Last week at the National Organization for Women’s New York office, women’s rights advocates, anti-trafficking groups and former prostitutes convened to galvanize New Yorkers to take action against the city’s booming sex trade. In addition to arguing for enforcement of existing laws — and for the penalization of buyers and pimps as opposed to the women and children who are their victims — they wanted to send an important message about the language used around the problem.
“The media uses terms like ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ in their reporting, treating prostitution as a job like any other,” said Melanie Thompson, a 27-year-old woman from New York City who introduced herself as a “Black sex-trafficking and prostitution survivor.” The language of “sex work,” Thompson argued, implies falsely that engaging in the sex trade is a choice most often made willingly; it also absolves sex buyers of responsibility. (My colleague Nicholas Kristof recently profiled Thompson, who now works for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.)
“I urge the media to remove the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ from your style handbooks,” she said.
In reporting the event afterward, The New York Post used the term “sex workers.”
The Post is hardly alone. In what at first glance might seem like a positive (and possibly “sex positive”) move, the term “sex work” suddenly appears to be everywhere. Even outside academic, activist and progressive strongholds, “sex work” is becoming a widespread euphemism for “prostitution.” It can also refer to stripping, erotic massage and other means of engaging in the sex trade. It’s now commonly used by politicians, the media, Hollywood and government agencies. But make no mistake: “Sex work” is hardly a sign of liberation.
Why, you might wonder, does exchanging money for sex need a rebrand? Derogatory terms like “hooker” and “whore” were long ago replaced by the more neutral “prostitute.” But “sex worker” goes one step further, couching it as a conventional job title, like something plucked out of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” Its most grotesque variant is the phrase “child sex worker,” which has appeared in a wide range of publications, including BuzzFeed, The Decider and The Independent. (Sometimes the phrase has been edited out after publication.)
The term “sex work” emerged several decades ago among radical advocates of prostitution. People like Carol Leigh and Margo St. James, who helped convene the first World Whores’ Congress in 1985, used “sex work” in an effort to destigmatize, legitimize and decriminalize their trade. Not surprisingly, this shift toward acceptability has been welcomed by many men, who make up a vast majority of customers. The term subsequently gained traction in academic circles and among other progressive advocacy groups, such as some focused on labor or abortion rights.
I first heard the term in the early ’90s while living in Thailand, where I offered to volunteer for an organization aimed at helping local women caught up in prostitution. I’d been in enough bars with friends where underage girls flung themselves onto my companions’ laps, showering them with compliments, encouraging them to drink. Just being present seemed like complicity in what felt like a mutually degrading ecosystem. We all knew many of these girls had been sold into sex slavery by their own desperately poor parents.
But rather than focus on challenging systems of exploitation, the organization I was planning to help, led largely by Western women, aimed to better equip “sex workers” to ply their trade, such as negotiating for more money. I changed my mind about volunteering. I certainly didn’t want to make life more difficult for girls and women caught up in prostitution rings, but I couldn’t in good conscience help perpetuate the system.
No advocacy worker wants to stigmatize the women or children who are trafficked or who resort to prostitution. Survivors of the sex trade should never be blamed or criminalized. Nor should the humanity of individuals working in the sex trade be reduced to what they do for money. Both opponents and advocates of the term “sex worker” share these goals. Many of those urging legitimacy for the sex trade also take a stand vehemently — and presumably without seeing any contradiction — against child labor, indentured servitude and slavery.
But as with those close competitors for the title of “oldest profession,” the reality of prostitution isn’t worth fighting for. Though data is often incomplete, given the difficulties of tracking a black market, research from those who work with survivors indicates that only a tiny minority of people actively want to remain in prostitution. Those who enter the sex trade often do so because their choices are sorely circumscribed. Most prostitutes are poor and are overwhelmingly women; many of them are members of racial minorities and immigrants; many are gay, lesbian or transgender. Many, if not most, enter the trade unwillingly or underage (one oft-cited statistic shows the most common age of entry is between 12 and 16; some have also disputed this). They are frequently survivors of abuse and often develop substance abuse problems. Many suffer afterward from post-traumatic stress disorder. To say that they deserve attention and compassion is to acknowledge the breadth of their experience, not to deny them respect nor cast them solely as victims.
That some prostitutes eventually come to terms with their situation does not mean that they would have chosen it if they had better options. Melanie Thompson, who was kidnapped and sold as a prostitute at age 13, said at the meeting last week that by age 16, she told herself prostitution was her own choice. “We had to believe that in order to continue to endure,” she explained.
The urge to maintain that illusion is understandable. The term “sex work” whitewashes the economic constraints, family ruptures and often sordid circumstances that drive many women to sell themselves. It flips the nature of the transaction in question: It enables sex buyers to justify their own role, allowing the purchase of women’s bodies for their own sexual pleasure and violent urges to feel as lightly transactional as the purchase of packaged meat from the supermarket. Instead of women being bought and sold by men, it creates the impression that women are the ones in power. It is understandable that some women prefer to think of themselves that way, and certainly a vocal portion of them do.
But we owe it to listen to the other side as well. “We are not here out of a sense of morality about sex,” said Alexander Delgado, the director of public policy at PACT, an organization working to end child trafficking and exploitation and which co-sponsored last week’s event (along with Mujeres en Resistencia NY/NJ, Voces Latinas, World Without Exploitation and several other organizations). “The sex trade is a place where violence occurs and not a place where work happens.”
At a time when labor rights have gained traction and the Me Too movement has raised awareness around sexual harassment and abuse, it’s important that activists choose their targets wisely. The momentum of their hard-won victories should not be misplaced. A small, often elite, minority of people who work happily in the sex trade shouldn’t dictate the terms for everyone else.
“Prostitution is neither ‘sex’ nor ‘work,’ but a system based on gender-based violence and socio-economic inequalities related to sex, gender, race and poverty that preys on the most marginalized among us for the profitable commercial sex industry,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, told me.
In recent years, language has undergone drastic shifts in an effort to reduce harm. Sometimes these shifts result in contorted language that obscures meaning. Sometimes these shifts make people feel better without changing anything of substance. And sometimes they do move the needle toward positive change, which is always welcome. But the use of “sex work,” however lofty the intention, effectively increases the likelihood of harm for a population that has already suffered so much. To help people hurt by the sex trade, we need to call it like it is.