Hesperian Health Guides

Why People Do Sex Work

In this chapter:

Sex work is a job that people do for different reasons. As with any job, sex workers should be paid fairly and treated respectfully.

People become sex workers for many reasons. Some choose to do sex work. Many people do sex work because it gets them the money they need to survive or to support their families. No matter the reason, people who trade sex for money should be treated with dignity and respect.

Sex work may offer better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. Some people do sex work to explore or express their sexuality.

People who do sex work because of need are often in situations beyond their control. A partner’s death may make survival and supporting a family difficult. A rape or an unplanned pregnancy may limit opportunities for marriage or jobs. Wars and natural disasters may leave few ways to earn money. Sometimes sex work may be the only option.

a girl taking money from a man while two other girls walk to school
Some people start sex work at a young age. There are few job options for young people, and the pay and the hours of sex work may allow someone to finish their education.

Story of a poor woman

Every morning around 9 o’clock, Nawal (not her real name) steps out of the tiny room she shares with her husband, locks her two small children inside, and walks to the wealthy area of town where she works. Wearing a traditional dress with faded colors and a black scarf thrown loosely around her head, she looks just like any other poor woman you see everywhere in Cairo, Egypt. She is not. Nawal is 20 years old and she is a sex worker.

Working a certain street until it is time to go home, around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, Nawal earns an average of LE 150 (US $6) a day. She does not work on Fridays or religious holidays so she can spend time with her family: her husband Karim, who works occasionally as a construction worker, their 4-year-old son, and their 1-year-old daughter. Two years later, after giving birth to her first child, Nawal had to look for a job. Karim was getting less and less work. With no education or skills, she tried working as a house cleaner in an apartment building. But she stopped when the building guards refused to let her into the building unless she had sex with them.

Nawal describes herself, in the work she does, as a “servant.” She knows she has to save money for her children: “I want my children to go to school.”

Because her work is not considered “real” work, Nawal and thousands of women like her get no help from the government or the police. Nawal has been robbed several times, but no one would help her. Officially, she does not exist. Nawal does not like her job, but neither does Karim or their relatives who also struggle to survive.
—from an interview by Ahmed Badawi

Sex trafficking is a violation of human rights. Someone who has been trafficked is doing sex work against their will. This is different from sex workers who willingly sell sex.

Some people are forced or tricked into selling sex. This is called sex trafficking. People who are trafficked may have been brought to a new country illegally where they have no rights, no money, and no way to return home. Or they may have large debts to repay to the people forcing them to sell sex, or they may fear violence if they try to leave. This makes it almost impossible for them to stop selling sex.

a man offering a girl to another man
a woman with small children in a house; a man looks at her through the window
This girl was sold by her family to a person who said he had a job for her in another country. Instead, she was sold again to a brothel owner who forces her to sell sex. This woman lost her home and land when her husband died, because there were no laws saying his property must be given to his wife. Now she has no money. She started selling sex to feed her children.

This page was updated:13 Nov 2023