Terminology: Sex Work

People bristle at the term “sex work.” They feel it’s too PC. They often argue because prostitution is illegal it’s “not a job.” Or they over-think the term, usually in a lame attempt at humor (exemplified here). Even though these pontificators have nothing to do with sex work — at least not publicly admitted — they argue and attempt to define “sex work” for sex workers.

Everyone ignores that sex workers themselves freely use the term in self-identification. In recent years, gays and blacks have gained the autonomy to identify themselves how they want. Being gay used to be illegal (and technically still is in some states). Being black was essentially illegal for a long time.

Yet somehow sex workers are still not seen as human enough to deserve the autonomy to identify themselves with their own language, even though “sex work” has been around for more than 20 years.

28 Responses

  1. nah, it seems criminal or prostituted woman are the two choices we don’t get to make.

  2. […] Terminology: Sex Work « Bound, Not Gagged “People bristle at the term ’sex work.’ They feel it’s too PC. They often argue because prostitution is illegal it’s ‘not a job.’ Or they over-think the term, usually in a lame attempt at humor.” Yep, I’ve experienced people acting like this. I don’t (tags: sexwork language assholes stereotypes work bullshit identity) […]

  3. I haven’t ever known a sex worker that ever called herself a prostituted woman yet there are plenty of sex workers that call themselves, ummm, sex workers. Go figure……………….

  4. I believe it is the word “work” that makes their hair stand up, not the “sex” part;)

  5. It IS the “work” part they hate. I guess it hurts the ego to much to realize that yes, it’s work to deal with them. (Though it’s work to deal with this kind of thinking too and this is unpaid.)

    XX

  6. I think the work part of the term is so important. The issues we face whether we work in criminalized or decriminalized sectors of the sex industry need to be seen from labour perspectives (human rights as well). Using terminology that is simple like ‘sex work’ helps in this matter.

  7. I think it’s a two-fold problem. Talking about ‘work’ in the US is very controversial right now because there are so many whose ‘work’ depends on denying the lega status of other ‘work.’

    Throwing in sex means we get to ignore all of the other issues related to ‘work’ in this country.

    The combination of ‘sex’ and ‘work’ is powerful, and it works both ways. The positive elements of the term and the momentum of community built around the ‘sex worker’ identity seem to outweigh the negatives.

  8. Wow, so all of a sudden being a black person and being a sex work should be equated? Being black is a skin color and a social identity and is not a “job” that you can choose to engage in as sex work can be. Don’t get me wrong, there is still sexual slavery today but it crosses all races and cultures and that type of forced sex work is condemned by society. Being black was condemned by American white society because of fear, discrimination, racism, and ignorance.

    Sex work has been around for centuries through many different cultures and has always been a social taboo. Being “black” was never a social disadvantage until slavery and racism came into play 300 years ago. So your fallacious argument that sex work should suddenly be socially acceptable because being black has now been “legal” lacks adequate standing. If you want to argue that sex work should become legal, you should not compare it to being black or being gay. Those are three completely different issues interposed in the complexicity of American society.

  9. I’m comparing the racism and sex work in the light of the deep-seated knee-jerk reactions. I grew up in the South, so I’m well aware of the prejudice against other skin colors and the way it can affect lives. I see the same prejudices and actions applied to sex workers.

    I only mean that the end result for the person suffering the stigma is the same: a belief that they are somehow less than human.

    XX

    PS: As for “choosing” sex work, well, I’ve been drawn to it since I was in elementary school and barely knew what it was. Sounds like the stories some gay or transgendered people tell about discovering their own sexuality, doesn’t it?

  10. “As for “choosing” sex work, well, I’ve been drawn to it since I was in elementary school and barely knew what it was. Sounds like the stories some gay or transgendered people tell about discovering their own sexuality, doesn’t it?”

    Same story here.

    Whether I’m actively working or not, I still identify as a whore, and the whore stigma that pervades our society still has a detrimental and inescapable effect on my psyche.

    How many times a day does society tell us that whores are disposable and not deserving of basic human rights? Perhaps people can’t answer that question until they have viewed the world from our perspective.

    I don’t think Amanda meant to say that it was ‘exactly the same’ but was speaking more to society’s disregard and disbelief in the general humanity of the person in the ‘other’ category.

