Adventures in Ideas: Sex Workers of the World, Unite! An Interview With Maxine Doogan

(Photo: Chris Sobczak)

Freak Readers, It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Maxine Doogan, from the Erotic Service Providers Union. I won’t offer a lengthy introduction —I’d embarrass Maxine! — because her words below say it all. Maxine has taught me a lot about prostitution and the sex trade in general. She has been instrumental in helping me craft my own research. Together, we hope to launch the first multi-city comprehensive research study of the sex economy. In a subsequent post, I’ll ask you for some feedback on that project. For now, I want to share her insights about the sex economy today. 

Q. Our readers might be interested in understanding exactly what you are seeking that might improve the economic conditions of sex workers? By the way, how you do you define “sex worker”?  

A. To improve one’s economics is to improve their lives and the larger communities. 

I use different terms interchangeably. For instance, I’ll talk about the sex workers’ rights movement being one that consists of current workers, former workers, and allies.  Or I’ll talk about prostitutes’ rights, which are specific activities which are for the most part illegal in the U.S., outside of a few counties in Nevada. 

I noticed that legal sex industry workers like exotic dancers, adult film performers, web cam performers, pro doms and submissives may or may not self-identify as sex workers.

When I was out on the campaign trial for Proposition K, I met several exotic dancers who didn’t think of themselves as sex workers — even though in addition to dancing, they were providing hand jobs and the like which legally constitutes prostitution.  It was important to them to protect their legal work status and not admit that some of their activities inside the dance clubs involved sex — because sex for money is illegal — so for that reason some would not identify as sex workers. I’ve seen the same approach with some adult film performers.  Then there are those who call themselves specific names like escorts or courtesans as a means of separating their activities from prostitutes because they don’t want to be associated with something that carries so many negative social stigmas and results in so much discrimination — and obviously carries a risk of arrest.

That’s why I named our organization Erotic Service Providers — it speaks more specifically to the fact that our labor is erotic in nature without using the hot button “sex” word, but still calls out how our respective sub-economies have intersections that effect each other. So I’m talking about industrial organizing here. Once I had a waitress tell me she was an erotic service provider too because she used her erotic energy to serve food all day to people!  Gotta love that.

I’ve also seen workers use one term to identify themselves in one situation and then use another term to describe their work in another, depending on who they’re talking to. So the term “sex work” has some cultural aspects as well.  Many workers in other countries use it exclusively.  Those that I know who use it do so to validate the fact that what they’re doing is work. When I’m speaking out, I generally use the prostitution term to describe myself, and not the sex worker term, because I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about the place I am coming from. Yes, there is risk in saying that.

Q. I’ve heard advocates and lay folk cry, “Let’s legalize sex work! Lets do what Holland does!” Will their strategy work over here in your opinion? What would legalization actually achieve? 

A. In my humble opinion, legalizing us like Holland wouldn’t achieve the results we all hope for because we’re not like Holland.  Prostitution in Holland wasn’t criminalized and its participants weren’t subjected to systematic discrimination and lack of equal protection for 100 years (as is our current state in the U.S.) prior to passing their legalization package in 2000.

My understanding is that Holland was in a state of decriminalization prior to being legislated.  Legalization doesn’t stop city fathers from unilaterally making decisions about where to work: for example, Amsterdam displaced a third of the window workers’ space in favor of installing art galleries and cafes.  Holland also didn’t enfranchise migrant workers and give them the ability to work legally in the sex biz, so they’re still locked. You cannot work out of your home, which results in workers being forced to pay whatever a land owner wants for the right to work in a secondary space, which may not be affordable for all workers. Recently, they’ve begun to look at their laws again because they understand that legalization wasn’t a magic pill.

Germany’s legal model allows prostitutes to join their largest public sector union, Verdi, but very few take advantage of it because that involves using your real name, which many will not do because being identified publicly exposes workers to the always present negative stigma left over from centuries of ill-treatment and criminalization. Prostitutes there have sued prospective customers for fraud — for making appointments and then not showing up — and have been awarded their fees, which is good, but workers can still get in trouble for advertising.

