Tactics of Abuse That May Affect Sex Workers

By Sarah, a Hotline Advocate

Sex worker” is a term used to refer to people who work in all aspects of the sex trades, indoor or street-based, legal and criminalized. Sex work can include people who trade sex for money as well as safety, drugs, hormones, survival needs like food shelter or clothing, or immigration status or documentation. Sex workers are especially vulnerable to sexual and intimate partner violence.

Anyone planning to leave an abusive relationship faces obstacles, both from their abuser and the lack of understanding about why people stay in abusive relationships. When the survivor of abuse is a sex worker, they may face even more challenges when planning to leave safely, access resources, or pursue legal action.

There are various types of sex work–from phone sex workers who never have any kind of physical contact with their clients to exotic dancers and to professional dominatrices who consensually push their clients to their mental and physical limits–and many reasons that a person may choose to engage in it. The reasons why people engage in sex work are varied. Like other fields of of labor some sex workers are unable to gain employment, while others may engage in sex work as a form of subsistence living, which is especially common among socially marginalized groups, including the LBGTQ+ community; non-English speaking populations, including recent immigrants; and those with mental health issues.

At this time, most types of sex work are illegal or unregulated in the United States, therefore, a  survivor who is a sex worker may face very specific tactics of abuse by their partner. An abusive partner may threaten to call law enforcement on their partner, or interfere with their ability to go to work, or withhold money that the survivor has earned–which are forms of financial abuse. Survivors in abusive relationships may experience the same behaviors of an abusive relationship with non-sex workers but here are some additional behaviors they can experience:

Tactics of Abuse That May Specifically Affect Sex Workers

The specific types of abuse a survivor is facing should be taken into consideration when creating a safety plan. If the abusive partner is involved in arranging employment for the survivor, it may be financially challenging for the survivor to leave, but survivors are super creative and resilient. If the survivor works at a club or regular location, showing a photograph or giving a description, of the abusive partner to any security at the venue can be a good way of making sure an abuser does not disrupt the survivor’s work or intentionally cause them to lose employment. Some states offer address confidentiality programs, so that if a survivor moves, they can make sure their abuser does not find their new address through public records.

If possible, carpooling or using “the buddy system” when arriving to and leaving work is a valuable way of staying safer when an abusive partner resorts to stalking. Making sure that a trusted friend is always aware of where the survivor will be working is an easy method of staying safer. For example, apps like KiteString can make that process even simpler. Coming up with a code word that can be texted to that buddy in an emergency may also be useful:the buddy can come pick up the survivor or arrange transportation. Being familiar with the streets and neighborhood around where the survivor is working can be useful in planning for an emergency situation where a survivor must leave work immediately.

Sex workers may not want to involve law enforcement when dealing with an abusive situation, out of concern that they may be arrested themselves. Bias against sex workers might lead law enforcement to characterize domestic violence as “a trick gone bad” or otherwise attribute abuse to “workplace hazards,” rather than treat it as a crime. 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 many others, it is legal for police and courts to use the possession of condoms as evidence of solicitation.

Social stigma against sex workers may also cause a survivor to hesitate to reach out to local resources like shelters, and some domestic violence organizations do discriminate against residents who break the law. Regardless of criminal history, anyone who is a survivor of abuse is legally entitled to protection under the law. All survivors deserve to be treated with respect, and believed. HIPS is a Washington, DC-based organization that provides support and information for people involved in the sex trade/exchange that may be a useful resource for survivor-sex workers. For all survivors of abuse or assault, self-care and counseling can be powerful methods of processing and overcoming trauma. This article from RAINN talks about  how to determine if a therapist is right for a survivor of sexual abuse/assault; while this one from our website has some suggestions for easy self-care.

Sex Trafficking

When someone is forced, coerced or threatened into sex work, they may be a victim of sex trafficking, and anyone under 18 who engages in sex work is considered a victim of trafficking under U.S. law. Sex traffickers may recruit victims by promising them lawful, paid work, often as models or dancers, but once lured into the situation, they are unable to access their earnings or stop doing 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 and learn more about the signs of trafficking at Polaris Project.

If you are a sex worker or the loved one of a sex worker in an abusive situation, our advocates are here to talk with you by chat and phone every day.

Additional resources:

  • The HIPS Hotline helps those impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance by phone, 24/7 at 1-800-676-HIPS
  • FORGE offers anti-violence support for members of the trans community and can supply referrals to local providers by phone at 1-414-559-2123
  • The Northwest Network and The Network/La Red provide support services to LGBTQIA+ survivors of sexual abuse and assault
  • The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) and also offers an online chat
  • After Silence and Pandora’s Project are useful websites offering support for survivors of sexual violence
  • Male Survivor is a great resource for male survivors of sexual abuse and assault
  • The Planned Parenthood Chatline offers support and education to anyone with questions or concerns about their reproductive health


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