  11. “…society’s disregard and disbelief in the general humanity of the person in the ‘other’ category.”

    Yes, sex workers are the “Other” is almost everyone’s mind. Thank you, Sister.

    XX

  12. I was literally abducted into the sex industry. My skin color played a huge part, thus I have some insight into oppression. I was also a sex worker later on consenting terms, the oppression was remarkably similar. The same dynamic that took away my rights to escape a coercive situation also denied me rights as a consenting sex worker in later life. Oppressions may be different based on race, background, etc, but they also are similar and should bring us together, not divide. They aren’t competitions. My experiences are different than others that have suffered oppression. Perhaps more oppressed than some, less than others, but the point is to learn from this. We can use surviving oppression to grow and learn to not be like those who oppressed us, use our experiences to end oppression for everyone in a fight for social justice. What it is important is that we don’t let it divide us as that empowers the oppressors. Which I believe is what Amanda had in mind in her statement.

  13. I would like to add an example of
    sex workers and gays sharing the same discrimination.

    And here is a theory that the low self-esteem all sex workers supposedly share really comes from criminalization and not the work itself.

    XX

  14. You may refer to my post as a “lame attempt at humor,” and I did expect (rightly, it seems, judging by my first comment, though I don’t condone his use of the term “whorehouse”) that some people would find it amusing: but the substance is serious. And I beg to differ with the premise of your post: workers, even professionals, do not normally get to define the categories used for their jobs. At the specific level, you don’t get to accept a job as a “programmer/analyst” and then insist, “My title is going to be ‘software engineer.’” At the general level, occupations are classified in ways that are useful to the people doing the classification, not ways that are intended to make the workers happy. Why should sex workers have the special privilege of being able to define their own occupational category and expect others to accept it? And why in particular should people who prefer to self-identify as sex workers have the privilege of including in that category a lot of occupations in which the majority of people prefer not to be identified that way?

    The fact that the term “‘sex work’ has been around for more than 20 years” is not a point in its favor. If it had been just recently introduced, you could argue that it needs time to become accepted. But it has had its chance, and it is clearly failing to capture the mind of the general public, who tend to use the term with a mocking tone at best and often with outright hostility. One reason the public has trouble accepting it (and perhaps the main reason I have trouble) is that it is being asked to do double duty. On the one hand, it is a potentially useful term for a range of occupations that have something in common, just as one might want, for example, a term for people whose work has something to do with China, who might find themselves to have common interests. On the other hand, its least common denominator attribute leads it to become a euphemism for types of sex work (particularly prostitution) that one does not, for some reason, want to identify specifically. How can someone be expected to have pride and dignity in her work as a prostitute if she is taught (and acquiesces in the teaching) that it is shameful to use a specific term for her occupation?

  15. Knzn,

    A) You’re not a sex worker.

    B) When we want to be identified as sex workers and others still insist on calling us by other, more traditionally demeaning names in an effort to influence public opinion, then they’re not respecting our right to identify ourselves. The only way that the public vocabulary is going to change is if we insist upon it because no one else will (starting with you).

    C) When we wish to be indentified as a sex worker and others just can’t do so because it gets in the way of their own precious stereotypes and myths, then it’s a problem.

    “Sex work” and “sex worker” are very neutral and correct terms for a huge business built of unique individuals. It’s really simple. Even a PhD should be able to understand that.

  16. KNZN, you wrote something that struck my attention “One reason the public has trouble accepting it (and perhaps the main reason I have trouble) ” regarding defining an occupation as sex worker.

    Why do you care? My understanding is that you aren’t a sex worker. Why would this even matter to you? Are you a stakeholder of some sort in this issue? Do you know someone that is a sex worker? If not I question why this is relevant to you.

    Do I care when I go through the airport whether the TSA people are called transportation security officers or transportation security screeners? No. Perhaps they do as the term as meaning for them working there. For me, screen my shit and let me get on the plane.

    The person who rents me a rental car. Do I care whether their term CSR means customer service representative or counter sales representative or some other acronym like RSA? Why does this matter to you?

