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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.
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.
Some sex workers perform erotic dances and other acts for an audience (striptease, Go-Go dancing, lap dancing, Neo-burlesque, and peep shows).
Sexual surrogates often engage in sexual activity as part of therapy with their clients.
For example, one study of sex work in Tijuana, Mexico found that the majority of sex workers there are young, female and heterosexual.
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.
Exner, an American psychologist, worked with his fellow colleagues to create five distinct classes for categorizing sex workers.
One scholarly article details the classes as follows: "specifically, the authors articulated Class I, or the upper class of the profession, consisting of call girls; Class II was referred to as the middle class, consisting of 'in-house girls' who typically work in an establishment on a commission basis; Class III, the lower middle class, were 'streetwalkers' whose fees and place of work fluctuate considerably; Class IV sex workers have been known as 'commuter housewives', and they are typically involved in sex work to supplement family income; and Class V consists of 'streetwalker addicts', or 'drugs-for-sex streetwalkers' who are considered the lower class of the profession." The term sex worker was coined in 1978 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh.
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.
The term "sex worker" has since spread into much wider use, including in academic publications, by NGOs and labor unions, and by governmental and intergovernmental agencies, such as the World Health Organization.