The Nevada legalized model allows counties to legislate and tax brothels but didn’t name specific rights or protections schemes for workers.

Here in the U.S., we tend to hear “tax and regulate it” and assume that would fix “it,” when the truth is that here in America we don’t award rights based on people’s ability to pay.  Well, at least that was the standard before Citizens United.  Many of us in the sex industries have been paying taxes for years, but we don’t have any more rights to negotiate for our own labor and safe conditions than those who haven’t paid. 

The idea of paying to access rights that are inherently ours in the first place is crazy-making for me.  My position is that since our rights have been denied, violated, ignored, and neglected for the last 100 years through the criminalization of our occupation, society needs to make restitution for the cumulative damage our industry has suffered.  I’m talking about suffering discrimination in housing, employment, education, and loss of custody rights.  Also, not having access to equal protection under the law when we’ve been victims of crime and  repeatedly being re-stigmatized by media’s dominate, distorted narrative of us.

Workers in Australia have told me that they pay taxes and their occupation is legitimate, but they still suffer the stigma.  Paying taxes and becoming franchised in society are two different things.  Just look at black Americans’ struggle and the current LGBT struggle as an example.  I’d say that our class of workers should not be required to pay any local or state tax until such time when the negative stigma and discrimination local governments have caused via the enforcement of the prostitution laws against us and our communities has been eradicated. 

Q. Just for a moment, let’s assume we want to treat sex work as a problem (and you can tell me you wish not to do that). But if we are talking about trying to intervene in the drug economy, an argument could be made that one needs to go after demand — the purchaser of drugs. Otherwise, we’ll never really solve the problem. What can we do to make purchasing sex work eithe
r more difficult…or perhaps more responsible?

A. Well, comparing our occupation to the drug trade is apples and oranges. I believe we’ve made selling and purchasing prostitution as difficult as it could possibly be in our society and we’re still here. 

On the question of purchasing more responsibly, you first have to treat participants of prostitution like we’re adults making mature decisions in order to have an expectation of responsibility. In order for our society to reasonably hold that expectation, there would need to be a shift in attitudes to agree that sexual expression, for the mature, can take the form of negotiating and paying for sexual services; that this activity is a privately protected right and is subject to the equal protection laws, for starters. If someone poses as a prostitute and rips off a customer, that should result in a prosecution for theft. Which is not the state we’re in right now.  Most anti-prostitution laws are constructed so that you can be arrested just for being explicit about what kind of sexual activity you would like to engage in. Likewise, providers cannot say what we’re really good at to get a responsible negotiation going before we commence our relationship/liaison. So as a society we have to start with where we are and remove the criminalization of prostitution — decriminalize to enact the right to treat each other like we’re trustworthy people who are capable of acting responsibly to say what we want. 

The resilience of the biz is a testament to the skills many of us have had to acquire to survive without breaking the law too much, but for some folks the learning curve to walk that fine line can be disastrous and even dangerous. Society needs to take responsibility for that, because they imposed this prohibition in the first place when they shouldn’t have.

Q. You and I have been talking about doing research together for what seems like a long time. What is the value of research for you? And what information do you want to find?

A. The occupants of our industry are isolated because of the criminalization and resulting negative stigma of association. We don’t have custody of our own narrative. People come along and make up fake facts for us that suit their agenda, and then these false and misleading narratives are repeated  over and over again in the media, taught in schools, and legislated into laws with the goal of oppressing our class and surrounding communities. 

So one of the antidotes would be to get some actual ethical scientific research going to find out basic information like: How many of us are there?  How old are we?  What gender are we?  How many kids are we supporting? For those of us who have had the privilege to work with lots of people, we can make some guesses, but it’s no replacement for real research to give us some real authority to say what’s important to us. We have to find out the answers to these questions, and many others, so we can start to move away from the stereotype-du-jour that society casts us in and towards taking charge of our destinies.  If we cannot measure it, we’re certainly hard-pressed to improve anything.

