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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4 Comments

Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex work

4 responses to “Sex work is work, and yes, the language matters

  1. maracuja

    Your passion to destigmatize and decriminalize prostitution is much appreciated. I suggest that the US adopt the Swedish law on prostitution, which criminalizes all traffickers, madams, pimps, and johns, while decriminalizing/supporting all women, girls, boys, and men who are victimized by the sex industry. Sweden’s progressive view on prostitution as a male form of violence against women accurately captures the reality of what you term “sex work.” The reason why I personally cannot support the term “sex work” is as follows:
    1. The violent reality of prostitution can never be eradicated, as the very nature of prostitution enables a male to claim his right to a female body in exchange for money or something of value…no manner how much society destigmatizes prostitution.
    2. The majority of people who are victimized by prostitution are girls and women who have limited means of communicating their suffering to the public. Your position on “sex work” as a profession empowers the upper-tier “sex workers” who engage in commercial sex by their own will. Thus, you are representing only a small and empowered fraction of people in prostitution.
    3. By normalizing prostitution as a “profession,” you are empowering traffickers, madams, pimps, and johns who want to normalize the violent reality of prostitution and keep the victimized women and children from complaining/seeking help.
    4. How many police officers does it actually take to ensure that the women/girls in the hundreds and thousands of “massage parlors” or “escort agencies” in a given state are there willingly? How many interviews does it take to build trust so that a person who may be brainwashed or manipulated into prostitution is willing to tell the truth about her situation? Is it possible for the interviewer to conduct the interview individually at a secret location, so that the brothel keeper or senior person in the “massage parlor” are not intimadating the interviewee from speaking the truth? The very notion that making prostitution a legal profession can eliminate/decrease the violence and help those victimized by the sex industry is questionable. Rather, it will help the johns, traffickers, madams, and pimps take advantage of/profit from the sex industry.

  2. I want to respond to a couple of Maracuja’s points specifically, one at a time:

    “1. The violent reality of prostitution can never be eradicated, as the very nature of prostitution enables a male to claim his right to a female body in exchange for money or something of value…no manner how much society destigmatizes prostitution.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the very nature of prostitution to be the selling of sex. In prostitution, that exchange is one where the seller receives money or some other thing of value immediately. In marriage, which we haven’t addressed, in a similarly male-dominated society, a man also exerts a claim to the female body, and in that case, “for free.” (Or for the cost of remaining married.) Quite frankly, I would rather see prostitution on an open market than I would marriage where marriage is the only legitimized avenue to family recognition and basic rights.

    I don’t deny that many prostitutes are coerced into their work, and that the consequences for many are devestating. But again, that is not because sex is what is being sold. It is because of the inequality between men and women, and the inequality between rich and poor, that characterize so many of our societies. Prostitution isn’t the problem. Inequality is the problem.

    To pick up on Maracuja’s second comment, it is true that I am, to large degree, focusing on prostitutes and other sex workers who are freer and more privileged than others. But my point in doing so is to demonstrate precisely that it is not the selling of sex that causes all the trouble. It is the system of power and privilege that puts so many women, children, and poor men at such grave risk. It is that system that must be addressed.

    “3. By normalizing prostitution as a “profession,” you are empowering traffickers, madams, pimps, and johns who want to normalize the violent reality of prostitution and keep the victimized women and children from complaining/seeking help.”

    Not necessarily. I would prefer a system where trafficking and pimping were criminalized and where sex-worker co-ops and individuals working for themselves were decriminalized. This would put the power to control the work more squarely in the hands of the workers, something I like to see in any industry.

    Lastly, to respond to the question of police resources, a more efficient use of police resources would be possible if those resources were directed at large scale trafficking operations and networks, and not at arresting prostitutes. This is similar to the “war on drugs” problem: We need to be focused on the large scale traffickers and not the end-users.

    Prostitution in itself does not constitute violence against women. Inequality and unjust laws constitute violence against women, and against the poor in general.

  3. Hi Elizabeth:

    I don’t deny that many prostitutes are coerced into their work, and that the consequences for many are devestating. But again, that is not because sex is what is being sold. It is because of the inequality between men and women [….] Prostitution isn’t the problem. Inequality is the problem [….] it is true that I am, to large degree, focusing on […] sex workers who are freer and more privileged than others. But my point in doing so is to demonstrate precisely that it is not the selling of sex that causes all the trouble. It is the system of power and privilege that puts so many women, children, and poor men at such grave risk.

    Doesn’t this elide the fact that sex, in all its myriad meanings and implications, is deeply implicated in the inequality that exists between men and women? I don’t, in the end, agree with maracuja because I think that a statement like

    The violent reality of prostitution can never be eradicated, as the very nature of prostitution enables a male to claim his right to a female body in exchange for money or something of value…no manner how much society destigmatizes prostitution.

    essentializes things in a way that is, finally, more destructive than constructive.

    But I also think that your statement about changing the system of power and privilege avoids dealing with the very sticky (pardon the pun) issue that for us to get to the point where the problems of sex workers and sex work are not, in addition to everything else, also always about sex, we have to change the meaning of sex itself—because if push comes to shove, even for the more privileged sex workers who have knowingly, willingly, purposefully chosen their profession, the bottom line in terms of how they will be treated by society at large will be that they were selling sex, with all the negative connotations and associations that will bring with it. Perhaps more to the point, the people who are coerced into prostitution are coerced into it (have to be coerced into it) precisely because it is sex that they will be selling and there are not a lot of people out there looking to go into that profession.

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