Sex Worker vs Prostitute: Who Gets to Define the Terms of the Discussion

I have been thinking about this issue for a while but have been unwilling to write it. Partly, I’ve been worried about causing unnecessary distress but equally because I have already been attacked online for my stance on the entirety of the sex industry including lap-dancing clubs and pornography. I didn’t want to pop my head above the parapet again. 

I wouldn’t have written this had I not seen yet another discussion on twitter today stating that only sex workers were allowed to have opinions on sex work or the sex industry.

Apparently, the sex industry is the only industry in which you can only have an opinion if you are/ were involved in it. This does beg the question as to why people who were never involved in it have the right to dictate who can or cannot speak about the industry. Surely the logical conclusion of not being allowed to speak about the sex industry means you also aren’t allowed to decide who gets to speak about the sex industry? Perhaps, I am just confused and you are allowed to have an opinion but only if you are pro-sex industry. 

I have never worked within the sex industry. Like all my political positions, I came to my decision through research. I have read blogs, books and other forms of personal testimony by women who have exited the industry. I have read blogs, books and other forms of personal testimony by women who are still working in the industry. I have read radical feminist research and research from those who are pro-sex industry. I stand by my position.

I do not like the term sex industry. I have used it until this point to cover everything from lap-dancing clubs to Playboy to pornography and to prostitution. However, I just want to focus on the difference between the terms sex worker and prostitute. Whilst I would never tell a woman how they can and cannot label themselves, I do find the current insistence on using the term sex worker is a silencing tactic. The term sex worker implies a positive experience. Many women, both currently working and those who are exited, prefer to use the term prostitute to define their experience. They use it because the word prostitute has a negative connotation.

My question, as a radical feminist, is which term do I use to accurately define my political position without causing unnecessary distress to women. I prefer to use the word prostitute because I think it more accurately reflects the experience of the majority of the women and children whose bodies are sold. Yet, there are women who self-label as sex workers. Do I have the right to tell them how to self-label? Do they have the right to tell other women that they cannot self-define as prostitutes. 

What I find most worrying is that there is a concerted effort to silence women, especially exited women, from using the word prostitute. Even if I believed that it was not possible to have an opinion on a subject without it directly effecting you (which is clearly ludicrous), why aren’t women allowed to use the term prostitute to define their own experience? Why are we privileging the voices of some women over the voices of others? 

I would never tell a woman how they can self-define. I do have a problem with women being told whether or not they are allowed to call themselves prostitutes. I do have a problem with what is clearly a well-funded industry dictating who is allowed to speak. I’ve seen the vitriol and personal attacks on blogs written by exited women. I’ve seen them belittled, denigrated and publicly attacked for daring to speak in negative terms about their own experiences.

I am willing to believe that some women have positive experiences as sex workers. Why is it so dangerous to believe that other women do/ did not? 

If we are going to follow this new rule about only being allowed to have opinions on things which effect us directly, then why are women not allowed to define their experience by using the word prostitute?

I would really like those online feminists who are pro-sex work but who are not actually sex workers explain why the voices of exited women don’t count.

I want to know why we must use the term sex work with no attention paid to those who use the word prostituted to define themselves?

I respect the right of those who choose the term sex work but I also respect the right of those who use the term prostitute. I may find the term sex work deeply problematic, and that is an understatement, but I will not tell another woman how to define themselves. Why isn’t the same respect extended to women who prefer the term prostitute? Why are exited women attacked over and over again online without any support?

UPDATE: I got these tweets today from the organisation NorMas:

NorMAs ‏@NorMAs_201239m@LeStewpot We’re often told it’s not ‘sex worker’ vs ‘prostitute’ but ‘prostituted’. Many exited women uncomfortable with ‘prostitute’ too. 

NorMAs ‏@NorMAs_201239m @LeStewpot We tend to use ‘women in prostitution’ and ‘exited women’ as compromise, avoiding ‘prostitute’ or ‘sex worker’.

I prefer these terms “women in prostitution” or “exited” women. The term sex worker feels too vague due to the size of the “sex industry”. 

11 thoughts on “Sex Worker vs Prostitute: Who Gets to Define the Terms of the Discussion”

  1. I guess it’s similar to using terms like ‘spastic’ and ‘cripple’, rather than cerebral palsy sufferer and disabled person. Sure, you could label it as political correctness and inhibition of free speech but I do think it’s important that people who don’t wish to self – identify as spastics, prostitutes and cripples don’t have these labels forced upon them.

    This said, I am with you on the right to self – determination. It is absolutely a silencing tactic to force euphemisms on people living through (or having lived through) any of the above but brave enough to reclaim these painful words.

    1. I think its something that feminists and feminist allies have to consider every time we write/ speak something: are we silencing other women? I wasn’t sure about publishing this piece but it felt like taking the cowardly way out and helping to silence exited women and women in prostitution. I am still struggling with this since my political position is that the sex industry is inherently harmful to all women and I want to see its end. So, am I silencing another group of women because of my politics?

    2. Well, maybe it’s just my naïveté but the way I see it, it’s your blog where you get to talk about your thoughts and politics freely – by the way, great piece!

      I cringe whenever I see a ‘voice for the voiceless’ mentality crop up – if these people are serious about it, they should just hand the voiceless the megaphone already 😉

      I mean sure, it’s entirely possible these voiceless will go on to say something contrary to the ‘voiced’ perspective, but permitting them only to echo our own views is just a silencing of a different sort….