The opposition has been manufacturing all kinds of data to justify their policies towards us for years, all to our detriment.  Their goal is to erase the sex industry in its entirety.  It’s easy to see in the volumes of oppressive, badly written, lack of evidence-based legislation that is being rolled out on a state-by-state basis. It’s exactly like the onslaught of legislation to restrict abortions. Between the internet and ferocious anti-prostitution/trafficking enforcement, our communities are going through big changes really fast. We need to document it, at the very least.

Q. Lastly, what is the most misunderstood aspect of the sex work economy in your opinion?

A. I believe the most misunderstood aspect of our economy is the power the worker has in collecting the money and then distributing it, because that’s how our industry works.   As direct service providers, our ability to collect and distribute that money has to be protected as a priority because it’s the primary transaction. 


Interesting points.

I also don't like it when people make up false facts to fit a narrative. For example, I don't like it when people pretend that corporate person hood began with the Citizen United case:

Mike B

The problem isn't corporations having the same rights as other legal persons, but money = speech. Corporate personhood allowed the NY Times to public the Pentagon papers.

Seminymous Coward

To me at least, "tax and regulate" doesn't mean "tax, which will intrinsically regulate." It means something a lot closer to "tax like other businesses and (also separately) regulate to provide contract enforcement, public health safeguards, and rights for the workers and clients."

Also, the idea that being discriminated against means you shouldn't have to pay taxes is simply comical.


I have to ask why she never addressed the issues of how important it is to credential workers of these industries in order to protect those who are involved via coercion, violence or threats. As well as how important it is to provided further support for (1) exit strategies for those no longer willing or interested in these professions as well as (2) safety nets and protocols in place for the individuals who voluntarily participating. Her concept of " we won't pay anything until the stigma is paid or retribution is establish" seems a little unrealistic.


I can't believe I just read through this rubbish! So now prostitutes (er erotic workers) are the next civil rights group following in the footsteps of the Blacks and Gays.

Ruth Simpson

This interview was very interesting. Although I do not agree with the legalization of prostitution because of its morality.. I must agree with Ms.Doogan in one thing. In order for a fee to be paid to carry out with prostitution I would want all stigmas eradicatedb but you have to be realistic as well. With all the stereotypes and tainted images of prostitutes it would be close to impossible to actually eradicate it all. If you want to be a prostitute you're just going to have to pay the fee and accept the fact that nothing will change. When something has been oppressed so much and the government completely against it, it's hard to come back and try to make it seem like it was always legal and accepted.


Sex has always been a market and an exchange, the difference is short versus long-term contract. Generally long term contracts have been preferred for the stability of society (which we call morality).

The question is has technology or our social situation changed in some way so that short term contracts are now as desirable socially as long term ones?

Enter your name...

What struck me most forcibly was this chicken-and-egg confusion over stigma and legality.

Prostitution is not stigmatized *because* it is illegal. It is illegal because it is stigmatized. Prostitution is and has been stigmatized to varying degrees everywhere, regardless of legal status.

Making something legal does not make it socially acceptable. Making something illegal does not make it socially unacceptable. Having legal rights protects you from government action. It does not protect you from society.

We can see this in the previous civil rights movements that she cites as precedents. Do you believe that my abolitionist ancestors said, "Oh, slavery is legal! It must be acceptable then"? Do you believe that my religiously conservative relatives say, "Oh, gay marriage is legal! It must be acceptable then"? It works the other way around: society decides what it accepts, and eventually the laws come to reflect society's views.



Doing research?

Decades ago I worked in a city prosecutors' office. We had years of prostitution records on 3x5 cards including data such as 1) the prostitute's identity (not always reliable), 2) prostitute's description -- age, race, weight, etc., 3) description of the crime -- service offered and price demanded, and 4) location of the crime.

