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NYT editor: Don’t say “sex worker”

I was reading a boring list of language mistakes in The New York Times when something related to sex caught my attention. I saw that a Times editor is suggesting reporters use the term “prostitute” instead of “sex worker.” Well, there’s something to disagree about!

I noticed this in the latest grammar, usage and style column by Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards. Corbett comments on a recent article by Times reporter Sharon Otterman, “Teacher With Sex-Worker Past Resigns“:

Melissa Petro, the elementary school art teacher who was brought up on charges by the city for writing openly about her past as a sex worker, has agreed to resign rather than face a hearing that could lead to her dismissal, the city announced Friday.

In a specific references like this, the vague “sex worker” seems like a euphemism for the more precise “prostitute.”

Hold on. Is it really better to say prostitute than sex worker? In this case, we’re talking about someone who admits she “accepted money in exchange for sexual services.”

The case for writing prostitute goes like this: Prostitute is a specific word for someone who performs sex acts for money, unlike sex worker, which can encompass other activities. Even though the word prostitution has a negative stigma, English doesn’t have a more neutral synonym. If a word describes something largely illegal and marginalized by society, that’s not the word’s fault.

The problem with this argument is that sex workers might not be as marginalized if our language applied less judgment. The word prostitute, as a noun, carries the person’s entire identity in one word and casts someone as an object for sale. The phrase sex worker describes a human being performing a task for money.

In most situations, the subjects would probably prefer to be called sex workers. Human rights groups, for one example, favor the term sex worker. Wikipedia tells us the term sex worker was coined around 1980 by Carol Leigh, an activist for prostitutes, though (without having researched it thoroughly) it seems likely to me the phrase is older than that. At this point, the term has become widely used and is not strongly linked to activism. You can use it without conveying approval or disapproval of sex work.

Sex worker isn’t a perfect term, but it’s preferable terminology most of the time because it treats the person in question more like a person. If your interest is in humanizing the subject of a story—and in journalism, that’s almost always the case—it’s a better phrase.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, News & Journalism

5 comments

  1. Jenny DeMilo says:

    Let us also not forget that the bulk of Melissa Petro’s “Sex Work” past was as a dancer and only briefly did she work as a prostitute. So does that mean that this NYT editor is furthering the stigma and a personal agenda as if to say if you ever, at any point, for any length of time, even if it was just once, sold sex for money it makes you forever a prostitute? Sure looks that way.

    Choosing Ms Petro as an example is not only inaccurate on its face but does not prove the point, being as she did several kinds of sex work of which prostitution was but one small facet. She was a “former” sex worker. She formerly engaged in sex work. What she really was, was a teacher.

    Another reason to not read the NYT.

  2. emily says:

    wife = LEGAL prostitute/hooker
    hubby = LEGAL john
    gov’t/the_irs = LEGAL pimp

    marriage = LEGALIZED prostitution

    in a DIVORCE case the judge does NOT divide love, now does he?LOL — ONLY $$$ can be divided. so what’s marriage all about…hmm?LOL

    case closed

  3. Using the word ‘sex worker’, whether is is the intention or not, masks the fact that VERY FEW prostitutes have chosen the job for reasons other than that in our capitalist system, there are few jobs that pay decent wages. By accepting that prostitution is only bad if people are violently forced into it, COMPLETELY misses the bigger issue that prostitution IS NOT something that would be happening anywhere near the scale that it is happening now, if we had a real democracy and real equality instead of this horrific capitalist system that has no regard for humanity. Notice who is pushing for the term ‘sex worker.’ It is the 1%. They want us to think everything is a commodity, and that sex is no different. BULLSHIT. #@$%* the King’s language, it is meant to hide his lack of interest in making things equal and democratic. We need a revolution, and one for democracy, not socialism or communism.

  4. I agree with Abram. Daryl Lang overlooks the worst consequence of using “sex worker” instead of “prostitute.” Women (or men, for that matter) who are prostitutes should not be stigmatized. But there is a far better way to avoid wrongfully stigmatizing persons, which I will mention last. But first, what is most wrong about the phrase “sex worker” is that it fails to stigmatize the fact that huge numbers of people are forced into prostitution by economic hardship due to the unjust economic inequality maintained by the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Among prostitutes, the vast majority are driven into it by this economic hardship (if not by violence) and only a very small minority choose to be a prostitute even though they have other ways they could make a decent living. Thus, calling a prostitute a “sex worker” is like what it would have been if American slave owners in the 19th century had called their slaves “agricultural workers” on the specious (continued below)

  5. grounds that they didn’t want to stigmatize their slaves by calling them “slaves.” The true motive would have been to avoid having the institution of slavery stigmatized.

    In academia, especially HIV research, multi-word phrases like “men who have sex with men” (abbreviated MSM) are commonly used. To avoid wrongfully stigmatizing persons while correctly stigmatizing a social injustice, we could refer to a prostitutes as a “person unjustly forced into prostitution” abbreviated as (PUFP).

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