Why is the term “sex work” problematic when referring to prostitution?
The sex industry is invested in the use of such terms as “sex work” and “sex worker” when referring to prostitution. Prostitution is not “work.” It is violence against women and girls and a human rights violation. The term “sex work” completely masks the physical, psychological and sexual violence inflicted on prostituted persons.1 A study done in Canada documented that prostituted women and girls have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the national average.2
What is the effect of viewing prostitution as “sex work”?
Legitimizing prostitution as work sanctions violence against women and girls as well as the inequality of women and girls. Referring to prostitution as “work” ignores the fact that so many women are trafficked into prostitution.3 In fact, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons reports that “…for the most part, prostitution as actually practiced in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.”4
What happens when prostitution is treated as “sex work” rather than as a form of sexual exploitation?
Promoting prostitution as a “job” normalizes and legitimizes it as an employment option. It allows for enormous “legal” profits for the sex industry and tax revenues for governments generated from the exploitation of poor women. Increased tax revenue encourages governments to turn a blind eye to the harms of prostitution and the need to provide exit programs and alternatives.5 For the sex industry, higher profits are an incentive to expand. Moreover, legalization of prostitution increases demand by promoting the social acceptance of sexual exploitation.6 Isn’t “sex work” a term that women in prostitution themselves use and prefer?
While there are a small number of women who say they choose to be in prostitution, studies show that the majority of women in prostitution have been pushed into it through poverty, gender inequality and a lack of alternatives. Given that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 13 years of age, many of these women are first exploited as children. Early sexual abuse compromises adult self-determination and is a human rights violation.
References 1. Melissa Farley, “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized”, “Violence Against Women. Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm.” 2004 2. Margaret A. Baldwin, “Split at the Root: Prostitution and Feminist Discourses of Law Reform” in Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 1992, Vol 5: 47-120 3. Grainne Healy & Monica O’Connor, “The Links Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: A Briefing Handbook.” 2006 4. Sigma Huda, United Nations Commission on Human Rights, “Integration of the Human Rights of Women and A Gender Perspective: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of the victims of trafficking in persons, especially women and children.” 2006 5. Dorchen A. Leidholdt, “Demand and the Debate,” in Demand Dynamics: The Forces of Demand in Global Sex Trafficking. 2003 6. Janice G. Raymond, “Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work: UN Labour Organization (ILO) Calls for Recognition of the Sex Industry.” 1999 “Sex Trafficking is Not ‘Sex Work.” 2005