"Reasonable Woman" Standard

The "Reasonable Woman" standard has been established in United States' jurisprudence to establish that if a "reasonable woman" would identify a situation as sexual harassment, it is legally sexual harassment (Ellison v. Brady 1991). The standard raises questions about intersectionality (e.g. the race, class of the reasonable woman) as well as how to address sexual harassment experienced by non-binary people or men.


#MeToo became an internationally recognized hashtag in 2017 as it became viral on Twitter to address issues of sexual violence and harassment. Originally coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 on MySpace to express how “me too” allowed survivors of abuse to connect with one another, particularly within communities of color. It became known as a social movement as high-profile instances of sexual abuse were covered in the popular press and some accused perpetrators were prosecuted, particularly in cases of multiple claims by high profile survivors. The movement inspired similar efforts across the globe, as well as backlash from skeptics.


The capacity and/or ability to act. People are referred to as “agents” and they have “agency.” Scholars often discuss “constrained agency” to mark the many potential limitations on a person’s ability to act that can range from the threat of violence to being unable to imagine alternative possibilities. This term is critical to consider in discussions of sex/work as sex workers’ agency is often underestimated and underexplored. At the same time, it is also necessary to mark and consider the constraints that people experience in their specific contexts.

Resources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Bringing Agency Back into Network Theory


Barbie, the American doll first released in 1959, was inspired by the German Bild Lilli doll. The doll was, in turn, inspired by the Lilli character in the German paper, Bild-Zietung. Purportedly based on a call girl, Lilli was a highly sexualized, young female character that appeared in the German press from 1952 to 1961.

Latson, Jennifer. March 9, 2015. "The Barbie Doll's Not-for-Kids Origins." Time.

Body Labor

In The Managed Hand, sociologist Millian Kang defines body labor as "commericalized exchanges in which service workers attend to the physical comfort and appearance of the customers, through direct contact with the body.... and by attending to the feelings involved with these practices" (20). Importantly, the body of the customer is touched and acknowledged as a core focus of the worker's efforts. A key aim is to produce a pleasant and/or improved bodily experience for the client.

Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (BFOQs)

Bona Fide Occupational Qualifactions (BFOQs) are exceptions to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on a set of protected categories (race, color, religion, sex, and national origin). According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are rare exceptions based on sex, religion, or national order. Race or color is not allowable as a BFOQ. Size discrimination is not prohibited at the federal level. Disability is not included in Title VII but there is no BFOQ language in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A 2001 EEOC informal discussion letter did suggest that despite the lack of BFOQ language, other elements of the ADA could support employers. For more information, visit the EEOC's CM-625 Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications guidance document.

Comstock Laws

The Comstock Laws are named after their key proponent, US Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, in the 1870s United States. As summarized in the American Experience series' materials, "The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines... Soon after the federal law was on the books, twenty-four states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level." Comstock came into conflicts also with suffragists and anarchists, and prosecuted women seeking to educate the public about sex, reproduction, and marriage.


RAINN defines consent as: "an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated. A verbal and affirmative expression of consent can help both you and your partner to understand and respect each other’s boundaries." It is important to consider factors that can undercut someone's ability to consent to sexual activity such as power dynamics (employee/employer) or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Age of consent is a contentious and relatively new area of law. For example, Japan raised the age of consent to engage in sexual activities from 13 to 16 year of age in 2023. In the United States, states vary in terms of their consent laws.

Emotional Labor, Surface Acting, and Deep Acting

Sociologist Arlie Hoschild is credited with the coining of the term "emotional labor" in 1983's The Managed Heart. She explores how people, particularly women, control their feelings and expressing themselves, in order to succeed at work. Workers employ "surface acting" to convey a feeling that is not internally held, while "deep acting" requires that they embrace their work context demands to the point of feeling internally the parallel emotions they display at work. For example, a worker may feign happiness when greeting customer as a form of surface acting when they have been having a really frustrating day at work. Another worker may develop deep emotional connections to the children she cares for as a domestic worker and experience "deep acting" as she attends to their needs.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The United States Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 established a federal minimum wage and time and a half overtime for people working over forty hours a week. It also banned "oppressive child labor." It also established a separate minimum wage for tipped workers that allowed for employers to pay less than minimum wage as long as a workers' pay, including tips, met the minimum wage. Additional laws like the Equal Pay of 1963 and the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act addressed pay and benefit discrimination based on "sex" and age. Domestic workers continue to be excluded from some FLSA protections if they live in their employers' home (see fact sheet) and there are a set of exclusions for some farm workers (see fact sheet).


FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) are two United States House and Senate bills that were signed into law by President Trump on April 11, 2018. The laws were presented as an effort to address sex trafficking online and received broad bi-partisan support at the time. Concerns raised by free speech and advocacy groups about the risks that the laws posed, particularly in driving trafficking further underground and in reality putting sex workers more in danger, were ignored. Websites used by sex workers were shut down and many workers claimed that they became less safe because of the loss of their ability to advertise online and vet their clients before meeting them in-person. Legal efforts to address these concerns have so far failed as of 2023.


Gender Norms

Gender norms are the commonly stereotyped attributes associated with either men or women (there is not an acknowledgement of non-binary or fluidity). Elements that are labeled as masculine are seen as appropriate for men, while behaviors, presentation, interests etc. considered feminine are expected of women. Gender norms include assumptions that men are always interested in sex while women are not, or that women are inherently caring while men are not well-suited to provide carework. There is often stigma attached to the violation of gender norms. Gender norms change across time and place, they are not natural despite common beliefs that such norms are essential components of gender.


Legal scholar and advocate, Kimberlé Crenshaw, conceptualized intersectionality to explain the co-existence and relationship between multiple social identities. In particular, she examined why Black women were deemed as neither capable of representing "women" or "Black people" in legal suits. She underscored the importance of understanding race and gender together, and particularly how these categories along with class and immigration status mattered in efforts to combat violence against women. Intersectionality has developed as a key theoretical and methodological framework for feminist scholars to understand how systems of oppression are co-created and work together as well as how people experience as individuals the multiple identities.

Intimate Labor

Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas' term "intimate labor" builds on broader research on care work, such as Hoschild's "emotional labor" concept, to consider an array of types of work that require intimacy. As a broad category, the terms includes an array of work from home health aides to sperm and egg donors to sex workers. Intimate labor as a framework surfaces the many types of intimacy that may be shared by clients and/or expected to be participated in by workers. An important facet of these dynamics is the prevalence of women, people of color, and immigrant workers in these labor forms. They are stereotyped as naturally inclined yet "unskilled" workers capable of providing the care and intimate support needed.

Labor Stratification

Labor stratification refers to the ways that different types of people are disproportionately concentrated or absent from different types of work or work roles. Like the strata (layers) of rocks, there are differences across types of fields. For example, women, immigrants, and people of color are disproportionately represented in the United States' service economy, while as of 2017, white men disproportionately are represented in the United States' executive branch. Issues of educational and worker pipelines, hiring discrimination, and retention issues are important to consider when discussing labor stratification. Stereotypes about gender, race, and other identities can play an important role as some people are assumed to be naturally more capable of doing certain work. Additionally, parental status can be considered negatively towards women as employees, while not considered to be detrimental to men as productive members of a workforce.


Neoliberalism generally describes the political-economic approach that centers free-market capitalism, deregulation, and austerity measures. It rejects the need for robust governmental protections and social services.

The 2012 What is Neoliberalism video by the Barnard Center for Research on Women features scholars Lisa Duggan, Miranda Joseph, Sealing Cheng, Elizabeth Bernstein, Dean Spade, Sandra K. Soto, Teresa Gowan, and Ana Amuchástegui. The YouTube version features captions for viewers.


Obscenity is used to refer to matter that is seen as socially inappropriate and immoral. It can be used as a means of censoring information related to topics such as reproduction and sex.