  17. When talking about our criminalized status, I always talk about black people who were slaves in this country. The criminaliztion of our occupation make us slaves. We don’t have the right to say yes or the right to say no without running the risk of retaliation and we don’t have equal protection under the law just like black people. We suffer economically just like black people who’s labor belonged to someone else. We don’t have the right to bodily freedom just like black people. And just like poor whites who may not have owned black people but still played a role in maintaining apartheid, the tax payers are the slave owners to day because they hold prostitution criminal and enforce laws today. Blacks have yet to recover economically in this country.

    And I equate the Jim Crow laws with legalization of Erotic Labor.

    I oppose taxing any group of workers who have yet to fully enfranchised into socio-economic equality.

    Women are another example. Here in the USA, women workers earn 74 to 76 cents on the dollar but we still pay first class taxes like we’re first class citizens. We’re not.

    The GBLT are another group of workers who pay first class taxes for second and third class citizenship. And are having to pay extra to fight against the onslaught of anti marriage legislation as well as fund the pro marriage legislation and litigation.

  18. I think for anyone who is not in this line of work, it may be difficult to imagine… But in truth, how many people have complained that either a spouse/partner or them themselves have been too tired to “perform”. That alone says something of the work involved.😉 (And for more on the exhaustion which prevails in this industry, I again refer you to my friend, Secondhand Rose who just wrote on sex work and motherhood.)

    As for those who would wish to deny not only the fact that work involved in our industry but the simple respect to allow us to name ourselves and our work, that’s really sad.

    But then again, with the majority of sex workers female, that’s part of the control that goes with this territory.

    It upsets me. And I am tired. So I’ll just end with a, “Great post, Amanda!”

  19. Maxine, Jill, Gracie,

    I knew ya’ll would be able to tell Knzn a little more of how it is!

    XX

  20. Before I respond to anything else, I want to make it very clear that I never meant to deny that prostitution is work. For the most part, arguments against prostitution (which I’m not making, anyhow) are based on the idea that it is intolerably onerous work and that nobody should be permitted to perform such intolerable work. My own objection to the phrase “sex work” has more to do with the word “sex,” which I think is usually too broad a category to use as a classification for workers.

    In my original post, I made a semi-facetious point about ultra high end prostitutes, that the title “Worker” is extremely unusual for people who earn such a high hourly rate. I expect Angelina Jolie makes even more per hour than Ashley Dupré did, and what Ms. Jolie does (acting) is surely also work, but it would be very strange to hear someone call her a “worker.” (Now that I think about it, I suspect that ultra high end prostitutes are paid largely for their acting skills, so maybe the example is particularly apt.) But the usual issue with highly paid people is not that what they do is not considered work, but that they think the word “worker” would belittle what they do by implying that it is merely work.

  21. KNZN, again why do you care? CWA uses the term flight attendant, they do so for reasons. There are still people who want to argue that no you aren’t an F/A, you are a stewardess. It’s not for you to decide. It isn’t for others to decide. It is the workers in a labor rights organizing movement that decide. That is part of the idea of “rights”. You presume to have a role in this. Why? Whether you agree or disagree with the word “sex “or “worker,” which you have made cases regarding both words. Are you a sex worker? Were you a sex worker? Do you even know a sex worker?

    I get off a flight, I go to Starbucks and the person taking my order is the barista. I don’t stand back and say, ok, ummm, no, actually you are the cashier, she is the shelf stocker, he is the floor mopper, she is the coffee grinder, but the woman behind the espresso machine well, ummm, ok she qualifies as a barista, so I’ll respect her title but otherwise, cashier give me my change,,,, To do so would rightfully make me look like a bitch, egotistical for presuming to define roles by whatever definition I was using. Like somehow, I step off a plane in uniform and say well I”m a flight attendant so I get to define what titles everyone in a ground job’s title is Starbucks, so I get to analyze and decide who is what title. I don’t. I”m not above them, their titles are their deal. It is called respect. It is respect. On my suitcases I have tags that say crew. So doesn’t the pilot, the first officer, the second officer, the deadheading crew from other flights, the CSR deadheading to a different station. You and other passengers don’t get to decide who has a crew badge. Or why they have a standardized badge for all of us. The pilot doesn’t give a shit if I have a tag that says crew and here he is the captain and he has a tag that says the same.

