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Ask Aeryn, blog, Sex Work

Prostitute, Whore, Hooker, Ho: Sex Work Terminology

Why is the term used for sex work important? Is it just semantics, and if so, why care? Is the term Sex Work political correctness, or trying to put a legitimate looking label on abuse and pimping? When it comes to sex work, the most important people to ask about it are sex workers. When it comes to our work, ourselves, the language used about us and how we are treated, no one knows more than us. It’s important that other people don’t speak for us, or over us.

Lately there has been a backlash globally against ‘PC’ (politically correct) culture, and sex work doesn’t escape that. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on the topic of sex worker terminology and calling into question Amnesty International for it’s recent decision to support Sex Worker’s rights and full decriminalization. It’s left people asking “Why can’t we just call a spade a spade?” and “Why does this even matter?” to “How is this anything but a shiny new name and protections for sex trafficking, pimps, and rapists?”. Now a warning before we get started: As always no whorephobia will be tolerated in this discussion, or on this blog. Period.

No Whorephobia will be tolerated in this space

My latest Ask Aeryn question is aptly timed. Anon would like to know about sex worker terminology, and for me to address some recent questions. I’ve also included some local sex workers’ opinions on sex work terms, posted with permission.

 

 


 

Is the term Prostitute a slur?

Yes, it is. Many sex workers, academics, health, human rights and law organisations also consider similar terms such as hooker, ho, whore and slut to also be slurs.

 

 


 

Is the term Sex Work just political correctness? Is it just semantics?

Words have meaning. They shape how we think about things, our associations with them. Flower vs weed for example. You could be talking about the same plant but it both terms provoke different thoughts. Traditionally, sex work has been frowned upon around the world. Sex workers have been reviled, despised, shunned and criminalized. The stereotyping and associations around the words previously used for sex work reflect this. Whore, prostitute, slut, hooker, lady of questionable morals / ill repute, tramp, ho. There is a reason you can’t call someone these terms on the street without expecting to get into a fight: They are slurs. Insults. Prostitute, the most common term used for sex work, is hardly neutral, unpolitical, or unbiased as a term. One usage of it as a noun is to “put (oneself or one’s talents) to an unworthy or corrupt use for personal or financial gain”. Its listed synonymous are “betray, sacrifice, profane, sell, sell out, debase, degrade, demean, devaluecheapen, lower, misapply, misemploy, misuse, pervert, squander, waste“.

Sex work is work like any other. It is neutral, and the term sex work is a term designed to be neutral. It legitimizes sex work as real work. It isn’t a passive term.  It doesn’t discriminate against any color, gender, sexuality, or preference. It doesn’t discriminate against any type of sex work or enforce hierarchies within sex work (whorearchy), which pitch workers against each other on an arbitrary scale of worth and public acceptableness. It’s descriptive and informative without being judgmental. It’s the term that is most accurate for the most amount of people under it’s umbrella. It’s non stigmatizing, free from the connotations of old timey slurs.

It’s used by not only sex workers, but as best practice by the world leaders in sex worker and rights organisations, and world health leaders.

During last week’s negotiations and lobbying in New York, the Icelandic representatives focused a lot on words, specifically two words – sex work – which they wanted removed from the outcome document and exchanged with the phrase “people who sell sex”. This might sound pretty harmless, but words do hold power. In this particular situation, these words come with some very specific powers of their own. Some people say the term “sex work” is only used to legitimise and normalise the sale of sexual services. Others will even go as far as to claim that this terminology is purely pushed by pimps and traffickers trying to increase their profit. Words have the power to mislead, which happens to be the case here. For those of us who sell sex, “sex work” is the preferred way to describe our work, and the term comes from our own community. To us, there is magic behind this term, as it holds the possibility of accessing labour rights. This would mean accessing a whole added layer of rights, including protection against unjust working conditions, exploitation and forced labour – the very same rights violations that those arguing “selling sex” should not be called work claim they want to protect us from.

