Should We Rebrand Prostitution as Sex Work?

by Holly Trantham

When I started reading an article on New Statesman by Sarah Ditum (“Why we shouldn’t rebrand prostitution as ‘sex work’”), I was so ready to pounce with all my counter arguments in favor of using “sex work.” The word “prostitution” is archaic and harmful and all that bad stuff. Ditum was prompted to write this piece by a recent push to replace “prostitute” with “sex worker” in the 2015 Associated Press Stylebook. I’ve been a longtime supporter of rights for sex workers and have never really thought about the negative implications of the title. And I’m not saying Ditum has changed my mind, but maybe she’s almost changed my mind?

For starters, Ditum points out the harm caused by using outdated words like “prostitute”:

Certainly, its use as a destructive, degrading synonym for ‘woman’ belongs on the banned list. In 1979, detectives hunting the Yorkshire Ripper pointedly described some of the women he killed as “innocent” victims, in contrast to those they labeled “prostitutes.”

“Sex worker” was supposed to be a term to liberate women working in the sex industry from the harmful connotations of “prostitute.” I doubt we’ll ever get past the Madonna/whore dichotomy or the negative stigma attached to the term prostitute. Like Ditum states, it is a very gendered term; “‘Prostitute’ is so ingrained as feminine that it’s necessary to specify ‘male prostitute’ when referring to a man.” 

Ditum goes on to write about the damning effects of the term “sex work” as an alternative to “prostitution,” seeing as sex work can’t easily be classified as either menial labor (like housekeeping) or art (like dancing). I’m most interested in how she explains the harmful effects of using the word “work” itself:

When we talk about ‘sex work’, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men – men who have the social and economic power to act as a boss class in the matter of intercourse. And most damningly of all, we accept that women’s bodies exist as a resource to be used by other people – male people with the wherewithal to pay by the fuck.

I think she’s got a good point, because as long as there are individuals who view women’s bodies as objects to be enjoyed, this type of industry will keep on existing all over the world. Ditum believes that the figures who take a pro-sex work public persona—people like Brooke Magnati, the former sex worker whose blog inspired Secret Diary of a Callgirl— do so because “their largely benign experiences are unusual.” Other women with past experiences in the sex industry, like Rachel Moran and Rebecca Mott, are survivors of trauma and now campaign so that no one else has to go through that same trauma. So many experiences with prostitution or sex work throughout the world are overwhelmingly negative and I don’t think we can paint the entire spectrum of sex work as a sex-positive, women-empowering, autonomous-body-owning enterprise. But as long as the need exists, shouldn’t we allow the women who choose to work in that industry to choose what they wish to call themselves?

Dr. Brook "Belle du Jour" Magnati 

Maybe my inner capitalist is showing, but I don’t think those who choose take advantage of a market demand should be scrutinized or shamed for making that choice. Continuing to call sex work prostitution could do more harm than good; Ditum herself points out the violence that is associated with using that term. What Ditum fears, I think, is that by rebranding prostitution as “sex work,” we are erasing the history of violence that we need to understand in order to continue to support the women in these positions. However, I fear that without this rebranding, continued use of the word “prostitute” will only perpetuate the acceptance of violence and hatred towards those identifying as such. Maybe a rebranding is necessary in order to change our culture and change the stigma. 


Images courtesy of The Nation and The Guardian.

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