The language of prostitution, or the prostitution of language

Listening to the podcast of last week's Westminster Skeptics debate on the sex trade (which you can also read about here) I was struck by the extent to which discussion about prostitution often seems to get reduced to an argument about language. Dr Brooke Magnanti (the celebrated author Belle de Jour) criticised anti-prostitution campaigners for their habitual use of terms which both denigrated sex-workers (her preferred term) and denied their agency; she added that while she personally was content to call herself a hooker, even that term might be considered derogatory when used casually by someone outside the sex industry. Rather like only gay men being allowed to call each other "queer", perhaps.

This might all seem somewhat politically correct, but this is an area in which language can be peculiarly powerful in shaping thought. It might even be argued that the "problem" of commercial sex is as much a linguistic problem as a social one, perhaps more so. The very reasons Magnanti gave for preferring the term "sex-work" - that it respects the women's (or, of course, men's - but for simplicity's sake I shall be using the female pronoun) autonomy, that it implies that they are people doing a job rather than passive objects - are those cited by anti-prostitution campaigners for rejecting it. She claimed that "sex worker" was the most neutral term available, because it does not come loaded either with moral judgement or assumptions of victimhood. But that is precisely why it is not neutral. Merely by not passing moral judgement on prostitution, its clients and practitioners, you are already taking a stand.

By way of contrast, I offer you an intriguing passage from a lengthy report (pdf here) compiled by an anti-prostitution working party. Financed by the Hunt Alternatives Fund, and supported by such high-profile campaigners as the Guardian's Julie Bindel, the group aims to use "business strategies" to tackle the "demand" for paid-for sex, on the theory that "commercial sexual exploitation" (which is their preferred term for the phenomenon) would disappear if men could somehow be dissuaded from visiting prostitutes. (See Laura Agustin's lucid dissection here.) As such, they are as alive to nuances of language as Brooke Magnanti is. Here's what they have to say:

One of the messages we frequently encountered during our research for this project was, “words matter.” The language used to describe commercial sex and those involved in it reflects different positions about the nature of commercial sex and exploitation, and how best to regulate or combat it. The right words can inspire, strengthen resolve, and mobilize action. The wrong choices can alienate potential supporters, fracture coalitions, and bring effective action to a halt.

There are instances where it is most appropriate to use a term such as commercial sex provider or prostituted person when describing those engaged in selling sex or being sexually exploited. There was debate among those interviewed about whether the term “prostitute” should ever be used, and consensus that children engaged in commercial sex are never to be referred to as “prostitutes,” but instead as victims or survivors of commercial sexual exploitation or rape. Prostitute is seen by many as a pejorative, stigmatizing label that attempts to define people simply by their role in commercial sex. The term is regarded as failing to convey the force, fraud, coercion, and/or exploitation to which the providers of commercial sex are often subjected, and can be interpreted as implying a level of self-determination that is seldom experienced by those with pimps or traffickers. However, many survivors or providers of commercial sex refer to themselves as “prostitutes” or former prostitutes, and do not use the term “prostituted person” because they were not compelled by a third party.

Many opponents of commercial sex refer to prostitution with the term “commercial sexual exploitation,” and refer to those serving as prostitutes as “prostituted women,” “victims of commercial sexual exploitation,” or “survivors.” The buyers of commercial sex are described as “offenders” or “exploiters” rather than as “clients” or “customers.” The use of these terms is an attempt to describe commercial sex in the language of crime and exploitation, and to convey the sense that prostitution is something detrimental and done to women for the benefit of others, rather than something done by women to benefit themselves. Proponents of decriminalization or legalization prefer the phrases “the sex trade,” “sex work,” or “the sex business,” and refer to the providers of commercial sex as “sex workers” or “providers,” and to the consumers of commercial sex as “clients” or “customers”. These terms seek to legitimate prostitution by describing it in the language of the conventional workplace. There was a strong consensus among those we interviewed that the term “sex work” is never appropriate, since it implies a legitimate form of labor, while the Campaign is based on the premise that selling sex is exploitation or slavery, and is never work.