    3. That I agree with. I do think there is a tendency right now in feminism to insist that there is only one way to be a feminist and any deviation is wrong. There are those who insist on the right to silence the voices of women they disagree with. Whilst this is my blog, I don’t want to participate in the silencing of those I disagree with.

  2. Hi Louise,
    I love your blog, which i only came across recently. Thanks for your article, it’s a really important discussion to have, the language used represents the views and often harmful agendas behind the words spoken. I, and many many others have been challenging the terminology of ‘sex worker’ for many years. I always say ‘woman involved in prostitution’ or ‘exploited through prostitution’. It takes longer to say it, but it is worth it. I think some people probably say ‘sex worker’ because they do not want to say ‘prostitute’ which has a lot of stigma attached, while others have a clear agenda that prostitution is ‘work like any other’. To me, both ‘prostitute’ and ‘sex worker’ seems to end up as labels of identity whereas a woman ‘involved/exploited/exited’ through/from prostitution describes a person and describes something of their current/past experience. I have been exploited through prostitution as a young person and trafficked.This was at the supposed ‘high end’ which basically means I was wearing prada as opposed to primark, but where a bruise still feels like a bruise and rape is still rape no matter what you are wearing or which five star hotel you are in) I have also spent over 17 years supporting women to exit prostitution, they certainly did not coin the phrase ‘sex worker’, this was done for them by some academics and supposed professionals sitting at their comfy desks who did not and will hopefully never no just how ’empowering’ prostitution is. In terms of language, it’s interesting how when someone has exited prostitution and has had some time to heal, how their language also changes and i can tell you that there are few things better in the world than to see someone in a place of real choices, empowered to determine and embrace their own life and identity and be free of violence and control. I agree with you that it is up to all of us to self define our own experience and identity, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be limited to a terminology we are vehemently opposed to or that we cannot debate its use with those who fiercely defend it. Unfortunately my experience with the pro ‘sex work’ lobby has shown that it is not just the language of others that they do not accept but that they usually only validate the experience of women that agree with their own views and dismiss someone telling their own story as someone who has been supposedly brainwashed by the ‘exiting’ project that they have had support from. Women exploited through prostitution right now are not really bothered about these discussions of language, they are for the most part trying to survive, but that doesn’t mean that this issue is not important because the language used has strong implications that have the power to impact their futures and the kind of support available to them to exit a damaging, harmful and exploitative existence. (tbc)

    1. Hi Diane,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your distinction between label of identity and lived experience makes the issue so much clearer in my mind. I also agree with your distinction between self-identifying and being pushed into using vocabulary which makes it difficult to engage with political analysis.

      I have had only one negative experience with someone who self-defines as a sex worker. I have seen them actively harass and denigrate exited women. Most of the attacks on exited women that I have seen have come from women who have never experienced prostitution but instead use the term intersectionality as a silencing tactic against any woman who dares to question their opinions. I find that group of “feminist allies” extremely harmful.

  3. (cont’d) I also co-lead a project supporting women who have exited from lap dancing and stripping. These women got in touch because they had found their experiences of lap dancing and stripping harmful and wanted a place to process those feelings and meet with others who had similar experiences. They had found the terminology ‘sex worker’ helpful to eventually apply to themselves because they had gone through a process of initially seeing themselves as being in the entertainment industry but as time went on they experienced continued coercion and expectation from management to interact sexually, were tricked into attending events that included full on sexual acts, where they described the atmosphere as ‘aggressive’ and experienced many other degrading situations. This was also in some of the ‘top clubs’ where they proclaim strict boundaries of ‘no touching’ etc. So they have described having a realisation that actually they were effectively working in the ‘sex industry’ and therefore ‘sex workers’ and they found that applying that terminology to themselves (temporarily) was helpful in helping them confront within themselves what they were involved in. They decided to leave. Don’t worry about popping your head above the parapet, you will find other heads popped up too. It can be a horrible experience to be on the receiving end of the ‘pro sex-work’ lobby alone, but you are not. Don’t worry unduly about causing ‘distress’, prostitution, pornography and and all violence against women and girls does that. We need your thinking and we need your voice.
    Take care

  4. Thank you for writing this Louise. I do think it’s important for people exited from and currently in the sex trade to use whatever terms they feel are right for themselves. I don’t like ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ but if people in the sex trade want to use it that should be their choice. I respect that and even though I hate the term, I do use it to be inclusive of those who want to identify as ‘sex workers’. There is, however, a wider issue with the term ‘sex work’ being used by society in general. The term implies sex is a form of work. From my experience of prostitution, it was abuse, and that is shared by many of my exited friends. So if being abused is a form of work, then it is work, but it is ‘abuse work’. I do understand why many in the sex trade use the term ‘sex worker’, and if it was used by my friends when I was prostitution, I can imagine using it too back then. I didn’t use the word ‘prostitute’ because it would have felt too close to the truth, too real. I used the word ‘hooker’ most often and still do in my head and sometimes aloud to describe what I did. I don’t like the term ‘hooker’ either but it’s ingrained in me. I think because it puts a mask on what it really was, in the same way I feel ‘sex work’ puts a mask on it too.

  5. Thank you XLCG for coining the term “abuse work”. I’ve always said to friends that if sex is work, how does it fit into a heterosexual relationship.

    It does not compute.

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