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.