Last week The Daily Dot ran a story about a Twitter campaign petitioning the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook to rename prostitutes as sex workers in their 2015 annual update. The AP Stylebook, for those who may not know, is the essential go-to writing manual for journalists, freelance writers, editors, professionals and students. It provides fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style, along with constantly changing common use slang.
I am more than a bit perplexed by the idea that we need to be renamed. Who is suggesting this? The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA, Mamacash and Soros Foundation? Mamacash, the only granter to ‘sex workers’ in the US of A, demands that recipients of their monies be ‘sex worker led’. According to SWOP’s overbroad definition, legal sector sex workers include but are not limited to strippers or dominatrixes. It seem that by supporting the replacement of use of the term prostitute, they’re supporting non prostitutes to rename us prostitutes a clear act of colonialism.
The term sex worker obscures the underprivileged illegally working prostitutes. Is it appropriate for actual prostitutes to be renamed by privileged legal sector workers such as exotic dancers and fetish models? The Soros Foundation too seems to be supporting this change when they haven’t lifted a finger to help us get out from underneath the train-wreck of being renamed sex trafficked victims by the UN and DoJ, and subsequently journalists who read the AP Stylebook.
Basically, I am concerned that non-working non-prostitutes are calling for this change in the AP Stylebook when they don’t understand the legal consequences of ignoring the fact that ‘sex work’ is considered ‘prostitution’. Prostitution is not only illegal, it is often considered a component of ‘sex trafficking’. The press perpetuates the public perception of that reality by the vernacular they use in reporting on prostitution.
As an activist and working prostitute, I would say that reporting on my industry leaves a lot to be desired. Pun intended! I spend a lot of my unpaid time educating journalists and asking people like Soros and Mamacash for financial support. My experience convinces me renaming us won’t change my legal status. Changing what name we are called in the public spheres won’t enfranchise us. It won’t bring us equal protection under the law.
The term prostitute is completely appropriate to use especially when reporting on arrests for prostitution, which is what the press usually reports when it comes to our community. It is not like reporters go out of their way to cover our fundraisers, or events like they often used to prior to California’s Red Light Abatement Act of 1914, or the Alaskan ‘Line’ being shut down in the 1950s. Old newspapers frequently covered brothels and prostitutes philanthropic events at a time when we were treated as any other (legal) valuable members of society.
Now-a- days those of us who are ‘out’ get hit up by young journalists who want to follow us around for a few days to give the ‘day in the life of…’ feel to their piece. Exposing ourselves doesn’t really do anything for us. It doesn’t make us more money. It doesn’t make us safer. It actually makes us more likely to be arrested for or discriminated against- not for sex work but for prostitution. In fact, since these requests are often unpaid and may introduce unwelcome attention, it usually costs us to participate in that style of expose. It is important, however, to report on prostitution arrests so we all know what is going on.
So consider this: If arrested it is not going work to say we’ve been arrested as ‘sex workers’. Telling judge and jury you were just ‘sex working’ will not clear charges. Changing vernacular without changing the law does not get us out of being criminalized.
Changing our name may allow some to feel like they’ve done something for the cause. It’s one of the those feel-good neoliberal moves that we’ve recently seen, for example in being called ‘victims’, as in ‘sex trafficked victim’, and how now we are being provided ‘much needed services’ when in fact we’re being forced to give our time for free to attend yoga classes and/or unqualified ‘peer-to-peer’ based substandard mandatory counseling to get out of going to jail.
Another problem when journalists write about prostitution arrests is they often use real names. Using our real names without our permission, causes harm. It puts targets on our backs so all the creeps, both within and outside of law enforcement, can find us for a ‘free sample’. Using our real names exposes us – and our families – via Google searches to landlords, employers, education systems, child custody challengers and financial lenders who can line up to take a swipe at us because we’re named to be in association with (not sex work) prostitution, which illegal.
Currently the trend is on reporting sex trafficking. Would it behoove journalists to be more accurate in their reporting on prostitution by stopping calling all of us victims of sex trafficking? Just because the police blotter or the yearly FBI press release renames us as victims doesn’t mean reporters should repeat these inaccuracies, or infantise us by conflating all acts of prostitution with child abuse. Statistics about us in press releases by self appointed experts are often presented out of context. This lack of critical thinking misleads the public and policy makers. In this way reporters play a role in getting the public to go along with the proposed bad policy du jour being brought by the politicians under the guise of rescuing sex trafficked victims. The fact is that we’re all going to jail for (not sex work) prostitution. We’re all having criminal cases being adjudicated in criminal court for? Prostitution. Renaming prostitution as sex work, especially during the current trend in stacking trafficking with prostitution, is more complicated than mere politically correct etiquette.
Ironically, the renaming campaign is being led by SWOP USA. Their founder the late Robyn Few, came to me after her arrest, enthusiastic to start some kind of sex worker group, she asked my input. I told her about the Sex Worker Outreach Project in Australia where prostitution is decriminalized. My friend Rachel W. was an outreach worker there distributing condoms and safe sex information kits. Robyn immediately liked the name, saying she would use it. I encouraged her to contact Rachel W. for permission to associate and share mission, though she never officially aligned with the Australian network. For SWOP USA to say they want to rename prostitutes as sex workers seems highly suspect. I’ve yet to hear current U.S. members actually publicly identify as actual working prostitutes. For legal sector workers like strippers, fetish models, or even former prostitutes, to want to rename of group of active workers they don’t globally identify with is not entirely okay.
I’m not opposed to the term sex worker, but until all workers gain access to their individual and collective voices via decriminalization of prostitution, this effort will create more false reporting.
Lastly prostitution isn’t just a legal term. Prostitution is a part of each era of history. The terms prostitute and prostitution predate adult film performers, pornography, webcam and phone sex performers, lingerie or fetish models, doms, subs, burlesque and pole dancers, strippers, the gamut of diverse erotic service providers. The term prostitute has historic value. Some of us are able and willing to stand in pride as being part of this valuable occupation. We accept – embrace even – what we truly are, and what as prostitutes we have to offer.
Maxine Doogan and M. Dante