Content Warning: The following article mentions anti-sex work stigma, discrimination and violence.
Yesterday was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day (March 3), and our team has been reflecting on what it means to be a sex work-affirming organization. As strategic communication experts, this process involves ensuring that the language we use demonstrates our support for sex work and the rights of sex working communities.
why shifting our language is important
Due to the resilient efforts of the sex workers’ rights movement, equitable language around sex work has evolved in recent years. However, anti-sex work stigma continues to create barriers to the universal acceptance of non-judgemental and inclusive terminology. Many common words and phrases used to describe sex working communities are rooted in prejudice, shame and stigma. These exclusionary terms are often the product of sex work abolitionism, a harmful ideology that wrongfully sees sex work as an oppressive and immoral occupation.
At Spur Communication, we aim to build better conversations around sex work by challenging anti-sex work narratives and stereotypes. As strategic communication practitioners, we hope to create a shared language that respects the agency, dignity, and human rights of sex working communities.
Before determining what this shared language might look like, we must address common misconceptions about sex work.
myths about sex work
- Sex work isn’t a choice. Sex work is “the exchange of money or other goods for sexual services provided by a consenting adult.” If no consent is involved, then it isn’t sex work. Trafficking, unlike sex work, involves control and sexual exploitation. Many people wrongfully conflate sex work with trafficking, even though the two are very different.
- All sex workers are women. Sex workers exist across various points on the gender spectrum. For instance, sex workers may self-identify as men, women, trans, non-binary, Two-Spirit, and/or genderfluid. We must take an intersectional approach to understanding sex work to account for the diverse lived experiences of equity-deserving communities across various identity markers, including race, ability, class, sexuality, and age.
- All sex work is the same. Contrary to popular opinion, street-based sex work is not the only type of sex work. Sex work can include pornography, escorting, cam work, cybersex, dancing, phone sex, etc. Similarly, not all sex work is for survival purposes. As with many other occupations, folks may choose sex work because of job flexibility, the ability to earn an income and, most importantly, because they want to.
- Do amplify the voices of sex workers & center lived experience. Sex workers are experts in their own occupation and experiences. Assuming sex workers are unaware of their own needs is paternalistic and dehumanizing. Any initiatives involving sex work must be informed by sex workers themselves, emphasizing the perspectives of sex workers made marginalized due to precarious housing, health challenges, and structural racism.
- Do respect the agency of sex workers. Sex workers have the right to make decisions about their own lives, including their occupation. Sex workers are not victims and do not need to be ‘rescued’ from the industry.
- Do focus on the rights of sex workers. Sex workers are advocating for safe working conditions under a capitalist system. However, workplace safety is difficult to achieve when the entire profession is stigmatized. Labour rights are human rights. Sex workers deserve to access workplace support just like workers from alternative occupations.
- Do not conflate sex work and violence. Sex work is not inherently exploitative or violent. Assuming otherwise normalizes violence against sex workers. It ignores the root causes of structural harms (such as stigma) by blaming sex workers for any violence they experience. Violence is never an acceptable part of any occupation.
- Do not use the terms ‘prostitute’ or ‘hooker.’ These outdated terms are legalistic and demeaning. Their negative connotations have worsened the stigma against sex workers. Instead, use the term ‘sex work.’
- Do not criminalize sex work. Although selling sexual services is legal in Canada, the purchase of sexual services is outlawed. This approach has harmed sex working communities and is the basis for increased calls to decriminalize sex work. Avoid using language that implies sex workers or those purchasing services are ‘dangerous.’
(un)learning is an ongoing process
Our #buildingbetterconversations series is always meant to serve as a thought starter. As strategic communication experts, we hope to shift harmful narratives. That said, we always invite folks to add to our lists: what have we missed? How might we expand our understanding further? Please reach out to let us know!
Follow our ongoing Building Better Conversations series to read more on equitable language considerations.