Shared language is foundational to shared understanding. Below are terms you’ll see on this website with definitions and some context. Keep in mind that not everyone uses the same terms of identity as they might in political or public space.
2257 Regulations: A set of strict regulations for pornography, where producers are required to keep documentation of all performers readily accessible for law enforcement. Read more.
230: Or CDA 230 is the section of the Communications and Decency Act which says that internet platforms are not legally liable for the content posted by users on their websites. SESTA/FOSTA was the first attempt by Congress to restrict section 230. Read more.
Abolition: Historically, the term abolition has come to refer to structural violence – slavery, prisons, police. In the late 1800s, temperance movements sought to capitalize on the attachment to abolition movements in their efforts to end the sex trade and co-opted abolition and slavery language to galvanize their base. Since then, people who oppose the sex industry may refer to themselves as “abolitionists” and refer to their attempts to increase criminalization as an “abolitionist” model to further that co-optation and silencing of communities doing important work to abolition systems of violence and oppression. To understand the proper use of this term, read more about Critical Resistance’s approach to abolition of the prison industrial complex.
Camming/Cam Performer: An area of the sex industry which involves digitally streaming an explicit performance, usually as a live performance. The major difference between camming and porn is that camming is generally a live performance to a smaller audience, often a single client with whom the performer may interact with, as opposed to pornography, which is usually filmed and available to an audience who does not interact with the performer.
Client: In term of the sex trade, a client is someone who purchases sexual services. For service providers, they may be referring to individuals who utilize their services.
Commercial Sex: Sex where something of value is exchanged.
Decriminalization: A legal regime where the exchange of sexual services and operation of the sex trade do not face criminal penalties. The industry is regulated similar to the way other industry/labor regulations are approached. Under this regime, violence, patronizing a minor, and trafficking all remain criminalized. This model is currently operating in New Zealand and one province in Australia.
End Demand: A campaign or legal regime which criminalizes the purchase of sexual services.
Harm Reduction: A philosophical framework rooted in community and abolition of structural violence, which recognizes that behaviors are inherently neutral, but do come with associated risk, and it is possible to reduce that risk while not trying to curb the underlying behavior. A common example of harm reduction is the use of seatbelts while driving a car. An example of community-focused harm reduction is the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program for local youth, where the structural harm was poverty and food instability and the intervention was to provide free food. While not directly addressing the structural inequity with that specific act, it addressed the immediate harm that was compromising the wellbeing of individuals.
Legalization: A prominent model in several European countries and Nevada, where commercial sex is legal within very strict parameters. These parameters may be within specific geographic areas (Amsterdam), within regulated brothels (Nevada), or other other restrictions such as licensing.
Mann Act: Previously the White Slave Traffic Act, the Mann Act was passed in 1910 to federally criminalize the crossing of state lines for “prostitution or debauchery or any other immoral purpose.” While the initial debate structured immoral purposes around engaging in prostitution, implementation of the law was far broader, especially criminalizing cross-racial relationships. In 1986 the broad definition was constrained to crossing state lines for “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” While mostly associated with engagement in prostitution, this also includes crimes such as statutory rape or sexual assault. In 2018, the law was once against broadened through the passage of FOSTA/SESTA by including a provision that criminalized people who operate internet platforms which “facilitate prostitution.”
Madame: A colloquial feminized term for a third party who manages individuals selling sex.
Nordic Model: A legal regime of criminalization which makes the purchasing of sexual services a criminal act. While referred to as the Nordic model, there are slight differences between the legal regime of each country which has implemented this model. Also known as “End Demand”, “Swedish Model” and more recently the “Equality Model,” this model was first implemented in Sweden in 1999 and is now operating in seven additional countries.
Organising/Organizing Laws: International terminology for laws that govern the arrangement of commercial sex, but not the buying and selling. In the United States, this would be laws such as brothel keeping, pandering, or promoting. While these laws would cover a traditional manager, they often criminalize peers and collective work as well.