Sex work is widely accepted as a term that contributes towards rooting out violence, oppression, exploitation, stigma and discrimination of persons engaged in sex work, which is why not only sex workers but also UNAIDS, UNDP, the ILO, the WHO, UN Women, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch use the term sex work to describe what we do.

— SWOP – Open letter on the term Sex Worker

 


 

Why does this even matter? Who do the words whore, prostitute, hooker & ho actually hurt?

As previously discussed, words have meaning. Slurs against sex workers further sex work stigma, which fields discrimination and abuse. It perpetuates hate and fear of sex workers. It excuses when we are raped, abused, and coerced – even by law enforcement. At it’s worst is claims sex workers deserve such abuse.

sexworkers1It claims sex workers deserve to be HIV positive, addicted, or suffer mental health issues, leading to the community accepting when workers are subject to things no one else would accept. Coercive testing, poor quality health care, or in some cases a delay or complete denial of access to health care. Mandatory or coercive abortion or sterilization.  Sex workers are denied bank accounts, evicted from their houses, refused rentals, and sometimes legal representation. This happens even when that discrimination is illegal, and regardless of the legality of their work. It’s based on nothing but fear and hate.  WePay’s Disastrous Decision: Seeing Sex Workers as Risks, Not Human Beings. This is stigma. Often, there is no legal recourse a sex worker can take. Health care providers aren’t immune from illogical and harmful stereotype biases against sex workers. Nor are social workers, lawyers, banks and financial institutions, or law enforcement. It’s hard to take actions to defend yourself when often the discrimination, coercion and abuse comes from police.

  • Our report on Violence Against Women in Uganda where we highlighted the cases of women who were told that because they were selling sex they were “asking for it”, that “a prostitute can’t be raped”
  • Our public statement calling on Greece to stop the criminalization and stigmatization of alleged sex workers found to be HIV positive
  • Our report on the use of torture in Nigeria and how sex workers were particularly targeted by the police for rape and financial bribes
  • Our Urgent Actions on the targeting and killings of sex workers in Honduras and the eviction and abuse of sex workers by police in Brazil
  • Our report on Tunisia which detailed how sex workers are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, blackmail and extortion primarily by police
    Amnesty International, Research on Sex Work

Seeing sex workers as nothing more than prostitutes, whores, hos and tricks and the shitty bag of traits and baggage that come along with those labels means it’s easy to excuse hatred and prejudice. The traditional words for sex work make people only read the surface, the lazy shorthand, of the sex work stereotype. That is why language matters. When faced with the fact that sex workers are people, who have jobs, and not evil, worthless straw men, it humanizes us. It’s much harder to abuse a human being than something considered less than.

Stigma. It seeks to deny us safety and respect. It is used to deny sex work could ever be a choice, and to strip sex workers of agency, with the only acceptable narrative being that we are too desperate, too uneducated, or too stupid to know what we are doing.

Stigma strips sex workers of depth, and the language used forces us into stereotypes. In Why Sex Work Is A Terrible Analogy, And “Pr*stitute” Is A Slur over at Junkee, which discusses Why The Language We Use Matters: The Problem With ‘Prostitute’, and How All This Culminates In Violence,  it’s pointed out that “hooker with a heart of gold” is a specific stereotype for sex workers.

Why do we have the expression “a hooker with a heart of gold” still in common usage when it serves to paint ‘good’ sex workers as somehow exceptional or worthwhile despite their profession? Even the generally awesome Tina Fey is constantly implying that sex workers are somehow dirty: “I want someone who thinks being really into cars is lame and strip clubs are gross”.

The fact that a sex worker could be considered to have a ‘heart of gold’ is of note because language around sex work and the stigma that follows paints us as incapable of that. That is how society sees us. The language you choose to use matters. Societies short hand for sex workers paints us as stupid, evil, corrupt, dirty, infected, addicted, manipulative, scheming and debased as default, and to the exclusion of all other things Lawyers, doctors, teachers, and architects aren’t considered to be only their occupation and it’s associated stereotypes. They can be good parents, friends and educators. They can have varied interests and hobbies. They are responsible for their own choices and decisions. Sex workers are denied realities of being multifaceted people when the language used against us is all that people see. Changing the language used is an important first step to changing how people see sex workers.


