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February 3, 2009

No, it's not the same thing...

Not too long ago, we had a little discussion (er, argument) about sex work. One of the biggest problems in arguing about sex work, is that so many people do not completely understand what sex work is (or more importantly, what it isn't). Sex work is not the same thing as sex trafficking or sex slavery. It just isn't.

So first, a little vocabulary lesson.
  • Sex work refers to the "commercial sex" industry and, while it is often used interchangeably with the term "prostitution", can actually include any income-generating activity or form of employment related to sex (prostitutes, exotic dancers, nude models, pornography performers, sex phone operators, sensual masseuses, dominatrices, etc.)
  • Prostitution is the act of performing sexual activity in exchange for money or goods. There are many forms of prostitution - some legal and some illegal (depending on where it takes place) - such as "street prostitution", "brothel prostitution" or "escort prostitution".
  • Sex tourism refers to traveling (typically from rich countries to poor countries) in search of sexual services.

Now here's the thing to remember... all of the above definitions have one common requirement: consent. That's right. Non-consensual "sex work" is not sex work. And that's where so many of the unnecessary arguments come from: people who can't differentiate between voluntary sex work and forced exploitation.

Still confused? Here's some more vocabulary...
  • Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of people for the purposes of slavery, forced labor (including bonded labor or debt bondage), and servitude.
  • Sex trafficking can include forcing victims into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation. Trafficking victims typically are recruited using coercion, deception, fraud, the abuse of power, or outright abduction. Threats, violence, and economic leverage such as debt bondage can often make a victim "consent" to exploitation. (The earliest definitions of "trafficking" in this meaning were used to distinguish the forced prostitute from the ordinary prostitute, allowing governments to sign anti-trafficking treaties regardless of whether they allowed the regulation of prostitution).
  • Sexual slavery refers to the organized coercion of unwilling people into different sexual practices (Just to be clear, this is not the same as the BDSM-term "sex slave" which is sometimes used to describe a consenting submissive partner).
  • Child prostitution refers to children having sex or sexual acts for money and should always be considered forced/non-consensual. (Under many laws this applies to anyone under the age of 18, although the age of consent varies).
Got it yet?

Supporters of prostitution or sex work do not condone forced exploitation or trafficking. If I defend the rights of sex workers, that does not mean that I'm suggesting people should be allowed to keep women as slaves or have sex with kids. There are a lot of flaws within the sex industry - no one is denying that - but to try to lump voluntary sex work together with the forced exploitation of women and children does everyone involved a huge disservice.

We recently came across two blogs debating the use of the term "sex worker", each addressing different points of view on the importance of terminology. It got us thinking on the subject even more...

Despite personally being against the sex industry, Anji of Shut Up Sit Down, defended the use of the term "sex worker":

When talking about sex workers, my friend is in the habit of saying “Sex workers, sic” while making quotation marks with her fingers, or using the term “prostituted women” instead. When challenged on this, she replied that she does not see it as work, so “can’t” use the term sex worker.

I pointed out that this was dismissive and disrespectful, and that whatever term a woman chooses to identify herself should be the word we use when referring to her.

[...]“Prostituted women” infers coercion or force, and women who define themselves as sex workers clearly do not see themselves as having been coerced or forced into sex work.

A response to the above blog by Marcella Chester on abyss2hope took a different stance:
There is a core problem with this position which seems to advocate for using the term "sex worker" as the default terminology.

[...]If all those in the sex industry are described in a way which gives them full agency then there will be no support to spend tax money helping those who don't in reality have full agency. Those who express urgency to rescue victims of sex trafficking, and to provide the services those victims need after being separated from their exploiters, can then be falsely labeled as infantilizing women or hating sex workers when they are directly opposed to those who do this through their exploitation of the "prostituted."

This lack of support for using the term "prostituted" as the default directly benefits those who are prostituting other people.

[...]The actions taken against most of those in the sex industry is what robs those girls and women (and to a lesser extent boys and men) of their agency. Calling those who were in fact prostituted by others "prostituted" is not what disempowers those children and adults. Overall this term is more accurate than "sex worker." Being accurate does not demean and dismiss those have in fact been prostituted.

Even the term ["]sex industry["] whitewashes the reality that the sex industry is also the sexual exploitation and rape industry.

[...]Using "sex worker" as the default clearly does nothing to empower a large number of girls and women.


We agree with Chester that victims of sex trafficking and children who have been forced/coerced into the sex industry should not be called "sex workers". However, no one is actually suggesting that they should be. Advocates of the term "sex worker" do not advocate using that term as the default for victims of sex trafficking, slavery, or rape; they advocate using the term "sex worker" as the default for actual sex workers. The term is not meant to empower victims of sex crimes, because the term does not apply to them.

This is the one major point that Chester's stance misses. There is a huge difference between a sex worker and a "prostituted" woman or child. The term "prostituted woman" is not always more accurate as Chester suggests. You shouldn't call a voluntary sex worker "prostituted" because that implies that this is something that was done to her - not that she has chosen her profession - whereas it does make sense to use that term (or one like it) for victims of trafficking.

Neither term should be used as the default for both situations because the two situations aren't even comparable.

Where Chester is right though, is in her opinion of the way law enforcement sometimes unfairly treats victims of the sex "industry" as criminals:
If children and adults are robbed of full agency and personal safety by sex traffickers, pornographers and Johns then no label will magically restore their agency. Yet the terms "sex worker" and "occupation" falsely position all those who are labeled this way as being fully willing participants who have full agency.

This view explains why those who are victims of sex traffickers have been treated by most police agencies as if they are criminals who are no less legally culpable than their traffickers. If those we call "sex workers" are genuinely empowered then they should be treated by the law in just this way. Allowing people their agency comes with legal responsibility for their actions.

[...]The majority of those who are in reality currently "prostituted" don't have a voice in this debate or their voices are controlled in the same way that their bodies are controlled. Acknowledging this fact is not what robs these children and adults of their agency.

[...]If we label children forced into prostitution as child "sex workers" and declare that once they reach 18 they have full agency we ignore the systematic violence done to them and we deny the real barriers which blocks them from successfully getting away from this exploitation. Barriers which don't magically disappear on someone's 18th birthday.

It is a serious problem that does exist, however the term "sex worker" is not the cause of this problem. One of the biggest causes is - what we've been referring to all along - the inability to differentiate a victim of the sex industry from a willing participant in it.

Another problem is the fact that prostitution shouldn't be a crime in the first place. Agree or disagree with the concept of sex work - the fact of the matter is that keeping it illegal does little to prevent it or to protect the men and women involved. If it was finally legalized (everywhere), regulated, and treated as an actual career/legitimate work, maybe then we could stop spending so much time punishing people and focus that energy on actually protecting the people who need protection.

The sex industry is really messed up in a lot of ways but we're not going to make that change by condemning or infantilizing the women that really do enter this industry voluntarily. That will not protect sex workers from the risks of the sex industry; it simply puts them at even more risk.

The least we can do is understand what we're talking about when we talk about sex work in the first place.

Some additional resources on the subject:


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