In recent years, discussions surrounding the sex industry and the terminology used to describe it have become increasingly contentious/controversial. The media uses terms like ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ in their reporting, treating prostitution as a job like any other. In this blog, we will explore how the term "sex work" can inadvertently absolve sex buyers of responsibility and why this matters.
Redefining the Discourse
The term "sex work" emerged as a response to the pejorative language often associated with prostitution and other forms of commercialized sexual services.
Normalization of a Commodification Culture
One of the concerning implications of the term "sex work" is that it can contribute to the normalization of a commodification culture surrounding sex. By framing it as a legitimate occupation, it becomes easier for society to accept the idea of buying and selling sexual services as a routine transaction, like any other job. This normalization can obscure the ethical and moral dimensions of engaging in such activities.
When we refer to individuals engaged in the sex industry as "sex workers," it can inadvertently shift the responsibility away from those purchasing sexual services—often referred to as "sex buyers" or "johns." By focusing on the agency and choice of those providing the services, it becomes easier to overlook the ethical implications of paying for sex. This shift in accountability can perpetuate a culture of impunity for those who engage in sex buying.
Another critical concern is how the term "sex work" can obscure the harsh realities of exploitation and coercion within the industry. While some individuals may enter the sex industry voluntarily, others are forced or coerced into it due to economic hardship, human trafficking, or other factors. Using a blanket term like "sex work" can make it more challenging to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual forms of sexual labor, further enabling the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.
The language of “sex work” implies falsely that engaging in the sex trade is a choice most often made willingly; it also absolves sex buyers of responsibility.
"The US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking provides a formal platform for trafficking survivors to advise and make recommendations on federal anti-trafficking policies to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF). Each member is a survivor of human trafficking, and together they represent a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. The Council is appointed by the President for two-year terms."
The Council's 2022 report has a chapter entitled "Being Cognizant of Language Used in the Anti-Human Trafficking Movement."
Two of the terms discussed are "sex work" or "sex worker". Here is the report's text: “'Sex work' and 'sex worker' are terms that imply that people can be bought or sold. In addition, the word “work” suggests that individuals in the commercial sex industry are provided some work-related benefits, such as health insurance or retirement plans. One cannot get a degree or certification in 'sex work,' and this is not something that is taught in our schools. The term desensitizes and disregards the experiences of many individuals whose rights have been violated. Individuals who truly consent, voluntarily, to engage in commercial sex should instead be referred to as 'individuals in the commercial sex industry'.