“Sex work” or “prostitution”? Language choices reveal views on male dominance

By Robert Jensen

Published in Conatus News (UK) · February, 2017

The terms to describe the buying and selling of bodies for sex in the modern world convey much about the underlying ideological debate going on in the culture, and within feminism.

In liberal circles, “sex worker” has become common, rejecting the ugliness of words such as “whore” that are used in a culture that likes to blame women for men’s exploitation and abuse of women.

But as a man rooted in a feminist critique of institutionalised male dominance—in other words, a critic of patriarchy, perhaps an old-fashioned word but one that still describes our society—I do not refer to the buying of sex as work but as prostitution. I refer to prostitution—along with pornography and the activities in strip bars, commercial phone/computer sex operations, and massage parlours—as the sexual-exploitation industries.

What is the best term for a woman in one of the sexual-exploitation industries? I follow the insights of women such as Rachel Moran, author of Paid for: My Journey through Prostitution: “I wasn’t a prostitute, I was prostituted. There’s a very big, significant difference,” she says. A woman being used by men for sex is not reduced to “prostitute” as an identity; she remains a full human being, even if being treated as less than that by a man. (Both men and women can be prostituted in this way but the majority are girls and women, and the vast majority of buyers are men.)

These language choices signal dramatically different analyses. We can understand these practices as a key part of a patriarchal system that attempts to control women and their sexuality, which therefore must be challenged (the radical feminist position); or as merely a type of labour that women can engage in to their potential advantage, which therefore should be treated as any other form of work (the liberal position).

A series of questions can help reveal which position is most consistent with justice.

First, is it possible to imagine any society achieving a meaningful level of justice if people from one sex/gender class could be routinely bought and sold for sexual services by people from another sex/gender class? If one class of people are defined as “available to be bought and sold for sexual services,” is there any way that class of people won’t be assigned subordinate status to the dominant class that does the buying? Is justice possible when the most intimate spaces of the bodies of people in one group can be purchased by people in another group?

Same question, stated differently: If we lived in an egalitarian society with sex/gender justice, would the idea of buying and selling people for sexual services likely emerge at all? If we lived in a society that put the dignity of all people at the centre of its mission, would anyone imagine “sex work”?

Another formulation: You are constructing a society from scratch, with the power not only to write laws (if you decide there should be formal laws) but also to write the stories people tell about themselves, each other, and the larger living world. Would you write stories about how one sex/gender class routinely buys and sells another sex/gender class for sexual pleasure?

Last question: You are speaking with a girl who is considering future vocations. You want her to live in a world with sex/gender justice. She asks you, “What do you think I should be when I grow up?” Do you include “prostitute” on the list? If she includes that on her list, do you respond in the same way as to other possibilities?

If the answer to these questions is no, perhaps it is because, as sociologist Kathleen Barry puts it bluntly in her book The Prostitution of Sexuality, “When the human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being has taken place.”

A just society that guarantees dignity for women is impossible in patriarchy—whether the conservative or liberal version of institutionalised male dominance. We have to work not only to dismantle the structures of patriarchy but also to imagine what a society beyond patriarchy would look like. In such a world, it is difficult to imagine whores, sex workers, or prostitutes.