    WTF? You remind me of the jerks who will literally hold a flight from going wheels up because you won’t bring your seatback to a forward position and want to argue that it shouldn’t make a difference, what difference does it make, etc, It makes a difference because it’s a Federal Reg, and the aircraft can’t go wheels up until you comply, and while you attempt to structure the world around you the rest of the plane waits, the aircraft loses a potential spot in taxi order, which now delays the flights arrival, which delays the next flight using that aircraft’s departure. All because of an inflated sense of importance to decide something that you don’t get to decide and where your input really isn’t inherently relevant.

    You have a problem with the word “sex” as too broad a term for workers. WTF?

  22. Jeesh. KNZN, saying Angelina Jolie doesn’t work ~ at least not as hard as “you” or whatever is really ignorant. You’re letting your romantic notions of celebrity and acting cloud your logical thinking here… Few get in, few survive, and fewer still make it to popularity like Jolie, and if that doesn’t take work, what does? Have you done what she does ~ act, media junkets, pose & talk for media, spokesperson for others ~ any of it? Even if you have, never under such a magnifying glass as she.

    Now if you can wrap your mind around the idea that you have no concept let alone knowledge of Jolie’s world & work, you ought to realize you have no right to label the kind of work she does. Even critics (real ones, vs. “opinion givers”) have some training and knowledge of what they are talking about. They do not get to dub Jolie’s work by whatever name they choose, based on no experience &/or training.

    Now, take all that, insert my name, Gracie, for Jolie’s, and you’ve got why you are wrong to title what we do. We alone are en-titled to that.

    (PS Jill, I sent you an email last night; did you get it? Gracie@sex-kitten.net )

  23. Angelina Jolie doesn’t get arrested for making movies and people who pay to watch her movies don’t get arrested either. Further, the producers don’t get arrested for providing the film set or the actors agent for getting Jolie the acting job in the first place

  24. KNZN said ‘But the usual issue with highly paid people is not that what they do is not considered work, but that they think the word “worker” would belittle what they do by implying that it is merely work.’

    Actors who get paid litte and actors who get lots are still workers.
    To put yourself in someone else’s shoes and define for them what ‘belittles’ them isn’t what we don in organized labor. Likewise, it is not within our best interest to classify oursleves in terms of payment because its classist.
    I’m pretty sure Angelina belongs to the union as does the producers, the film crews.

  25. Gracie Passette, I think you must have misread (or misinterpreted) my comment. I didn’t say that Angelina Jolie doesn’t work; I said exactly the opposite. But I said that it would be unusual to use the word “worker” to refer to her. She works very hard (certainly harder than I do), but a lot of people work equally hard and don’t get paid anywhere near as much. It’s not mostly the work that she’s being paid for; it’s the talent and the image and the history of screen credits and awards and to some extent just the luck of having made it.

    Lisa Roellig, I don’t see what getting arrested or not has to do with the meaning of the word “worker.”

    jillbrenneman, I don’t care about specific job titles, but at some level of breadth, an occupational category becomes an important part of the language and an important unit of analysis in economics. As an economist and a speaker and reader of the English language (and a lover of language in general), I care about these things. Particularly words that evoke strong emotional responses when they appear on the front page of the paper are the concern of the general public, not just of those to whom the words apply. I could argue that, as a sexually repressed intellectual, I have a more compelling interest in the nomenclature of sex work than people who are directly involved. Sex work is not about words. My work is largely about words (and the categories they represent), and my activities outside of work (as a blogger, a reader, a lover of literature, an amateur linguist, etc.) are even more about words.

  26. “Lisa Roellig, I don’t see what getting arrested or not has to do with the meaning of the word “worker.””

    Probably because you never have had a job where your work was criminalized. For those of us that have had to work under criminalization, I guess we never tire of bringing up that we are criminlaized workers, especially when someone such as yourself challenges our preference for even referring to ourselves as workers in the first place.

  27. Beautifully stated, Lisa.

    XX

  28. KNZN, it is easy to criticize. More difficult to state what you would do. Thus my question. Since you are critical of the term sex worker and would break it down differently, how would you do it/?

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