Why Sex Work Is A Terrible Analogy, And “Pr*stitute” Is A Slur

Pushing sex workers into the ‘other’ category through slurs, jokes and bad analogies is as dehumanising as it is dangerous.

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NB: Throughout this article I have had to use various slurs for clarity’s sake — however, in solidarity with sex workers, the ‘o’ has been asterisked out.

It’s tempting to see the terminology we’re raised with as correct, or at least as harmless. Casual ignorance is for our grandparents, with their stereotypical fondness for out-dated racial slurs. However, individuals who normally err on the side of political correctness seem unaware (and sometimes unconcerned) that the word “pr*stitute” is a slur; that the term perpetuates harmful stereotypes and assumptions; and that, no, “just kidding” doesn’t give you a free pass.

Sex workers are people, not the butt of a lazy joke; their labour is as legitimate as yours, and the fact that a marginalised group is still considered fair game for prejudiced flippancy signals just how far we have to go.

When uttered by those who aren’t sex workers, the word “pr*stitute” is a slur. So stop saying it.

Why The Language We Use Matters: The Problem With ‘Prostitute’

This is a very 101 point to make, but the language we use comes with connotations and baggage, some of it discriminatory. As UNAIDS recognises, “the words we choose and the way we put sentences together to share ideas and information have a profound effect on the way messages are understood and acted upon, or not”. Which is why there is a difference between an insult and a slur.

Insults are (generally) used in a derogatory sense, intended to hurt feelings — or in the great Australian tradition, display affection. Slurs, meanwhile, are a tool of oppression. I’m not being hyperbolic here. They literally maintain dehumanising stereotypes that are damaging to marginalised groups. The intention behind avoiding them is not to trample freedom of speech with a frantic fear that someone, somewhere will feel slighted; it’s an attempt to avoid regressive attitudes. Tasmanian sex worker Christian Vega underscores the importance of this powerfully when he points out that “the more we delegitimise sex work and exclude sex workers, the more we accept sexual assault, misogyny and degradation as a part of our community”.

When it comes to slurs, only the group they’re used against can reclaim them; obviously sex workers can use whatever terms they damn well please. For the rest of us, the term ‘sex worker’ makes a distinction between an individual and their employment, and clearly denotes the difference between legal sex work and sex trafficking. The first is legal and consensual, the other is illegal and non-consensual. An active distinction is necessary if the conversation about sex worker rights is to move forward, and sex trafficking to be effectively combated.

Additionally, ‘sex worker’ is active instead of passive, and less prone to the myths that hound the term ‘pr*stitute’. As sex worker and activist Leni, representing Vixen Collective, put it at the SlutWalk Melbourne rally on September 6: “people tell me I ‘sell’ my body. I say, ‘I’ve still got it’”. The idea that sex workers sell their body instead of a service is one of the major stumbling blocks in this conversation, in which no one listens to the people with actual lived experience; it has the effect of reducing individuals in the industry to sex objects.

Even more intelligent corners of the web fail on this front. In part two of her ‘Women as Background Decoration’ episode of her Tropes Against Women in Video Games webseries, Anita Sarkeesian constantly refers to the sex workers depicted as “pr*stitutes”, whether they’re legal or trafficked workers. The difference between consensually entering the industry and being coerced into it are blurred to the point it’s almost disregarded. For an otherwise strikingly incisive video, this is seriously messed up.

There are also a whole host of character judgments within the term ‘pr*stitute’, including implications of diminished worth, drug status, personality and sexual health. Why do we have the expression “a hooker with a heart of gold” still in common usage when it serves to paint ‘good’ sex workers as somehow exceptional or worthwhile despite their profession? Even the generally awesome Tina Fey is constantly implying that sex workers are somehow dirty: “I want someone who thinks being really into cars is lame and strip clubs are gross”.

This, despite the fact that Australian sex workers have consistently lower rates of STIs and HIV than the rest of the population; as sex worker rights group Scarlet Alliance points out, “as a matter of occupational health and safety, sex workers are safer sex experts and educators of our clients”. Actually visit a brothel and you’ll receive a health check included in the service!

