Sex work has been popping up in various media outlets recently: in the discussions of national media pundits concerning the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Canada’s prostitution laws; in personal blogs, such as the one belonging to a Duke University student and porn star; and in local media coverage of recent funding cuts to PEERS (Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society). Through this public discussion on sex work, we are flooded with out-dated, one-dimensional understandings of sex work. People seem caught up in having to decide whether sex workers are pathetic or empowered, exploited or sexually liberated feminists. But, sex work is complex like every other industry, and its labourers diverse, with a vast array of experiences.
Throughout the past few decades, thoughtful academics and sex work advocates have created positive alternatives to essentialist understandings of sex work (essentialist meaning that there is a set of characteristics that a said entity must possess), but these innovative ideas have yet to become mainstream. Sociologist Robert Weitzer explains that although both exploitation and empowerment are present in sex work, significant variation exists across time, place, and sector, which shows that sex work can’t be reduced to one or the other. What he terms the “polymorphous paradigm” of understanding sex work, “identifies a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations, and participants’ experiences . . . and is sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping sex work along a continuum of agency and subordination.”
Along with understanding the complexities of sex work, people need to be aware of the language they use, and its impact. The terms “prostitution” and “prostitute” should be replaced with “sex work” and “sex workers” respectively. One definition of the verb “prostitute” is, “Debased or debasing; corrupt, meretricious; seeking personal gain or advantage by immoral or dishonourable means.” The term is problematic for several reasons—most obviously, for implying that “prostitutes” are engaging in moral wrongdoing.
The term “sex work” was coined in 1978 by activist and sex worker Carol Leigh, at a workshop she attended in the United States. Leigh explained why she coined the term “sex work”:
“As I entered I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase ‘Sex Use Industry.’ The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction?”
Leigh explains that it is crucial “to create a discourse about sex trade that could be inclusive of women working in the trades.” The term “sex work” is preferable because it removes negative connotations, describes sex work as a legitimate form of work, and includes the vast array of services offered within the trade.
By embracing non-essentialist attitudes and language, we can oppose the dehumanization and stigmatization of sex workers. These actions pave the way for improved conditions for sex workers: the right to work safely, to not be raped or harassed, to have access to public services without discrimination, and the right to be recognized as full citizens.