When talking about sex work, words matter.
Amnesty International voted Tuesday to develop a policy supporting sex workers’ rights. The new resolution recommends that the policy call for worldwide decriminalization of buying and selling sexual services among adults.
In recent weeks, controversy over the proposal had reignited heated arguments between those who support and those who oppose full decriminalization. As passionately as that debate rages on, there are a few things we should agree to stop saying about people in the sex trade.
Following the murders of Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine in July 2013, members and supporters of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the English Collective of Prostitutes protested outside the Swedish Embassy in London to demand an end to the stigma, criminalization and violence against sex workers. | Credit: guy corbishley via Getty Images
1. Don’t refer to “buying” and “selling” people when you’re not discussing slavery.
If one person pays another for sex, that person has “hired” a sex worker — not “bought” a sex worker. The latter would only be correct when referring to literal enslavement of human beings, but this doesn’t stop some people from describing consensual sex work as the “buying” and “selling” of human beings.
The distinction is more than just semantic nitpicking. Such language suggests that sex with another person is a transference of ownership. If a man paying a woman for sex means that he has bought her, it would logically follow that if a man and a woman have sex with no money changing hands, she has given him ownership of her. And what happens when someone is raped? Does the rapist now own the victim?
This kind of thinking supports the misinformed ideas that marital rape is impossible, that consenting once means consenting forever, and that women’s bodies in any way belong to their sexual partners.
Some groups that advocate for the abolition of all prostitution, like the Center Against Trafficking in Women, use this terminology to underscore their belief that all sex work is a form of exploitation. But talking about all paid sex in terms of slavery conflates voluntary sex workers with trafficking victims — something that sex worker advocates and human rights groups have long argued is harmful to people in both groups.
Even victims of abuse and exploitation are not necessarily “slaves.” The reality is usually much more complicated, and oversimplifying the issue does nothing to create effective solutions.
There is one group of people involved in the sex trade who are always victims. Children cannot consent to sex, so never refer to “child prostitutes.”
Following the murders of Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine in July 2013, protesters outside the Swedish Embassy in London demanded an end to the stigma, criminalization and violence against sex workers. | Credit: guy corbishley via Getty Images
2. Don’t declare that selling sex is “inherently” degrading.
Some believe that sex work is “inherently degrading.” Sgt. Kathy Lacy with the Anchorage, Alaska, vice squad said last year that “anytime a woman is selling her body for sex, it should be illegal: It’s degrading and exploitive.” (The idea that women were being exploited did not, however, stop Anchorage law enforcement from arresting them on prostitution charges.)
Of course, there are people who find selling sex degrading. But that’s not what “inherently” means. “Inherently” doesn’t mean that some people find it degrading or that it can be degrading under certain circumstances. “Inherently” means selling sex is always degrading, no matter who you are and no matter what the circumstances.
Sex workers themselves have said this idea is simply untrue. Transgender advocate and former sex worker Janet Mock wrote in a 2014 essay:
I do not believe using your body — often marginalized people’s only asset, especially in poor, low-income, communities of color — to care after yourself is shameful. What I find shameful is a culture that exiles, stigmatizes and criminalizes those engaged in underground economies like sex work as a means to move past struggle to survival.
Calling sex work inherently degrading equates what a person does sexually with that person’s worth. This is the same line of thinking that leads some to believe that women who have casual sex (or sex workers) are “asking” to be sexually assaulted, to think that a rape victim ever needs to prove her “purity” or describe her entire sexual history to show she’s credible, or to dismiss someone as a person by calling her a “slut.” It’s the same line of thinking that suggests lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people shouldn’t get the same rights as everyone else.
When anti-prostitution activists tell a whole group of people that what they do is “degrading,” that language isn’t just insulting. It also further stigmatizes individuals who have sold sex, making life even harder for the very people the activists are supposedly trying to help.
Sex workers and their supporters demonstrate in London’s Soho district in October 2013 to protest the closure of premises used by sex workers and their eviction. | Credit: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
3. Don’t say a sex worker’s consent isn’t “real”
Some folks will insist that no paid sex can ever truly be consensual and that all sex workers, even if not physically forced, are being forced by their circumstances and need for money. They’ll express this by using scare quotes around the word “consent” or by calling consensual paid sex “paid rape.”
Sex workers typically have something to say about this — namely, that if they say it’s consensual, it is consensual.
Referring to all sex work as sexual assault is telling the workers themselves that their decision to participate doesn’t count. This is not to say that all sex workers are thrilled with what they do. But insisting that someone did not consent — when she asserts she did — sounds a lot like insisting that someone did consent — when she says she didn’t.
Characterizing all sex work as rape also makes it more difficult for those sex workers who are actually victims of rape to be taken seriously.
By dismissing rational adults who say they have consented to sex, you are implying you know someone else’s own mind better than that person does. When people feel they have the authority to do this, is it any wonder we get police forces that call their sex crimes division the “Lying Bitches Unit”?
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