The Department of Justice provides a "Citizen's Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Obscenity." They summarize the obscenity standard that was established through the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal laws during the 20th century. They explain:

The three-pronged Miller test is as follows:

Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion);
Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or sado-masochistic sexual abuse); and
Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Police Profiling

Alongside the very public instances of anti-Black police profiling in the United States, there are issues with the targeting of overlapping communities such as trans, Latinx, and sex workers. Despite sex work occurring in many different settings and being conducted by a range of workers, trans and cis women of color, particularly sex workers as well as non-sex workers, experience police harassment, violence, and arrests because they are profiled as potential sex workers.

See: Gossett et al. Fall 2011/Spring 2012. "Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence." The Scholar and Feminist 10.1-10.2.

Sexual Harassment

The United States' Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature... harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." The EEOC provides additional information via its Fact Sheet about sexual harassment and explains how it is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is an umbrella term for a range of abuses related to sex. RAINN defines it as "an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse" and notes that states and countries are not consistent in how they label, define, and criminalize sexual violence.


According to Economou et al, "stigma originates from ancient Greek language and in particular from the verb «στίζω», which means "to carve, to mark as a sign of shame, punishment or disgrace" (2021). The process of stigmatization has been studied by scholars and at its core, stigma is the result of a characteristic/identity, real or assumed, that is viewed as undesirable. Sex work, as a type of work, is highly stigmatized because of assumptions about workers visavis their presumed breaking of sexual taboos, gender norms, and related stereotypes about their sexual health. Criminalization of sex work is understood by many advocates as deepening the stigma of sex work rather than assisting in addressing violence and abuses that sex workers face.

Substance Use

Substance use is the preferred term to describe any use of alcohol and other drugs. Substance use disorder occurs when a person's usage interferes with their life and they are unable to cease substance use. As this topic is highly stigmatized, it is important to consider how this language refrains from labeling a person as an "addict" and instead presents the issue itself as something they are experiencing rather than using it to define them.


See: Hill, Tom. Fall 2011/Spring 2012. "A Brief History of Queer Experience with Addiction and Recovery." The Scholar and Feminist Online. 10.1-10.2.

Survival Sex

Survival sex is when a person provides sexual and related services to a person to have access to basic needs such as food, housing, and/or substances. While the dynamic may be ambiguous or be considered a romantic relationship, the person providing survival sex does not have significant alternative resources and is relying on this trade to survive.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 addresses sex-based discrimination in education. It states "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." While it has commonly been discussed in terms of increasing equity for women's sports in higher education, it became a key rationale for addressing sexual violence in education in the 2000s.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII is part of the United States' Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was passed by Congress and then signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. Title VII created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It identifies "unlawful employment practices" that are discriminatory based on federally protected categories such as race and sex.


The United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines labor trafficking as: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, across the world it is estimated that "there are 24.9 million people trapped in forced labor with 16 million victims of labor trafficking in private industry, 4.8 million victims of sex trafficking, and 4.1 million victims of state-imposed forced labor." It is important to recognize that despite a popular representation of sex trafficking as the major form of trafficking, many more people (both adults and children) are trafficked for industries such as agriculture and domestic labor.

Virgin/Whore Dyad

The virgin/whore dyad conceptualizes girls and women as either sexual pure (virgins) or sexually promiscuous/polluted (whores). These archetypes prevent a more complex understanding of women's sexuality and agency.


Within contexts such as the United States, histories of racism and colonization build on this dyad to create stereotypes that stigmatize Black, Latina, and Indigenous women sexually.  Class dimensions also emerged in the 19th century effort to support a "cult of true womanhood" for affluent, Anglo Saxon white women. There continue to be further stigmatizing attitudes towards sub-populations such as bisexual women, disabled women, and girls of color in schools.

White Supremacy

White supremacy or white supremacist thought is based on a hierarchical, and often essentialist, understanding of race. It presumes a superiority of white people over all other racial groups. Often it is combined with other forms of bias against non-Christians such as Jews and Muslims, Catholics, and immigrants. White supremacist logic refers to a structural way of centering and preferring whiteness and assumed associated attributes. It can overlap with Eurocentrism and an assumption that European history and cultural are inherently superior to other groups and cultures throughout the world across time. Scholars and advocates often criticize these beliefs and assumptions as they can be disputed through historical and contemporary evidence.


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Sex/Work by Ariella Rotramel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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