From the blog Shut up sit down:
When talking about sex workers, my friend is in the habit of saying “Sex workers, sic” while making quotation marks with her fingers, or using the term “prostituted women” instead. When challenged on this, she replied that she does not see it as work, so “can’t” use the term sex worker. [...]
I can be - and am - against the sex industry, which I believe harms women, without demeaning and dismissing the women involved in it by showing a total lack of respect for them and without trying to take away their dignity by refusing to use the words that they themselves choose to describe their occupations.
I take particular umbrage to the term “prostituted women”; not in general, but when used to refer to women who self-define as sex workers. “Prostituted women” infers coercion or force, and women who define themselves as sex workers clearly do not see themselves as having been coerced or forced into sex work.
I don’t disagree that the majority of workers in the sex industry have been guided there, whether by circumstance, upbringing, education or actual force. I also don’t disagree that there are women in the sex industry who have chosen to be there and who enjoy what they do (though of course then we have the whole discussion of their enjoyment being on the backs of the majority who do not enjoy it and do not get to have voices). Whether I agree or disagree with prostitution, pornography or the many other manifestations of the sex industry doesn’t matter. What matters is that we allow women their agency.
There is a core problem with this position which seems to advocate for using the term "sex worker" as the default terminology.
Anji provides several analogies which have fundamental differences with the term "prostituted." One analogy is someone who calls a transwoman a man. The other is anti-abortion rhetoric which positions women who want abortions as incapable of making their own decisions about pregnancy. In neither of the analogies are people doing the problematic labeling talking about people who have been explicitly controlled, coerced or exploited by others.
If children and adults are robbed of full agency and personal safety by sex traffickers, pornographers and Johns then no label will magically restore their agency. Yet the terms "sex worker" and "occupation" falsely position all those who are labeled this way as being fully willing participants who have full agency.
This view explains why those who are victims of sex traffickers have been treated by most police agencies as if they are criminals who are no less legally culpable than their traffickers. If those we call "sex workers" are genuinely empowered then they should be treated by the law in just this way. Allowing people their agency comes with legal responsibility for their actions.
Another issue is that the term "sex worker" is not the term of choice of all those who would be described as "sex workers" or ex-"sex workers." Women who did not have full agency and who after getting out and gaining full agency, have rejected the term "sex worker" so using this term as the default dismisses and demeans them. They are in essence positioned as playing the victim.
The majority of those who are in reality currently "prostituted" don't have a voice in this debate or their voices are controlled in the same way that their bodies are controlled. Acknowledging this fact is not what robs these children and adults of their agency.
Many anti-feminists defend their rape denial by saying that they are empowering women. Feministing has a post about the film The Monstrous Regiment of Women which highlights this denial.
You'll see in the trailer that our favorite female misogynist Phyllis Schlafly kicks things off with her wisdom on feminism, saying the movement tricks women into thinking that they're being victimized.
Nobody who criticizes Phyllis Schlafly's position is described by other feminists as dismissing and demeaning Schlafly or large groups of women. Yet when some feminists echo this theme of victim denial in their rejection of "prostituted" as the default those feminists who reject this same theme are often described as dismissing and demeaning those feminists.
If all those in the sex industry are described in a way which gives them full agency then there will be no support to spend tax money helping those who don't in reality have full agency. Those who express urgency to rescue victims of sex trafficking, and to provide the services those victims need after being separated from their exploiters, can then be falsely labeled as infantilizing women or hating sex workers when they are directly opposed to those who do this through their exploitation of the "prostituted."
This lack of support for using the term "prostituted" as the default directly benefits those who are prostituting other people.
I have seen some bloggers who identify as feminist "sex workers," and who demand this term be the default, oppose legislation which would help those who are sexually trafficked and support legislation which would harm those who are sexually trafficked. This is what causes some feminists to be suspicious.
The actions taken against most of those in the sex industry is what robs those girls and women (and to a lesser extent boys and men) of their agency. Calling those who were in fact prostituted by others "prostituted" is not what disempowers those children and adults. Overall this term is more accurate than "sex worker." Being accurate does not demean and dismiss those have in fact been prostituted.
Even the term sex industry whitewashes the reality that the sex industry is also the sexual exploitation and rape industry.
If we label children forced into prostitution as child "sex workers" and declare that once they reach 18 they have full agency we ignore the systematic violence done to them and we deny the real barriers which blocks them from successfully getting away from this exploitation. Barriers which don't magically disappear on someone's 18th birthday.
The Oakland, CA police are learning how traffickers control "prostituted" children with physical and sexual abuse so that they can be more effective in their response. The old view of these children was as young criminals who freely decided to be sex workers.
Widespread denial of the barriers around the "prostituted" is what allows people to assume that those who are separated from their traffickers and who return to those traffickers are proving their agency. What this often proves is that the barriers are high and complex and that we are failing those who are "prostituted."
Using "sex worker" as the default clearly does nothing to empower a large number of girls and women.