“Prostitute?” “Sex Worker?” “Trafficked Person?” What Language Should We Use?

Network for Peace through Dialogue, Women's Rights, Human Rights, Peggy Ray

Not long ago I was traveling the subway system in New York around midnight. A lighted board told me that my train would be delayed, so I found a seat on a bench next to a very striking young woman.

She was quite tall with porcelain skin and hair dyed platinum blonde. She wore heavy makeup, a miniature skirt and spike heels. Despite her provocative dress, her facial expression was one of the utmost innocence as she sat quietly reading a book, seemingly unaware that there was nobody remotely like her on that subway platform in Harlem.

What was her life like? What was she doing there? To my great regret, I was too shy to strike up a conversation. I just pondered.

At the Network for Peace through Dialogue in recent years, colleagues have raised my awareness about sex trafficking or “modern slavery” as they call it, and we have had many discussions about what language to use in discussing those – usually women but not always – who exchange sex for cash, food or a place to spend the night.

Was this young woman a “prostitute?” My colleagues don’t like that word because of the stigma usually associated with such a one, the assumption of degradation and “filth.” Traditionally, this stigma allows people (especially women!) to see themselves as morally superior to those “selling their bodies.” However, once you learn something about the poverty, emotional deprivation or, in the case of trafficked people, the “force, fraud and coercion” that they have undergone, you look for another term.

How about “sex worker?” Many suppose that this language avoids the stigma and some maintain that it is appropriate for those who choose that occupation in its many varieties — direct sexual services, escort, stripper, pole dancer, actor in porn movies, phone or virtual sex purveyor, etc. This term seems to be favored by some feminists and in much journalism. It also seems to be favored by some international organizations struggling to fight sex and labor trafficking or the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many advocates for women engaging in prostitution maintain, however, that this is not a choice for most. Most say they are doing this because they saw no other choice for survival.

I don’t like “sex worker” very much for another reason. If it came to seem like just another ordinary occupation, I would not like my daughter to wonder whether she would like to be a doctor, a teacher or a sex worker when she grew up. Servicing sexual obsessions for a living is dangerous and bad for your health besides.

Ok. How about “trafficked person” or “person being prostituted,” the favored terms of some colleagues. I don’t like this one because it suggests someone completely under the control of others, victimized and powerless, with no agency of her own. I believe that no matter how exploited and abused, humans can and do manage to hang onto a sense of their own dignity underneath it all.

“Prostitute,” “sex worker,” “trafficked person.” Just suppose the young woman on the subway platform was “none of the above” — just a woman who liked to wear tiny skirts and spike heels. I had to ask myself why I needed to put a label on her at all.

I was reminded of this experience the other day when I attended a meeting of UN Stop Trafficking in Persons, an anti-trafficking group, where I had a chance to hear a talk by Kate Mogulescu, a public defender in New York City and founder of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society. She told the group that what she sees as the main reason for prostitution in New York City is poverty and that her clients always say “I had no other choice.” They are usually poor women of color who have had limited education and are faced with a lack of employment opportunities. They need material help and she said she doesn’t think the criminal justice system can be expected to “save” them.

At the end of the meeting, I had the chance to ask her about the term “sex worker.” She responded that it was a term used by a sophisticated elite and not one that her clients would understand or relate to.

Perhaps because a criminal record in New York State is never expunged and follows a person throughout her life or perhaps reflecting on a need to find a category or label for a person, she observed, “I don’t think people should be defined forever by the moment they became trafficked.”

The meeting was over and she did not elaborate on this comment, but what I took from it was this: There is an innate spirit in all of us that survives the sometimes harsh conditions of life and that we can always choose to recognize our essential humanity in one another.
The “none of the above” option.

–Peggy Ray

About networkforpeace

Network for Peace through Dialogue (formerly the Center of International Learning) was begun in 1985 by sociologists, theologians, and educators from Germany, the Philippines and the United States united by their world view and wanting to participate in transformative change. The Center was to provide ongoing learning, analysis and collaboration between people of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. There were two specific goals: to promote democratic processes and to work toward de-militarization. Thus since 1985 The Network for Peace through Dialogue has been dedicated to connecting grassroots communities, both local and global in order to identify and research common issues and solutions in the areas of making peace and promoting just action. Our objective is to provide a platform so that communities and societies can expand understanding and discuss their differences within a dynamic environment to help resolve conflicts and cooperate more fully. In all our programs we do so by analyzing, facilitating, and fostering dialogue, identifying solutions and sharing information.
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6 Responses to “Prostitute?” “Sex Worker?” “Trafficked Person?” What Language Should We Use?

  1. Tom Milton says:

    I agree with not labeling the victims of sex slavery, especially not as individuals. Each victim is a special case, with all the potential that God gave her or him. But for the purpose of fighting the evil of sex slavery and helping its victims, I think it’s useful to have a term for the general problem, and I lean toward “sex slavery” because it includes people who were not victims of trafficking but were driven to selling their bodies by economic and social forces that seemed to offer them no other choice. As with other types of slavery, sex slavery exists because there are people who value money more than human life, so they exploit girls and boys for their physical attributes just as slave holders in agriculture and industry exploit men and women for their physical attributes. It’s the same evil in different forms, reducing human beings to physical things for the purpose of economic gain.
    Tom Milton, author of “Outside the Gate”

    • kkanet says:

      The following responses came to us through e-mail and we share them here. Thanks to those who responded.