 

Do the terms “Sex Work” and “Sex Worker” attempt to legitimize rape, slavery, abuse, or pimping?

No. The terms “sex work” and “sex worker” clearly make a distinction between an individual worker and their employment, alongside the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. It’s an important distinction, and framing language around sex work as real, actual work does not legitimize rape, slavery, trafficking, pimping or abuse. Sex work is consensual, and sex trafficking, rape, and abuse is non-consensual. Fighting trafficking is extremely important and part of that is defining it correctly and making sure we can help the people who need help. (As opposed to “helping” (re: exploiting for profit or ego) sex workers who don’t want help by punishing, discrediting, ignoring, arresting, or “reconditioning”  them for working consensually in jobs others don’t morally agree with, or wouldn’t feel comfortable doing themselves.)

Daryl Lang describes it succinctly: “The word prostitute, as a noun, carries the person’s entire identity in one word and casts someone as an object for sale. The phrase sex worker describes a human being performing a task for money.”

 


 

Why is it ok when Sex Workers say Prostitute or Whore, and why can’t I? On double standards.

The only people who can use slurs such as whore, prostitute, hooker, etc, without them being out of line, is the people those slurs hurt. The targets of those words. In this case that means sex workers themselves.

Why would sex workers choose to use an offensive slur to describe themselves, their work, or their community? Reclamation. It may sound weird, but the reclaiming of words has a long history.  People of color, the disabled, and queers have the longest history of reclaiming abusive terms used to hate on, marginalize, oppress, insult or degrade them, turning those insults into something to be used on their terms. It’s longstanding coping mechanism, and for some people it’s the only one they have. It takes the power off people who would use those words to hurt, punish or degrade. It can help water down the toxic effect and power of the slur when minorities use it among themselves, especially if used it in a positive way.

To an outsider, all of this may indeed seem like political correctness gone mad. However in this age of apparent ‘fair go’ being a measure of a successful Australia, there remains significant disparities between LQBTIQ Australians and their heterosexual peers. We’re three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety, and twice as likely to be the victims of violence. Our government protects discriminatory policies that allow schools and hospitals to sack us, and despite overwhelming advances, HIV remains a significant threat to gay men, driving up stigma, depression, and isolation in an era where that’s simply not necessary.

So while it might be difficult, indeed frustrating, to see one group of people play by a set of rules and demand you play by another, bear in mind: it’s even more frustrating to experience daily reminders of our second-class status, whether it’s enforced violently or subtly. If empathy came naturally, the world would be a much more relaxed place. Unfortunately, it takes some work. – Nic Holas: Why the gay community reclaim derogatory words like ‘poofter’

 

sex-workers-at-iwd-2015-berlin-photo-by-friederike-strack-all-rights-reserved-11

Photo: Susi Wilp (@hauptstadtdiva)

 


 

What do Australian Sex Workers think about the terms Prostitute, Whore, and other Terminology for their work?

 

“I hate the P word, but accept that if some of my peers wish to use it it’s their choice. ”
– Riley Alexander

 

“As far as I’m concerned if you are a part of that marginalised community/have that word used against you it is yours to reclaim. She may not personally like it, but it is not her place to tell other sex workers not to use it. So yeah, those posts annoyed me too. ”
– Tilly Lawless

 

“I think for me, whore and hooker feel like an identity, and one I feel so comfortable with inside myself. The p word feels sort of like a detached job description, but also a descriptor for selling out or for manipulating to get something you want in some kind of negative way. I don’t like it myself. I love sex worker because it frames what we do as labour and I love the labour rights I can fantasise about in relation to that, and it’s also *not* titillating or morally shadowed the way the p word is. ”
-Isla Reid

 

“I saw the Tweet a number of weeks ago. I’m inclined to agree with with Tilly on this one.  That said, I think everyone is entitled to call themselves what they so desire.  Charge what you want; advertise however you like; suck dick however you want. It’s your life – live it the way you want it. […]

I’m averse to using the word “prostitute”, however, have fun loosely using the word “hooker” and “whore”. It’s all about context/content for me, as well as who the participants/recipients of the conversation are.