I often wondered if dumping all this data into a database would reveal any interesting trends -- e.g., Is there a price premium for white prostitutes? Prostitutes of certain ages? In certain locations?


Speaking as a prostitute from a country where it is legal there is price differentials based on demographics and location. As a general rule, Asians prefer blondes. If you're a blonde, you are much more likely to be booked regularly, especially if you are young. Even if you have regulars they will generally find someone else if you die your hair another colour.

Younger guys who don't come in regularly tend to book women in their 30s.

Arabs usually like younger girls.

Businessmen/daytime clients prefer the girl next door type.

Criminals/dealers/party boys prefer girls who look like they party (do drugs).

As a worker you figure out what days/times/demographics make you the most money and focus on that to make the most money..

Speaking to girls who also work in the US, girls work in certain cities based on their race because they earn more

Bella Robinson

Thank you Maxine for all you do fighting for the rights of sex workers. I guess some people just don't get it, "WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY, we have been doing this since the beginning of time, and we don't need your permission or approval. We simple want to CO EXIST without having to face a VIOLENT SOCIETY that wants to harm and punish us.

As far as the research, it is needed, we need to know how many active sex workers are in the US, we need to know how many are raped or exploited into sex by law enforcement, how many are raped, and murdered. We need to know why over 300 cops have sexuallassaultedtd kids in the past 2 years and rarely do they even do 3 years in prison. We need to study how anti trafficking groups are nothing but FRAUDS and how this directly harms both those exploited and thconsensualal sex worker. We need to look at why we allow our tax dollars to be spend at the tune of 250 million a year stalking online escorts, and yet in 2012 we only found 347 actual trafficking victims in the US.

Nobody has a clue how many sex workers have been murdered or have gone missing, and some don't seem to think this isn't a HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE.

Let's face it the way we have sex has changed over the past few decades, more often than not, many adults are hooking up for casual sex with strangers on a regular basis, but nobody is creating laws to police their morality?

Prostitution laws were created a public nuisance ordinance to "stop a women from showing her wares in public" It had NOTHING to do with MORALITY. And it was never INTENDED to police the sex lives of adult citizens in PRIVATE.

We need to look at examples like how we caught the Craigslist killer after he killed the girl in Boston he went to Rhode Island where indoor sex work was still decriminalized and he robbed a escort and she dialed 911 and he was caught. From 1979 till 2009 Rhode Island never evenuisanceic nusiance complaint reported, nor 1 victim of trafficking but they still criminalized all sex work in 2009, so we can no longer dial 911 and report violence. You can read more about this history of Rhode Island and its prostitution laws at

I do agree that we need to create services for all women and teens, we can't say only those willing to leave sex work are eligible for services. Since we know existsution exsists because of poverty and here in the US we are still expected to work at Walmart for slave wages we can't live on, how do we have the nerve to JUDGE vulnerable members of society.

If anyone of us were cold and hungry enough they could be convinced to turn a trick for a blanket and a burger, the SHAME belongs to SOCIETY, not the sex worker.

To learn more about the myths and misconceptions surrounding sex work, please join us at


Enter your name...

> "Since we know existsution exsists because of poverty and here in the US we are still expected to work at Walmart for slave wages we can’t live on, how do we have the nerve to JUDGE vulnerable members of society."

Well, I'd say that we pretty much have the nerve to judge prostitutes the same way that we have the nerve to judge drug dealers who got into pushing because they make more money that way than at Walmart, the same way we have the nerve to judge thieves who got into stealing because they make more money that way than at Walmart, the same way we have the nerve to judge con men who got into sweet-talking old ladies out of their life savings because they make more money that way than at Walmart... You obviously don't like it, but these "career choices" affect society (e.g., prostitution spreads sex infections faster than even highly promiscuous dating, because a prostitute has sex with more customers per day than a barfly), and so society judges them.