Pandering/Promoting/Pimping/Procuring/Facilitation: Each state criminalizes third parties who support and assist people to engage in commercial sex using some combination of these terms, which may have differing or overlapping definitions. In their most common forms, pandering is identifying clients for a sex work, promoting is posting an advertisement for another person, pimping is often receiving the proceeds from another person’s exchange of sex, procuring is identifying someone to engage in commercial sex or bringing another person into a session, and facilitation is anything that supports a person to engage in commercial sex.
Pornography: A form of commercial sexual performance which involves printed, photographed, or recorded sexual explicit material. This is generally a legalized area of the sex trade.
Prostitution: The direct exchange of sexual services for resources. Prostitution is criminalized in every state in the US, except for within a small number of legalized brothels in Nevada. Prostitution has historically was used as a derogatory term for promiscuous women, not necessarily connected to commercial exchange. Currently, it is most accurately used as legal terminology in reference to sections of the criminal code (ie. “this bill would remove the prostitution charges from their record”) and should not be used as a term of identity unless a person determines that they would prefer that term. **This parameter is specific to an American context, and in other areas of the world with a different relationship and history, the term is viewed differently.
Punter: Terminology for a client/patron of the sex trade more common internationally, mostly used in the UK and Australia.
Sex Trafficking: (See Trafficking) A unique facet of the US definition of the criminal code is to bifurcate the definition of trafficking in persons into two different crimes – sex trafficking, which is human trafficking which involves a commercial sexual act or where the individual was under the age of 18 and labor trafficking, human trafficking without a commercial sexual act. This arbitrary distinction was created in order to convey that sexual labor is not considered work in the United States. This has also resulted in differing resource allocation, legislative changes, and penalties. There is no reason to use “sex trafficking” outside of referring to a specific statute.
Sex Work: The commercial exchange of sexual services or performance for resources, including monetary resources. The term was coined by sex worker and activist Carol Leigh in the 1970s and has become the dominant terminology around the world, used by academics, public health, and sex worker communities themselves. People may refer to themselves as sex workers, which does not convey which sector of the industry they are working in. Not everyone involved in commercial sexual exchange uses this as a term of identity (a sex worker).
Solicitation: The agreement to exchange sexual services, not requirement contact or fulfillment. Almost all states criminalize solicitation either explicitly or as a subpart of a prostitution law.
Street-based sex work: Commercial sex where the advertising and connecting with clients primarily happens in a public location. The actual interaction may happen in a range of locations, including indoors, and it may also include elements of digital advertising, such as posting on a site like Backpage the location that a sex worker will be. Because of the level of visibility and targeting by law enforcement and the public, street-based sex workers face higher rates of violence and victimization.
Stripper/Dancer/Exotic dancer: Someone engaged in erotic performance, usually working in a club. This is a legal form of the sex industry, with varying regulations depending on jurisdiction. Different groups, communities, and individuals have differing relationships to which term is most appropriate to describe their work, and it is best to ask which is preferred.
Survival Sex Work: A contested term which may have differing meanings or levels of acceptance based on the audience, a survival sex work is someone engaged in commercial sex in order to provide immediate survival needs, such as food, shelter, or substances. While most workers consider engaging labor as necessary for survival, the needs and desires of survival sex workers are often far more immediate and premised on more fundamental resources.
Third-Parties: People who are involved in commercial sex but are not the buyer or the seller. This could be a manager, peer, partner or other worker who is performing a variety of functions outside of the act of exchanging sex.
Trafficking in Persons/Human Trafficking: From the United Nations’ Polermo Protocol, which internationally codified the term. “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” Read more on the issue of trafficking. (Note: The United States does not include forced organ removal under the crime of trafficking in persons.) Read the federal law, 18 USC 1591 “Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion”.
White Slavery: A term which originated in the early 1800s and initially referred to white laborers in slave-like working conditions in the United States, re-affirming the equating of slavery with Blackness. In the early 1900s, Christian temperance movements which sought to end the sex trade co-opted language around slavery and abolition for their campaign, and re-purposed the term to refer to commercial sex.