Though most don’t consider the word “prostitute” pejorative, it’s more damaging to sex workers than any other slur. There’s no true neutrality to be found in a word whose verb form Merriam-Webster defines as “to devote to corrupt or unworthy purposes.” But precisely because it is used in polite language, because of its patina of legitimacy, its harmful connotations can be used against us with impunity in the media every time a street sex worker is murdered and every time a sex worker in the public eye is outed. Every time this medico-legal term, used to justify our pathologization and criminalization for centuries, is utilized to label us, we are discredited subtly but effectively just that much more.
In a surprisingly insightful take for a non-sex worker, Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at Le Trobe University, wrote in the academic news commentary site The Conversation last year:
Referring to female sex workers as “prostitutes” in the media is not new, but it is a sobering reminder of how pervasive negative understandings of sex work and sex workers are. These understandings originate from various “expert” fields of knowledge including psychology, medicine, sexology, religious doctrine and various feminist perspectives, through which sex workers are positioned as dirty, diseased, sinful, deviant and victims. The term “prostitute” does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of “knowledge” about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.
When the Chicago Tribune described Indiana serial killer Darren Vann’s victim, Teira Batey, as a “prostitute,” it made it clear it was using this “complex history” against her as it detailed her past with police encounters and her family’s reports that she was a drug user. When the Irish Examiner called Kate Mcgrew, TV star of the reality show Connected, a “prostitute” after she came out as an escort, you can bet they also mentioned her “tight jeans and towering heels,” her “flamboyant” style of dress, even going so far as to say she looked “cartoon-like.” They may as well have called her a silly slut and been done with it.
“Prostitute” is even used routinely against us by other sex workers—non-full service sex workers constantly aver that at least they aren’t “prostitutes.” It seems like sugar babies, strippers, and pro-dommes leverage their relative respectability against us this way daily. Former sex workers even use the word to distance themselves from current sex workers. It was no accident that movement leader Annie Sprinkle chose to call the current workers who took issue with her speaking over them in favor of non-sex workers at this summer’s Fantasies That Matter conference “prostitutes,” chastising them for “acting up” in her notoriously condescending Facebook post.
This is not to say that I or anyone else should object to an individual full-service sex worker calling themselves a “prostitute.” As members of an oppressed group, we have the right to reclaim derogatory terms used against us. But when it comes to political self-definition as a group, it’s a different story. Sure, we could do better than the movement language we have—“full-service sex worker” sounds like an industry concoction, and what defines “full service,” anyhow? But there’s no way we could do worse than to ask our counterparts to rally under the word used in early 20th century eugenicist US state laws to justify sterilizing us as criminal and subnormal, the word used today to justify our arrests.
Perhaps, at core, the only reason we need to cite when we ask the media, the public, and non-full service sex workers to lay off the p-word is that a lot of us feel hurt by it. Self-determination as a marginalized group means we get to choose what we’re comfortable being called. Enough of us are sick of the word to have created a Twitter campaign last month asking the Associated Press Style Book to use “sex worker” instead. Quoted in the Daily Dot in connection with this effort, Sebastian Kreuger, communications officer for sex worker ally activist organization Open Society Foundations, summed it up:
Many people who sell sexual services find the term “prostitute” demeaning and stigmatizing…
And shouldn’t that be enough to get the rest of the world to retire it?