1-414-559-2123. 
  • The Northwest Network and La Red provide support services to LGBTQIA+ survivors of sexual abuse and assault.
  • The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) Hotline is available 24/7 via chat or by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). 
  • After Silence and Pandora’s Project are useful websites offering support for sexual violence survivors.
  • Male Survivor offers assistance to male survivors of sexual abuse and assault.
  • The Planned Parenthood Chatline offers support and education to anyone with questions or concerns about reproductive health.


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