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Many studies struggle to gain demographic information about the prevalence of sex work, as many countries or cities have laws prohibiting prostitution or other sex work.
In addition, sex trafficking, or forced sex work, is also difficult to quantify due to its underground and covert nature.
The term "sex worker" was coined in 1978 by sex worker activist Carol Leigh.
Its use became popularized after publication of the anthology, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry in 1987, edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander.
However, studies like this one can come under scrutiny for a perceived emphasis on the activities and perspectives of pimps rather than those of sex workers themselves.
Another criticism is that sex trafficking may not be adequately assessed in its relation to sex work in these studies.
Phone sex operators have sexually-oriented conversations with clients, and do auditive sexual roleplay.
Other sex workers are paid to engage in live sexual performance, such as web cam sex and performers in live sex shows.
Maintaining privacy and confidentiality in research is also difficult because many sex workers may face prosecution and other consequences if their identities are revealed.
The term is used in reference to all those in all areas of the sex industry including those who provide direct sexual services as well as the staff of such industries.
Some sex workers are paid to engage in sex acts or sexually explicit behavior which involve varying degrees of physical contact with clients (prostitutes and some but not all professional dominants); pornography models and actors engage in sexually explicit behavior which are filmed or photographed.
While demographic characteristics of sex workers vary by region and are hard to measure, some studies have attempted to estimate the composition of the sex work communities in various places.
For example, one study of sex work in Tijuana, Mexico found that the majority of sex workers there are young, female and heterosexual.
Depending on local law, sex workers' activities may be regulated, controlled, tolerated, or prohibited.