As Training and Outreach Specialist for CASH, I often give presentations to the public about the issues faced by adult sex workers—in this context, women who trade sexually-oriented services for money. Inevitably, I am asked, “What do you mean by “sex worker”? Don’t you mean “prostitute?” No, I don’t.
“Prostitute”, while succinct in a legal sense, is a highly stigmatized word. Imagine for a moment that you have been publicly accused of being something you aren’t—say, a construction worker. You would probably find such an accusation ludicrous. You might laugh it off, and you probably wouldn’t feel any lasting repercussions; there isn’t any stigma attached to working in construction. Now imagine you have been publicly accused of being a prostitute. How would you feel? Angry? Humiliated? Indignant? Hurt? How would this accusation affect you? Would you feel obligated to defend yourself? What if this accusation somehow gained momentum and someone could prove that they saw you walking in an area known for prostitution? Would your livelihood be jeopardized? Would coworkers, clients, neighbors, or family members become suspicious of you? Would people make jokes about you, malicious or otherwise? I would wager that at least one of these things would be true, and that this hypothetical situation would be quite an ordeal for you.
For CASH clients, the stigma and fallout you imagined is a reality. They are assaulted by johns who feel justified in harming them because they are “just prostitutes.” They have difficulty finding jobs within their community because of their past, and when they do find jobs, they are often sexually harassed by managers, coworkers, or customers who recognize them from the street. Our clients can turn on the television at nearly any time of day find scorn, ridicule, and ‘jokes’ about killing them without consequence, or ‘jokes’ about the sexual abuse prostitutes endured as children. Culturally speaking, ‘’prostitute” is used to demean, dehumanize, and demoralize the women forced to bear the label.
For this reason, I use “sex worker” in my writing and presentations. It is descriptive and succinct, but free of the judgment and stigma of “prostitute.” It is inclusive, in that it covers the wide range of sex work that exists outside of a simple exchange of a sex act for money. Most importantly, “sex worker” affords our clients the dignity and respect that they so rarely experience in their day to day lives. It does not cast our clients as victims, martyrs, or heroes. Simply put, it is a kinder term than “prostitute,” a small kindness we can all adopt to make the lives of CASH clients easier.