      N Z Riccio
      business men/women… entrepreneur??? Any term that is not denigrating or demeaning. It is a range of terms and I would want to partake in such a dialog.

      Anne T. O’Brien
      Couldn’t find where we were supposed to answer this question, or maybe it was intended to be rhetorical, I don’t know. Read the article, thought about it, and (even having read the objections) would choose “sex worker.” There are “factory workers” who may find life difficult, or be poor – so also “fast food workers,” “daily hire workers,” “migrant farm workers,” “cotton pickers,” etc. They all might also say they had no choice. I think “sex worker” preserves some dignity for the individual, does not label them as “victim” or “immoral” without question (they may be mostly victims, for sure – and the trafficked ones clearly are).
      I don’t know, of course. I’d be interested in the consensus, in the “votes,” so to speak.

      Several responses from Kris Wade:
      As a survivor I would prefer to be called “prostituted” or “used in prostitution”
      Kris Wade

      Years ago I came across this…I use it in trainings all the time…I do not know the original source or who originally wrote it but it helps when talking about appropriate terminology. I really don’t like “sex work” as it seems to dignify exploitation as legitimate “work” when really it is violence against women and others who are used in prostitution…Kris Wade

      The best thing of course, is to just call them by their names Kris Wade

      From Kathleen Barry:
      Shouldn’t you be more concerned about what to call men who buy women to use them for sexual torture?

      • kkanet says:

        Peggy Ray has some thoughts generated by the previous comments which we share with you. We are pleased to be in this dialogue and look forward to further thoughts and responses on this important question……

        Afterthoughts on “Prostitution” Blog

        There have been some interesting responses to my recent blog called “Prostitute? Sex Worker? Trafficked Person? What Term Should We Use?” To continue the dialogue, here are my first thoughts on some of those.

        Tom Milton sees a need for a general term to describe the problem and prefers “sex slavery.” He compares sexual exploitation to exploitation based on other physical attributes and says, “It is the same evil in different forms, reducing human beings to physical things for the purpose of economic gain.”

        I confess that I have resisted the term “sex slavery” because it seemed like a form of sensationalism. The word “slavery” is sometimes used loosely in a way that trivializes the horrendous experience that African-Americans have had in this country and I was afraid of that.

        As a result of Tom’s comment I am re-thinking this. Even after the formal slavery of African-Americans was abolished, other ways were found to kill, imprison, exploit, and denigrate African-Americans that you can consider an extension of slavery. You might think of a parallel to women’s lives and perhaps the term sex slavery should be expanded to include all the ways women are exploited, including unpaid child care work and marriages maintained in spite of sexual violence or for reasons of economic survival.

        Anne O’Brien and Kris Wade made excellent cases for the terms “sex worker” and “prostituted woman” if you need a general term and I still can’t decide between them.

        Kathleen Barry asks why we are bothering to look for a term to describe the women instead of one for the men who abuse and torture women. My view is that all of us are damaged by sexism and male domination including the abusers. A few words I might choose for the responsible men at the top of the domination chain are Investment Banker, Stock Broker, CEO, and General.

        –Peggy Ray

  2. George Lakey says:

    I don’t know if this term is still in use by men who provide sexual services to other men for cash, but when I as a young man entered the gay world I learned about “hustlers.” I liked the word because (a) it didn’t create a “one story describes all.” It was a humble word, and included the man I got to know who occasionally did it for fun and teasingly to reassure himself he was attractive — he fit none of the pathological stereotypes that float around — all the way to men using the term who did fit the horror stories. “Hustler” as a word contrasted with the reductionist pattern of academics and activists who, from the outside, want to lcategorize to the point of reducing people to things, in the name of resisting oppression. (b) “Hustler” emphasized the agency embedded in our humanness, which is the bottom line for me for all words describing people. “Hustlers,” I learned, “turn tricks.” Other phrases suggested an active, even assertive orientation that might make the typical corporate office worker look like a pathologically passive object of market forces in comparison. As a gay man brought up working class I’ve always resented would-be allies who denied my agency and power, and there’s no way I’ll use words that emphasize the victimhood of others any more than I will accept them for myself. I’d propose humility about words (all are limited), then choose the one that comes closest to acknowledging agency, which, of those under discussion here, would seem to be “sex worker.”

  3. What comes to mind for me is Exploited and Enslaved human beings in one form or another. Whether through sex trafficked persons, prostitution or any other form that lessens the dignity and worth of others.

  4. John Arnaldi says:

    There is so much diversity in this subject that I think it is important not to try to force all types of “sex workers” into a single term or category. I realize that there are a great many people who are sexually exploited and enslaved. From my perspective, it is the exploitation and enslavement which are destructive and tragic, not the fact of sexual behavior outside of marriage or sex for hire. When it comes to sex for hire, I think it is crucial to understand that there is a diverse spectrum of reasons that persons engage in sexual behaviors for money, not all of which are exploitative or destructive. One group that has received little attention consists of persons who have chosen to provide sexual stimulation to others as a form of psychosocial and spiritual healing. Many of these persons have a deeply felt spiritual calling and identify themselves as “sacred intimates.” I know several sacred intimates and I do believe that they perform profound healing work for their clients. An excellent book that explores this concept through interviews with sacred intimates is Reclaiming Eros by Suzanne Blackburn. This is an important perspective that challenges our stereotypes of “sex work” and “sex therapy.” Her book is very worth reading and is available at my web store:

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