Why one should use the term ‘sex work’ over ‘prostitution’
Generally, you will hear the word prostitution used to describe the exchange of sex and money. However, how often do you hear the word prostitute used to describe things other than the exchange of sex and money? A derogatory term for someone who is promiscuous, someone who looks trashy, etc, prostitute is a loaded word.
The word is also exclusively for women; if a man is involved with sex work, he is distinguished as a male prostitute. In this patriarchal society, our language is structured with men being the default. In academic writing, “he,” “man,” and “mankind” are used to talk about individuals universally. In everyday language, the male is assumed and anything to do with a woman is distinguished as a “female ____.” So, it’s very problematic to have a default-female word such as prostitution because it really demonstrates the status of women in society. In other words, men are the norm except when it’s a stigmatizing, subordinating, demeaning, and dehumanizing position.
Prostitution carries with it a negative judgement about the person because there is a perceived identity of the person and their moral worth. Furthermore, the phrase “to prostitute oneself” means one is selling oneself and this has dehumanizing connotations. The term prostitute makes it so that the sex and the person are inseparable, and combined with the negative moral judgments and stigmas associated with it, a prostitute is then a very horrible thing to be.
On the other hand, the term “sex worker” is the most simple and direct way to convey that one exchanges sex for money. There is no room for stigmatizing or dehumanizing connotations of this word. It also acknowledges that sex is work.
No one insults someone by saying “you’re such a sex worker.” It doesn’t make any sense because it isn’t loaded with derogatory values or perceived identity of the person. If the person does not work in sex, this term is meaningless to them. However, when words like “prostitute” or other derogatory terms like “whore” are waged against someone, their integrity is called into question, as it is loaded with negative assumptions about their moral character and worth.
Sex worker divorces the moral worth and intrinsic personal identity associated with the word prostitute and extracts the important and relevant aspects of the definition: sex and work. It is also an inclusive term, including all types of sex work.