I was talking to a client/friend/lover today via text and he asked me to send a photo of myself – any photo, not necessarily a sexy one.  I was deleting photographs on my MacBook and stumbled across ones taken when I worked at Gotham City in Melbourne.  I asked if he wanted to see me “pre or post slut days”. Something I wouldn’t ordinarily say, but did for jocularity sake.  It’s entirely an individuals prerogative to use whatever word they so choose when referencing themselves.

At the end of the day, however, a sex worker is a sex worker. We all suck and fuck for money. You can class it up all you like, but it ain’t sucking itself. ”
-Amanda Valentina

 

“Although I would go one step further and say those words are ok to reclaim for yourself but not necessarily other sex workers.
So first person is great. eg “I am a whore”
First person plural is borderline ok. it’s fine if you have permission of others otherwise its not that great…eg “we are whores”
Second person is shit. eg “you are a whore”
Third person is shit. eg “they are whores”.
That’s my two cents. Obviously it’s situational though.”
– Chloe Hypatia

 

“I used to not like the word prostitute either but recently I’m just like yep I’m fucking owning that shit, because it’s only a label, doesn’t make me who I am and people can make it mean whatever they want it to mean to them, but I know what it means for me. I also feel if I reclaim it then no one can try use it in derogatory way towards me. My friend runs the twitter page @whoresofyore and I am going to interview her about the history of sex work….we have had some very interesting convos as sex workers used to be revered, so yep I’ll claim that! “- CJ L’Amore

 


 

What does Aeryn think about Sex Work terminology?

While individual sex workers may use different terms, I think best practice in being a decent human being is to use the term sex work.  Sure, you could throw around words and terms that sex workers vocally, politically, loudly, and sometimes via proxies like the largest human rights organizations in the world, have asked you not too. No one is forcing you.  But there is a reason that Amnesty, WHO, UN aids council, and many other human rights organizations use the term. More importantly, there is a reason the majority of Sex Worker organizations use the term: Sex workers asked them too. You don’t have to respect sex workers. Nor do you have to respect people of color, the queer community, those with disability or anyone else. But if you choose to use slurs when we’ve asked you not too,  or choose to argue with us over these points, and disrespect our personal preferences – don’t expect warm reception to say the least.

While I use the terms slut, whore and hooker while referencing myself, I do so very specifically. I don’t like being called those words, and if you use them in any way I will correct you. If you use these slurs cavalierly, or with hate, disgust or dismissal – I will likely be much less than polite. When I use terms like whore, it’s to rub in the faces of those who refuse to see me as a person. People are often surprised when they follow me on twitter or tumblr etc, and they find out later I’m a whore. They tell me I’m not like they imagined a whore would be, and thats the point. I face constant abuse and reminders of how people think of sex workers, and the weight of it is crushing. When society pigeon holes you and throws endless slurs your way it can be helpful to say “Yeah well maybe I am a slut, and I do work as a whore. So the fuck what?”

When the ball is in my court with words, I control the narrative. I use the slurs used against me like a mirror to show people their own prejudice. When you as a non sex worker hold up that mirror, you don’t have that power.  All you do is show me the reflection society casts of me: that I’m nothing but a dirty, worthless whore.

If you want to be a nice person, it’s always best to try and do the right thing. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes people make mistakes and that’s ok. Correcting and changing language can take some time and adjusting. After a while it becomes easier, and often you won’t even have to consciously think about the word changes, it just happens. Some sex workers might not care, but lots of us do. Erring on the side of caution and attempting to be respectful takes very little effort on your part to avoid a lot of possibly hurt.  Both on a small interpersonal level, and a much larger societal scale.

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