Words matter: the problem with the term “sex work”

Posted by on November 25, 2014 in News

words-have-powerA social media campaign asking the Associated Press to use the term “sex work” instead of “prostitution” recently exploded online, rekindling a long-standing debate about the appropriate terminology for buying sex.

Proponents claim that “prostitution” and “prostitute” are legal terms with negative connotations. They argue that if the media were to adopt “sex worker” and “sex work” instead, it would paint prostituted people in a more positive light and reduce stigmatization. Opponents feel that terms like “sex work” are misleading and imply that prostitution is like any other job; ignoring the many harms inherent to it.

For this reason, Demand Abolition joined more than 300 human rights organizations, frontline service providers for prostituted people, and feminist advocates like Gloria Steinem and the Women’s Media Center in an open letter to the AP asking them to reject terms like “sex worker.” The letter explains that the commercial sex industry is predicated on dehumanization, degradation, and gender violence—and presenting it as a form of labor-at-will is not only inaccurate, but also does great disservice to thousands of women, men, and children victimized by it.

As Vednita Carter, founder of the survivor-led organization Breaking Free, puts it:

“Prostitution is not ‘sex’ and it is not ‘work.’ It is a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities that leaves a devastating impact on those of us who were or are ‘in the life.’”

Marian Hatcher

Marian Hatcher

In addition to ignoring its harms, this “rebranding” of prostitution as a job falsely implies that prostituted people are the main recipients of the money generated by the illegal sex trade. The reality, however, is that the pimps and traffickers preying on people marginalized by poverty, homelessness, racial and gender discrimination, and histories of sexual abuse, have the most to gain off commercial sexual exploitation—not those they peddle.

Demand Abolition advisor Marian Hatcher, who serves as project manager and human trafficking coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and is a prostitution survivor herself, penned a personal response to the AP:

“References like ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ are derogatory because they imply an occupation—a chosen way of meeting one’s basic needs. In reality, prostitution is not a chosen path to gaining economic security. It is forced servitude, most often by an opportunistic male such as a pimp or trafficker, and in other instances an undesirable choice for basic survival. Fueled by the [sex buyers] who consume it, the sex trade doesn’t deserve a place in civil society; it is a human rights violation that perpetuates slavery. Using phrases and terms that attempt to normalize it or diminish its harms is a travesty.” 

But “sex work” isn’t the only misleading term out there when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation—“prostitute” is equally problematic. Instead, many survivors of the sex trade advocate for the use of phrases like “prostituted individual” or “woman in prostitution,” based on the simple notion that defining someone by how they’ve been sexually victimized is dehumanizing. (You wouldn’t refer to a rape victim as a “rapee,” and victims of prostitution deserve no less sensitivity.)

Obviously, commercial sexual exploitation is complex and nuanced, and the language used to discuss it should reflect that. The next time you’re in a conversation (or debate) about the harms it perpetuates, think carefully about the terms you use and how those words may impact the listener. Cultural change happens slowly, and being mindful about the ways we discuss prostitution is the first step in helping others recognize it for the harmful, dehumanizing practice it is.

For another perspective  on this topic, please read  Sarah Ditum‘s insightful piece, Why we shouldn’t rebrand prostitution as “sex work”.