Oscar Sharples, ‘Care, Criminalisation, and Sex Worker Agency’

Sex worker agency is fundamentally shaped by networks of care: both between workers and clients, and between workers themselves. Sex workers are placed in a uniquely challenging position in terms of worker agency, facing state criminalisation and societal stigma alongside the challenges to collective organisation faced by informal sector workers more generally. Consequently, the agency of sex workers manifests in ways that stretch beyond traditional understandings of worker collective action. This article will first establish theoretical understanding of sex work’s affective nature and its position on the spectrum of worker agency. It will then explore how care shapes sex worker agency through responses to criminalisation and relationships with clients. This discussion will make reference to three ethnographic works: Vijayakumar et al’s 2015 study of the Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU) in India; Gutiérrez Garza’s 2022 study of gift exchanges between Latin American sex workers and their clients in London; and Jackson’s 2013 work on a US sex worker rights organisation, the Desiree Alliance. Ultimately, it will argue that, due to sex work’s affective nature and the influence of state criminalisation, sex worker agency is deeply influenced by networks of care. A consideration of care is therefore crucial to understanding how sex workers can (and do) advocate for themselves and each other.

Sex work sits at the intersection of many categories of labour: it is informal service work as well as being immaterial and affective. Sex work’s informal nature refers to the fact that it sits outside of the formal economy. As it is criminalised in many countries, it is therefore not regulated. Though created through physical effort, the product of sex work is largely immaterial. The work is simultaneously enacted through interaction between the worker and client, and also produces further relations (Lazar 2023:96). Sex work is ultimately a service, providing sexual – and to some degree emotional, romantic or therapeutic – satisfaction. It is therefore understood as affective labour (Lazar 2023:90), as it seeks to produce a particular affect in the client, such as sexual arousal, emotional intimacy, or simply entertainment (Vijayakumar et al 2015:82). Although people of all genders are engaged in sex work, this labour is deeply feminised, as with affective labour more broadly (Vijayakumar et al 2015:82). Sex work’s position as affective labour has significant implications for the expression of both individual and collective agency.

Worker agency sits on a spectrum, ranging from more traditional and formal collective organising such as unions, to more individualised and fragmentary forms of agency. Despite the prevalence of traditional industrial unions falling due to neoliberalism, austerity, and financialisation (Lazar 2022:95), sex workers are now officially unionised in many countries (Lopez 2015:158). The influence of affect and networks of care, however, influence where sex worker agency manifests on this spectrum. Vijayakumar et al offers an account of the Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU), an organisation of approximately 2500 sex workers in India (Vijayakumar et al 2015:85). This represents a manifestation of sex worker agency that aligns more closely with traditional unionisation, yet KSWU directs its main efforts towards the state: demanding decriminalisation, social services, and legal protection (2015:90). Similarly, Jackson’s (2013) exploration of the Desiree Alliance (DA), a US sex worker rights organisation, demonstrates how sex worker unionisation often blurs the lines between traditional unionism and social activism. She describes how the DA has characteristics of “social movement unionism”: uniting community building through collective identity formation, and political advocacy (2013:4). Due to the criminalisation of sex work in the US, the task of the union extends to include contesting criminalisation, fighting for citizenship rights, and building community (2013:5). The DA relies upon a small dedicated group of activists who provide a network of social support, and immediate relief from the effects of criminalisation (2013:iii). These examples demonstrate how the nature of sex work often dictates how sex worker agency can manifest.

The impact of criminalisation is a challenge quite unique to sex work. Sex workers often face the challenge of navigating repression from the state and the criminal justice system alongside fighting for recognition as legitimate workers. Due to such criminalisation, sex workers are “scattered and hidden” (Vijayakumar et al. 2015:80), working on the streets and in private locations, and organising with clients through word of mouth or phone contacts, all of which make collective organising a challenge. The influence of criminalisation makes networks of care and support between sex workers a crucial part of survival. KSWU provides a poignant example of this. As Vijayakumar et al explain, KSWU, out of necessity, transcends the boundaries of the traditional union (2015:87). Its driving force is to “forge bonds of empathy and solidarity”, maintaining strong elements of fun and laughter (2015:86). Union members support each other in addressing violence, emotional support and civil rights, and operate a 24/7 helpline (2015:87). They share food and housing, offer childcare, and support each other to access healthcare. This central network of care provides members, who are likely isolated and marginalised from wider society, with a community of support. In the midst of stigma and criminalisation, this community care is an act of resistance in itself.