"prostitution spreads sex infections faster than even highly promiscuous dating"

I'm not getting the logic there, as a parent I can tell you schools and daycare spread infection faster than anything but I've never heard it used as an argument against them.

The real danger to society from prostitution is social disruption from men choosing to satisfy their desires with prostitutes rather than in a committed relationship and family. I don't pretend to know how large or important the threat is, but that is the real nub of it.

Bella Robinson

One of the biggest myths and misconceptions surrounding sex work is that sex workers are spreading disease. To the guy that commented about Traditional DATING, you may want to educate yourself because our own health dept studies in the US and in Canada say that sex workers have less stds' than the genera public. Traditional dating has changed over the past few decades as more often than not people are hooking up for causal sex with STRANGERS on a regular basis and many do not use protection.
To the man that compares sex work with committing major crimes, indoor sex work was decriminalized in my state for 30 years and then they voted to criminalize us. How would you like to wake up tomorrow to find going to work is now a crime for you. So many judgements and lets ask how many people bothered to go read the links I provided to EDUCATE yourself rather than just hold on to you old judgement ideas. The lack of compassion is disturbing. To learn more about the myths and misconceptions surrounding sex work, please join us at



" I’d say that our class of workers should not be required to pay any local or state tax until such time when the negative stigma and discrimination local governments have caused via the enforcement of the prostitution laws against us and our communities has been eradicated."

This is a good example of the fuzzy-headed, illogical thought that pervades this interview. It's as if she's saying, "Don't discriminate against us, just give us a special status as an industry that doesn't pay taxes because of past discrimination."

Did this lady every stop to wonder why this discrimination is there in the first place? How many women are OK with a philandering husband? How many of them would be OK with a husband visiting a prostitute? Are there no good reasons for this near universal apprehension and disapproval by both men and women?

Unless prostitutes are willing to answer such questions forthrightly and honestly, their pleas for legalization will gain zero traction. It is no great honor to spend your career being used and selling your soul for profit. Prostitution is a caricature of love, and a dangerous one at that.



Prostitution has never been anything like universally disapproved of. Historically, globally it's normal, only relatively recently and largely in the West has it been completely outlawed and even then not everywhere and at all times. The 'traditional' lifetime monogamous marriage is actually rather the exception in human history.

The argument against criminalization of prostitution is the same as the argument against criminalization of homosexuality or (some kinds of) drug use, you are using the power of the state to enforce what is essentially a private moral rather than a practical public matter. If consenting adults want to exchange money for sex how is that a concern of anyone else?

In a society founded on the principle of liberty it is up to those who wish to legislate against something to prove that it does harm, second hand cigarette smoke would be an example, otherwise what they are doing is not unlike legislating a religious conviction.

However in a democratic society the public is the ultimate judge of the evidence so really the law is what people want whether it rests on evidence or not.

Prostitution also strikes me as unappealing and unhealthy (psychologically at least) but then so does watching professional sports.



Lately the debate about prostitution has been anchored in the 'human trafficking' narrative, with sex workers seen as victims and 'managers' (primarily men) seen as manipulative predators. What I remember from 'SuperFreakonics,' however, was the extent to which many of the prostitutes surveyed didn't all seem at all to be helpless women forced into the sex industry by greedy pimps who used coercion to maintain control. This newer narrative also seems to be leading to draconian prison sentences for 'managers' as a way to attack the 'problem' of prostitution, at a time when who is a 'manager' (workers as independent contractors, in league with co-workers, or managed by other women) is increasingly fluid. I wonder how Ms. Doogan feels about this shift in the debate (and policy) and whether she sees herself (and others who work in her industry) as powerless victims of pimps? Prostitution may have few public supporters, but the rise of the Internet and websites like 'Backpage' suggest that the industry is growing, women are in charge (as many, apparently, contract directly--and privately--with clients), and that this new 'human trafficking' approach, while clever in the way it spins the issue, is a lot of malarky. What do you think?