The kidding around extends past mocking sex workers’ physical health and value; sometimes jokes hinge on the idea that it is somehow funny when they’re subject to violence and abuse. A charming one I heard the other day went, “If you have sex with a hooker without her permission, is it rape or shoplifting?” Among the many, many things going wrong here, these jokes cut to the core of the myth that sex workers are victims who lack agency, and that the work they do somehow means they lose the right to dignity and safety. Women who are sex workers and survivors of abuse comprise only a small proportion of survivors overall, but sex workers are on the frontlines when it comes to sexual assault and rape.

Quit Comparing Things To Sex Work, Too

Comparing things to “pr*stitution” is another common practice; shorthand for engaging in a sordid exchange, people throw around the term with wanton disregard for the impact it might have. They would “totally wh*re themselves out” for a chance to see that show, meet a certain person, for a bite of that roasted eggplant on rye toastie. This has been going on at least since 17th century playwright Moliere’s gem “writing is like pr*stitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money” (I’m not sure that even makes sense; sex workers aren’t the only people who exchange services for cash).

Far from being just discriminatory against sex workers, these tired analogies also tend to be wicked sexist. Without going too far down the misogynist rabbit hole of doom that the internet can be, the group “Subway is like pr*stitution. You pay other people to do your wife’s job” has over 12,000 likes on Facebook. Countless eyeball-melting blogs from men and women alike discuss whether conventional dating amounts to sex work, but with flowers and dinner exchanged for sex instead of cash — because having a job is exactly the same as out-dated gender roles, apparently?

Another example is an article by Ellena Savage published by Spook last month, ‘Your Marriage Isn’t Radical And It Never Will Be’, in which the writer – while not intending to devalue sex work — makes a series of light-hearted whorephobic jokes while condemning marriage.  “Call me a pr*stitute, but do you know how little writers earn?” is not exactly funny, considering how long sex workers have been asking people to stop using the slur — and if this is a simple slip of terminology, the context still implies there is something funny about the comparison. To be clear here, the focal point (marriage) is a powerful institution that should be interrogated and critiqued — but just because an article backhanded implies sex work is icky with a wink and a smile doesn’t make it okay.

Unlike the church, though, which can defend marriage whenever it wants, sex workers do not currently have their voices represented, so when even clever people get things so wrong, it’s more difficult for the harm to be recognised and rebuttals heard. It’s important to recognise that there are different ways to elicit that LOL from an audience; we can fight sexism without throwing sex workers under the bus.

How All This Culminates In Violence

Constantly pushing sex workers into the ‘other’ category is dehumanising and dangerous. As Dr Antonia Quadara noted for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, “the idea that sex workers somehow bring sexual violence upon themselves, or should expect it given their occupation, deeply influences social and legal responses to them as victims/survivors of sexual assault”.

Rape is always rape, never ‘a bad day on the job’, but as was made painfully clear by the media’s different treatment of the murders of Tracey Connelly and Jill Meagher, we still have a collective idea of who ‘real’ victims of sexual violence are; who is deserving of our anguish and outrage, and who isn’t. The blatantly bigoted reportage on the murder of Mayang Prasetyo, who was described as a “transgendered pr*stitute” by news outlets like The Daily Mail and The Courier Mail, was accurately called out as a journalistic “race to the bottom” by Amy Gray in The Guardian.

As Tom Meagher admirably put it, “what it says to women is if we don’t like what you do, you won’t get justice… And what it says to people like [Jill Meagher’s killer] is not ‘don’t rape’, but ‘be careful who you rape’”. Tracy Connelly and Mayang Prasteyo are chilling examples of rape culture in which we didn’t ask what motivated a man to brutally kill a woman, but instead imply that, because of their line of work, they should’ve seen it coming.

If you’re feelin’ like I’m stealin’ some of your favourite expressions, that’s too bad. We have to stop reducing sex workers and sex work to a lazy analogy, or a punch line. To constantly imply that sex work is intrinsically bad by comparison to pretty much anything else shores up the foundation for whorephobic attitudes. The fact that society is still so adamantly against actually listening to sex workers and taking feedback on board is a signal of how far we have to go.

Kat Muscat is an editor, writer, and feminist based in Melbourne. She was the editor of Voiceworks magazine, and the anthology Dialect. Kat has been published by The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Stilts, and Scum amongst others. 

Feature image by Stuart Gleave, for Getty