Bojan Cvetanović. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org.

Care also shapes sex worker agency through the influence of strong and enduring attachments between workers and their clients. These relationships can both enable and prevent collective mobilisation (Lazar 2023:90). Affective labourers are often precariously employed, isolated from one another, and feel a sense of responsibility for their clients and the relationships they have formed, all of which stand in the way of traditional forms of labour mobilisations such as strikes and legal challenges (2023:104). Emotional attachments may prevent sex workers collectively demanding better conditions, as they are caught between their own needs and the needs of their client. As sex work (and care work more generally) involves building intimate relationships with long term clients, sex workers may understandably hold mixed feelings about organising for improved conditions. On the other hand, interactions within these very same relationships can also be seen as instances of individuals negotiating the terms of their work on a day to day basis (2023:107). These enduring relationships may in fact form a part of what improved working conditions truly look like.

Gutiérrez Garza (2022) provides a case study of how sex workers individually navigate their own autonomy within their position as workers. She describes how, for her interlocutors, in the context of precarious, stigmatised, criminalised, and dangerous work, receiving gifts from clients becomes an important means to invest in “imaginative futures” (2022:3). Gift giving conceals, in part, the precarity of the sex workers situation, and allows clients to conceal attempts to exploit these workers for their time, emotional and sexual labour (Gutiérrez Garza 2022:9). Regular clients, over time, built up relationships that clouded the “sexual commercial transaction”(2022:2), entangling sex workers up in relationships that essentially involved giving clients the “girlfriend experience” for free (2022:5). These affective relationships are of course deeply tied into the feminisation of sex work: the emotional and therapeutic service the sex worker provides were not recognised as legitimate work that requires payment. These gifts allowed clients to “take advantage of the commodification of intimacy” (2022:9), but at the same time, provide sex workers with a “breadth of agency”, allowing them to imagine a future where they were economically independent, free from criminalisation (2022:6). These affective entanglements between sex workers and their clients therefore reflect complex forms of agency moulded by the pracarity of sex work as a form of affective and criminalised labour.

Support networks formed to cope with the influence of criminalisation, as well as deep emotional ties and feelings of obligation towards clients, are instrumental in the formation of sex worker agency. This agency can look relatively similar to traditional industrial workers unions, can be more explicitly oriented towards social change and community care, or can simply involve individual sex workers taking the time to build relationships with their clients, to make their work day more pleasurable. Ultimately, sex worker agency is shaped by the ongoing process of people navigating complex relationships of care with both their clients and their community.

Charlotte Cooper. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unionize_Sex_Workers.jpg

Oscar Sharples (he/they) is a final year Human, Social and Political Sciences student specialising in Sociology and Social Anthropology. He is a proud member of Lucy Cavendish College. 


Gutiérrez Garza, A. 2022. The intimacy of the gift in the economy of sex work. American Anthropologist, 124: 4, 767-777.

Jackson, C. 2013. Sex Worker Rights Organizing as Social Movement Unionism: Responding to the Criminalization of Work [Thesis]. University of Nevada.

Lazar, S. 2022. Labour organisation: ‘Traditional’ trade unions and beyond. In The Routledge Handbook of the Anthropology of Labor. 95-106. Routledge.

Lazar, S. 2023. How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour. Pluto Press.

Lopez, A. 2015. ‘Talking and acting for our rights: the interview in an action-research setting’. In Extraordinary Encounters: Authenticity and the Interview. 157-174. Berghahn Books.

Vijayakumar, G., Shubha, S., & Panchanadeswaran, S. 2015. ‘As Human Beings and As Workers’: Sex Worker Unionization in Karnataka, India. Global Labour Journal, 6:10, 79-96.