Image by K.Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #21: “Prostitute”

On Sunday March 29th #facesofprostitution went viral.

The hashtag was a response from queer Australian sex worker Tilly Lawless to an article posted on the website Exodus Cry entitled “The Reality of Pretty Woman.” The article argued that Pretty Woman, the 1990 movie in which Julia Roberts plays a sex worker, romanticizes the realities of life in the sex work industry. The author writes, “Julia Roberts’ teethy smile is not the true face of prostitution.” To combat the representation of all sex workers as victims, sex workers from around the world proudly shared pictures of themselves with the hashtag ‘faces of prostitution.’ The deluge of photos shared on social media humanized the often technical, distant and derogatory term “prostitute.” Despite the fact that the term prostitute seems somewhat innocuous, technical even, the term has historically been used and is still used today as a slur.

This discussion of the term “prostitute” could not come at a better time. Sex work1 has never officially been illegal in Canada, but last December the Conservative government passed Bill C-36, a law that criminalized the purchase of sexual services and the profiting from the sales of sexual services. Many feminist organizations have condemned this law for putting sex workers in jeopardy of even more violence, increasing unsafe working environments, and adding to the stigma associated with sex work.

Sex work in Canada (especially on the unceded, ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people – aka Vancouver) takes place within settler-colonial patriarchal systems. Or, simply put, sex work isn’t just about the work itself – we also have to consider the cultural context. This context is one that systematically disadvantages certain groups – particularly Indigenous peoples, as well as people of colour, folks living with disabilities, and poor, queer, and non-binary folks. Identities are often intersecting; many sex workers stand at multiple experiences of these oppressions. Sex work also has a historical context – women of color and Indigenous women were often drawn into sex work because their bodies were exoticized and framed as ‘available’ for white men. A study in 2005 found that over half of women working in the lowest paying lines of sex work were Indigenous. Racialized (non-white) women, and especially Indigenous women, are often the sex workers that experience the most instances of rape and violence. They are also more likely to be working in dangerous environments. This can be seen in the tragic and horrifying story of Cree sex worker Cindy Gladue in 2011, who was brutally murdered by one of her clients. On March 18th of this year, her murderer was found not guilty to both first degree murder and manslaughter.

“Prostitute” is a term that is always gendered and often racialized. This word is used to demean  sex workers by those outside the sex work industry. It is constantly used as an insult, and links closely with the word “whore” to create a negative association attached to sex work. This stigmatizes sex work further, and labels those who participate in it as deviant. Stigmatizing sex workers is not only discriminatory, but only serves to reinforce systems of power in our society. Sex workers are often marginalized by legislature, police forces, and patrons. This often leads to violence against the bodies of sex workers, and the word “prostitute” furthers their dehumanization.

The gendered nature of “prostitute” is further limiting, as many sex workers identify as male, transgender, or agender. By gendering sex work, the term “prostitution” reinforces the trope that all sex workers are women and all patrons are men. This erases the experiences of queer sex workers as well as trans or non-binary sex workers.

Instead of “prostitute,” “whore,” and “prostitution,” we can use the phrases “sex worker” and “sex work industry.” According to the United Nations Population Fund, sex work is defined as “the exchange of money or goods for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally, involving female, male, and transgender adults, young people and children”.

The choice to enter the sex work industry is complex, and furthermore it is hard to define what a true choice is when settler-colonial patriarchal systems of power are in place. It is important to recognize that some sex workers make a conscious and empowered choice to enter the industry and have very positive experiences. Others are pushed into the industry through poverty, coercion, or other systemic disadvantages. Ultimately, all of these experiences are situated in a complex matrix of race, class, and gender identity.

It’s important to remember that if a sex worker self-identifies as a prostitute, and has adopted its meaning as one of identity and affirmation for themselves, we need to respect that. For those of us who are not involved in sex work, we must listen and support those who are. Sex workers’ experiences come in a vast range – from fulfilling and empowering, to exploitative and abusive.

Use/Context Alternatives
“Did you hear about that prostitution bill?” “Did you hear about that bill on sex work?”
“She is a prostitute” “She is a sex worker”
“I’m interested in researching prostitution” “I’m interested in doing research on the sex work industry”

Special thanks to to K. Ho especially for inviting me to write this column, and to Jane Shi, Evelyn Cranston, and Alex Mierke-Zatwarnicki for guiding me through the process of writing this piece so generously.

  1. The definition of sex work should not be conflated with sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is an individual(s) being physically coerced (usually through violent means, and involving the crossing of international borders) into performing sexual acts for no remuneration.