Daily Archives: December 18, 2006

Sex work is work, and yes, the language matters

I attended the vigil marking International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at Judson Memorial Church last night. It was a very moving vigil, organized by some wonderful and dedicated women representing $pread Magazine and Prostitutes of New York (PONY). We lit our candles and the woman who led the vigil read a statement calling for a moratorium on arrests of prostitutes in Atlantic City until the murderers of sex workers there are solved. Then a brief history of the event was read, and then we listened as people took turns reading the names of sex workers — more than 60 of them — who were killed this year. My thanks to the organizers. What you did yesterday was important, it was noticed, and it was appreciated.

I read this morning that a man is being held in the investigation of the murders of 5 sex workers in Suffolk, England. There are not many details as yet. You can read the story, as reported by the BBC, here.

Meanwhile, I just read a story, pointed to by the fantastic feminists at Feministing.com, that made my blood boil, to use a tired cliche. It’s amazing how close to the truth some tired cliches can be. Perhaps that’s how they become so tired.

In any case, the story is this: While most nations, human rights groups, and even the UN, use the term “sex worker” because they want to be as accurate as possible, the US, as represented by John Miller, director of the State Department’s office to combat human trafficking, would prefer “women used in prostitution” to describe women who are sex workers. This, he believes “is not pejorative” and neither does it “pretend that violence to women … is ‘work'”

Not pejorative?

How is it not pejorative to imply that I am being “used” in prostitution if I have chosen that work? And if I have not chosen it — if I have been coerced — wouldn’t abused be a better term than used?

Pretending that it’s work?

There is no question that sex work is work. It is true that some sex workers are coerced — some even enslaved — into the work. That should be called forced labor or slavery. But to deny that the work itself is work is absurd. Let me shift to the word prostitute just for a moment so that the next sentence will be clear. You could substitute any kind of sex worker (stripper, escort, model) and the meaning would be the same. Here is the sentence: When a prostitute is having sex with a customer she is working. She is working whether or not she is doing it voluntarily. Even if she is being forced, she is working.

Use of the term “sex work” is important because it allows us to make a distinction between the voluntary engagement in sex work and the forced or coerced engagement in sex work. Mr. Miller’s term obscures that very real difference, and really that is what he wants, apparently, though he claims the opposite.

In support of his position he tosses out a number of unsubstantiated claims and unnamed studies. The statistics he cites are alarming, but their sources unidentified. There is no way to evvaluate them. They also don’t always link clearly to his conclusions. For example:

Clinical research, he said, showed that vast majorities of people in prostitution are subject to trauma, violence and rape, and 89 percent wanted to escape.
“These 89 percent are victims of slavery,” he said.

What clinical research? Who were the subjects? What regions of the world are being covered here? And if 89 percent want to escape, does that automatically mean they are enslaved? If you asked 1,000 workers in the service sector in the US if they would like to escape their work, do you think many would say yes? I do. And I wouldn’t call them slaves. I would call them people in jobs that are not good jobs and I would call them absolutely reasonable and rational for wanting out. And I think there are many sex workers who would also like to be in better jobs.

Miller claims that “People called ‘sex workers’ did not choose prostitution the way most of us choose work occupations,” but that is an elitist perspective. First of all, many sex workers do not enter that work from positions of privilege. Many are choosing from a range of options that “most of us” would not enjoy: namely the work that serves people like Miller but without reliable hours, reasonable wages, or benefits. I put “most of us” in quotes there not only because they are Miller’s words, but because it is absurd to imagine that in a world of such economic inequality and concentration of wealth, power and prestige, that “most of us” have the kinds of choices Miller seems to be implying — that is, the choices of occupations requiring higher education, money, access, and powerful social networks.

Second, some sex workers do choose sex work from positions of relative privilege, and others choose it from a range of options that include less desirable choices, and some of those people see their work as a profession and do it proudly — or would like to be able to claim pride in it — and would like to see their working conditions improved so they can do their work more safey. They would also like to be able to do their work without stigma attached to it, and without risk of prosecution. (I have written before about how destigmatizing and decriminalizing sex work would make it safer.)

I support efforts to end trafficking of human beings for any kind of work. I support an end to slavery no matter what the nature of the work. I support economic and social justice, and a system that does not relegate large numbers of workers to jobs that are not secure and that do not pay a living wage. I support a system where all people, regardless of employment or income, have access to health care.

Miller is right that the language we use affects how effective we can be in addressing the serious issues we face. The problem is that his choice of language obscures the issue of trafficking and slavery by lumping together voluntary and involuntary sex work. This is not accidental. This is the clear product of a political culture that would prefer eliminate all sex work, not just the involuntary kind. And that is not a goal I can support.

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