In the worldwide escort girls in Tel Aviv and women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase “sex work” first appeared at a critical juncture. The term “prostitute” was first used by American sex worker, performer, academic, and activist Carol Leigh, and it denoted a change from the previous connotations of moral corruption, filth, and helplessness sometimes conveyed by the term. Sex work draws attention to the labor-intensive socio-sexual and financial transactions that make up this foundational institution. The phrase sparked movements for the rights of sex workers and served to bring together those who work in the sex industry with other marginalized groups, including migrant and immigrant organizations, human rights coalitions, advocates for workplace safety, and various organizations that support the welfare of women, girls, and others. Although some people use the terms interchangeably, many escort girls, activists, and academics prefer the phrase “sex work” over “prostitution.” In order to advance their reformist agendas, those in radical, abolitionist, and evangelical circles who see all forms of sex work as oppressive, passive manifestations of male violence against women frequently utilize the earlier term “prostitute,” frequently as a verb in the past tense, “prostituted.”

Almost every discipline that is known has been interested in the topic for more than a century, and it is just expanding. Individual researchers, community-based organizations, multi million-dollar partnerships backed by public, private, and corporate interests, as well as those who operate in the sex industry themselves, conduct these studies. Numerous efforts driven by the sex industry serve as effective catalysts for political activism. As more sex work research and associated projects come out of the Global South, the traditional focus of these studies has shifted from the Global North or by Northern Scholars to the Global South.