Commercial Sex Worker - CSW

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What is a Commercial Sex Worker?

A commercial sex worker (CSW) is an individual who exchanges sex for money or other valuable goods, such as drugs. Scientists prefer to use this term, rather than the more derogatory terms below, because it is descriptive rather than judgmental, and not associated with as much negative cultural baggage.

Also Known As: prostitute, whore

Commercial Sex Workers, Safe Sex, and STDs

In the United States, commercial sex work is highly stigmatized.

The most common forms are also illegal in most states. However, the risks of engaging in commercial sex are not always the same. They vary based on a number of factors -- including the types of activities engaged in. There are, for example, forms of commercial sex, such as professional domination, that are relatively risk free -- at least from the perspective of STDs. There are other forms of commercial sex that are high risk, such as unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

Furthermore, although not all commercial sex workers are knowledgeable about safe sex precautions, many are and are quite proactive about safety and self care. Those sex workers who have the power and autonomy to be able to consistently negotiate safe sex with their clients, may be smarter and more sensible about their sexual activity than people who have lots of casual sex for free.

Conflating Sex Work and Sex Trafficking

Many activists and academics, not to mention members of the general public, conflate sex work with sex trafficking.

However, they are not the same thing. Sex trafficking is defined, by the Department of Homeland Security as the use of "force, fraud, or coercion" to lure individuals into commercial sexual exploitation. Some people engaged in sex work have been trafficked. Others have chosen to engage in commercial sex work for their own combination of financial, personal, and/or other reasons.

Unfortunately, the current enforcement climate around commercial sex work in the U.S. focuses on prosecuting sex workers rather than their clients or the people who traffic them. It is easier to blame and stigmatize sex workers than to question the activity of their, often highly privileged male clientele.

In 2015 this was seen in the discussion of Charlie Sheen's HIV diagnosis. Sheen attempted to shift the stigma of that diagnosis on to the sex workers he had repeatedly hired -- using highly negative language to talk about them without ever discussing his own culpability in his actions. In addition, news reports suggest that he refused to use condoms with sex workers. He also continued to engage in risky sex after he was diagnosed with HIV, showing no respect for safety or bodily autonomy of the women he hired.


Aynalem G, Smith L, Bemis C, Taylor M, Hawkins K, Kerndt P. Commercial sex venues: a closer look at their impact on the syphilis and HIV epidemics among men who have sex with men. Sex Transm Infect. 2006 Dec;82(6):439-43.

Department of Homeland Security (2015, September 12) "What is Human Trafficking" Accessed 12/15/15 at

Witte SS, Wada T, El-Bassel N, Gilbert L, Wallace J. Predictors of female condom use among women exchanging street sex in New York City. Sex Transm Dis. 2000 Feb;27(2):93-100.

Yahr, E (2015, November 23) "Charlie Sheen put a spotlight on HIV and sex workers. But here’s what’s missing from the conversation." Washington Post. Accessed 12/15/15 at

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