“The Oldest Profession”: Sex Work through the Lenses of History, Feminism, and Sociology

history, Sociology

By Kayla Pritchard

Prostitution (i.e., the sale/purchase of sexual services) existed in Deadwood, South Dakota, from 1876 until 1980, when the last brothel was raided by the FBI. Many of the citizens fought (unsuccessfully) to keep the brothels, seeing them as an important part of their history and the women as a valuable part of the community. Thus, 124 years of technically illegal prostitution ended in Deadwood, a town that today highly values its “wild west” past. In the fall of 2020, the Deadwood Historical Society opened The Brothel – Deadwood, a museum offering tours and interpretation, in one of the original brothels. Given my academic background, I was consulted to comment on prostitution when the museum was being constructed. Parts of my interview play on loop, along with the interviews of others, in an alcove in the museum.

The sign advertising The Brothel – Deadwood.

Just down the road in Rapid City, I gave a talk on prostitution on August 17th for STEAM Café (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), a series that represents a partnership between South Dakota Mines and Hay Camp Brewing, offering a talk on the third Thursday of each month. Prostitution and, more broadly, sex work are often viewed as unsavory, immoral, and only something that women do out of desperation. These stereotypes are culturally pervasive, offering an overly simplified view of sex work and sex workers. Furthermore, narratives painting sex work as either empowering or exploitative also miss the point about larger systemic forces at work in the “choice” whether or not to engage in sex work. Ultimately what is missing is a sociological lens that challenges us to look beyond individuals and focus on the structures and systems around them.

Before we get too deep in the weeds, though, I want to offer some definitions:

  • Prostitution: exchanging sexual activity with someone for payment (e.g., money or goods).
  • Sex Work: a term coined by Carol Leigh (an activist in San Francisco) in the 1980s to refer to sex that generates income, this term can be used to refer to a range of sex-related occupations: cam girls, sugar babies, streetwalking, brothels, escorts, phone sex, exotic dancers, strippers, etc.
  • Sex trafficking: sexual acts performed through force, fraud, and/or coercion where the victim holds little to no power in the situation.

So prostitution is sex work, but not all sex work is prostitution. And sex trafficking is separate from prostitution, using force and control of the person made to sell sexual services.

Often called “the oldest profession,” evidence for prostitution as an occupation dates to 2400 BCE in Mesopotamia. In the modern world, prostitution ranges from completely legal (e.g., Turkey, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Germany, Hungary, Greece) to completely illegal (e.g., South Africa, United States, China, Russia) with gradients of legality in between. For example, the Nordic Model used in nations such as Sweden, Norway, France, and Canada criminalizes the purchase, rather than the sale, of sex in an effort to reduce demand. New Zealand is the only nation in the world to have completely decriminalized prostitution. This means that there are no criminal penalties for selling or purchasing sexual services. Arguments exist for and against all these treatments of prostitution, which I won’t get into here. The point is that there is no one standard way that nations view or handle prostitution.

Joachim Bueckelaer, Brothel (1562)

As an experience, prostitution is gendered. This means that we cannot talk about prostitution specifically and sex work more broadly without paying attention to who is typically doing the selling and who is typically doing the buying. Globally, the majority of prostitutes are women – roughly 4 out of 5. Cultural views and stereotypes tend to assume that the person selling sex is a woman and the person buying is a man. In fact, if we want to talk about men who sell sex, we have to use the qualifier “male”: male prostitute, male escort. This gendering of prostitutes has influenced cultural views of them. Since the Victorian period (roughly most of the 19th century), “fallen women” have been viewed as criminals, immoral and indecent, licentious and wanton, and carriers of disease. They have been painted as representations of bad choices and poor circumstances.

Feminism (n): at its core, a political and personal perspective that everyone should have the same political, economic, and personal rights. While there are many different (and sometimes conflicting) types of feminism, this is its basic premise.

As a result of those negative representations, starting in the 1960s, some feminists have sought to reframe prostitution as empowering. In this view, women should be free to sell sexual services as long as there are buyers. Choosing if and when to perform sex work gives women control over their bodies and sexuality within a society that has tried to control and stigmatize such acts. This framing of prostitution categorizes it as just another profession deserving of protections and recognizes that sex work is work.

While the view of sex work as empowering has improved the safety and health of sex workers in various locales, another view interrogates the idea of choice in prostitution. Poverty, drug dependency, and physical/emotional abuse are the main factors that push women into prostitution. As such, do women really make a “choice” to do sex work?

This feminist interpretation of prostitution argues that the commodification of women’s bodies (e.g., something to be bought and sold) erases one’s humanity and reinforces the stigma of prostitutes as immoral, criminal, and disposable. As such, prostitution and sex work exploit vulnerable women and reinforce societal gender and sexual inequality.


But for most of the women in prostitution, "sex work" is not an abstract symbol of empowerment or exercise in intersectional feminism. It's something they need to do to survive or to support their families.

Sarah Fletcher, as quoted in The Atlantic, Feb. 26, 2016

Both of the above frames of prostitution have value, and their arguments should not be ignored. But by focusing on the individual – what she did/didn’t do, her individual empowerment/exploitation – we lose sight of the systems and structures that led her to that situation in the first place.

This is where a sociological lens is especially useful. What if instead we shifted our focus to the systems and structures that created the circumstances where a woman might choose prostitution? For example, if drug dependency leads women to choose to sell sex, then offering treatment, education, employment, and housing services might lead her to a vastly different choice. If all persons were provided with a quality K-12 education, safe neighborhoods, real economic options other than minimum wage work, affordable housing, and help rather than criminalization, what kind of choices would we see people making? What would truly free choice look like when it comes to sex work?

Sex Workers’ Rights Protest in San Francisco, with activist Carol Leigh on the left. Image credit: Eliya Selhub.

I am not implying that real, meaningful structural change is easy. It’s not. As a sociologist, the more I can encourage people to think about the broader systems, structures, and context around them, the more nuanced and far-reaching their observations and conclusions will be. By refocusing analyses of sex work to systems rather than individuals, we can see the links across contexts and work towards real solutions. If an issue is specific to just one person, then that is an individual problem. If an issue is experienced by a great number of people, that is a social problem. We can create change that is about more than just sex work. Rather than focusing on how tragic their circumstances were/are and encouraging them to do “better” for themselves, we should look at the commonalities between their situations. What if we more broadly recognized the complexity of individual circumstances?

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