While professing not to judge sex-workers (although emphatically judging their clients) these campaigners have no such qualms about denying their agency and autonomy. Indeed, denying their agency - and thus their right to participate in the debate on any terms other than those of abuse victim or "survivor" decreed for them by the activists - is the whole point. The last sentence is especially telling. Ideologically committed to the a priori belief that "selling sex is exploitation or slavery, and never work", they are unable to recognise (or even comprehend) any view that contradicts their own. For them, the iniquity of prostitution is encoded within the language used to describe it. It is very difficult to argue against this way of seeing the world. If you believe, not only that all swans are white, but that whiteness is part of the very definition of the word swan, the sight of a black swan is unlikely to disabuse you. Rather you will be apt to argue that as it is not white, therefore it cannot be a swan.

That is one reason why the debate about sex-work, for all the efforts of sensible people like Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (who also spoke at the WS meeting, and who I had the pleasure of hearing speak on the subject about a year ago) to promote an evidence-based approach to the issue, is so intractable. In some ways, the old stigmatising language was less oppressive. Talk of whores, prozzies, sluts and all the rest may be deeply misogynistic, and it is certainly derogatory, but at least it constitutes the sex-worker as an active participant in her own shame. The new caring, politically-correct formulations ("prostituted person", "survivor", "exploitee") are dehumanising. They express the view, openly admitted in the above passage, that "prostitution is something detrimental and done to women for the benefit of others, rather than something done by women to benefit themselves".

It is scarcely surprising, then, that sex workers often resent the attitudes demonstrated by those who claim to be campaigning on their behalf. Such language is experienced as objectifying, because for the activists (often professed feminists) the prostitute, in her capacity as commercial sex provider, is an object, a mere instrument to be used by the client for his selfish pleasure. It is asserted that a prostitute is a receptacle for a client to masturbate into, for example. Or prostitution is defined as men asserting their "right" to "buy" a female body to abuse, ignoring the possibility that a woman (and again I note that not all prostitutes are women!) might want to assert her right to deploy her body and sexual talents as she sees fit. Melissa Farley begins an academic paper with the bald assertion that "prostitution is sexual violence which results in economic profit for perpetrators" - almost as though the sex worker wasn't even there!

By contrast - and I don't want to glamorise what is indeed often a seedy business - in a society that stigmatises commercial sex and its providers, the people least likely to unthinkingly objectify prostitutes, and most likely to treat them with respect, are in fact their clients.

Whence comes this objectifying, ideologically-imprinted language? After all, it ought to be possible to tackle the attendant evils - the gangsterism, the human trafficking, the coercion - without striving to eliminate the phenomenon of commercial sex altogether. People do not walk around naked because they dislike the fact that many clothes are manufactured by poorly-paid workers in third world sweatshops. It was recently revealed that immigrant children had been working long hours fruit-picking on British farms. No-one is saying we should ban fruit. Why is sex different?

Partly, I think, it is an overhang from religious morality. Campaigners find it impossible to separate the situation which women involved in the sex industry find themselves in from the status which the prostitute has traditionally occupied morally. The prostitute is culturally an un-person, defined either by her victimhood or by her notoriety. It isn't a job like any other because anyone engaging in it is tainted. Indeed, it seems natural to impugn the moral status of other forms of work and money-making by associating them prostitution - as, for example, in the famous line from Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere's corporate raider tells Julia Roberts's LA hooker, "We both screw people for money."

But that just begs the question. What is it about sex, rather than, say, cooking, that makes its commercialisation wrong? There's much to be said for home-cooking, but few people would argue that it is immoral to eat an expensive restaurant (or even, for the matter, McDonalds). The parallel is a good one, because sexual skills can be as highly-toned and valued as culinary ones. In some societies, historically, prostitution has indeed been an honourable profession - or at least an accepted one, with its own traditions and pride. And why shouldn't a fine blow-job be as celebrated as a perfect soufflé? A Martian observer might find it strange that in a society which lays ever-greater emphasis on sexual performance, with how-to guides everywhere on sale and magazines aimed at teenage girls discussing sexual techniques in often alarming detail, sexual professionalism remains so strongly taboo.

The logical conundrum faced by anti-prostitution feminists is that, supposing the premises of 1) equal rights and 2) informed choice, it must be at least conceptually possible that some women will choose prostitution, not out of desperation, but because they actually find it preferable to the alternatives (which include, for example, graduating with a huge student debt, or being unable to get on the property ladder). The fact that the choice is, by and large, unavailable to heterosexual men does not ipso facto mean that it is a bad one. It might just as logically be the case that women are peculiarly fortunate in having the option.

Rather than confront such a dark truth, it's much easier to define prostitution in such a way that the question simply does not arise.


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