Intimate Labour and the State: Contrasting Policy Discourses with the Working Experiences of Indoor Sex Workers

  • Jane PitcherEmail author


Drawing on an interview-based study with indoor-based sex workers of different genders in Great Britain, this paper explores the disparity between dominant policy representations of sex workers and the working lives of people selling intimate services. I argue certain policy discourses reinforce narratives of vulnerability and coercion when discussing female sex workers and responses to perceived ‘problems’ of prostitution and neglect the needs of male and transgender sex workers. I contrast messages in policy discourses with the experiences of sex workers across indoor sectors. My study found considerable diversity in working experiences, influenced by factors such as work setting, personal circumstances and aspirations. While some people may view sex work as a short-term option, for others it represents a longer-term career. For some, sex work may offer greater job satisfaction and control over working conditions than other jobs available. Nonetheless, external constraints sometimes make it difficult for them to work safely. I argue state discourses fail to reflect the diverse experiences of sex workers and undermine their agency, perpetuating disrespect and excluding them from human and labour rights. I suggest the need to consider policy approaches shaped according to varied circumstances and settings, drawing on the expertise of sex workers.


Sex work Prostitution Labour relations Policy Stigma Recognition Diversity 



I am very grateful to all the participants who contributed to my research. I would also like to thank the two anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


The research on which this article draws was funded by the ESRC (grant no. ES/H012192/1).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

The research study was approved by Loughborough University’s Research Ethics Committee. The processes were guided by the University’s ethical procedures and by confidentiality and informed consent protocols, including those of the British Sociological Association and the Social Research Association. Informed consent was obtained from all study participants. Protocols for informed consent included giving participants a participation information sheet explaining the research and consent form prior to interviews, ensuring they were aware of their rights to withdraw from the research at any point and setting out the conditions for their participation, which included assurances regarding confidentiality of interview data. The study took a participant-focused approach, which included encouraging participants to select their preferred pseudonym, undertaking member checks of interview transcriptions and feeding back preliminary research findings to participants to check validity. Interview participants were each offered a £15 voucher to thank them for giving up their time.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawUniversity of StrathclydeGlasgowUK

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