Sex workers may be any gender and exchange sexual services or favors for money or other gifts.
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.
Some people use the term to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute.
The term "sex worker" was coined in 1978 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh.
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The term is used in reference to all those in all areas of the sex industry including those who provide direct sexual services as well as the staff of such industries.
Its use became popularized after publication of the anthology, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry in 1987, edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander.
Sexual surrogates often engage in sexual activity as part of therapy with their clients.
Thus, although the term sex worker is sometimes viewed as a synonym or euphemism for prostitute, it is more general.
Other sex workers are paid to engage in live sexual performance, such as web cam sex and performers in live sex shows.
Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience (striptease, Go-Go dancing, lap dancing, Neo-burlesque, and peep shows).
The term is strongly opposed, however, by many who are morally opposed to the sex industry, such as social conservatives, anti-prostitution feminists, and other prohibitionists.
Such groups view prostitution variously as a crime or as victimization, and see the term "sex work" as legitimizing criminal activity or exploitation as a type of labor.