Prostitute, and other dirty words

By Loni Cooper
Fri 29 July 10:48 AEST
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This article contains reference to the sex industry, sex work and violence against women.

Debate has been raging in recent weeks about media commentator Steve Price’s use of the word ‘hysterical’. We've pondered how that one word illustrates a lack of respect for women, and how its use might encourage violence against them. Here at Uncovered, we’re asking journalists to think about another word - one that much of the mainstream media uses repeatedly and unthinkingly. A word that could also be having an impact on attitudes towards women and violence against them.

That word is ‘prostitute’.

Despite continuous calls from researchers, advocates and sex workers for the term to be abandoned, most mainstream media outlets still refer to women working in the sex industry as ‘prostitutes’. Just last month, NewsCorp used the term “teen hooker” in its reporting. And sex workers say the impact of this kind of language is devastating.  

The Daily Telegraph reports on the court case of a 'teen hooker'.
The Daily Telegraph reports on the court case of a 'teen hooker'. 

Jules Kim is a sex worker and the CEO of the Scarlet Alliance, the Australian sex worker’s association. She believes the ubiquity of the term ‘prostitute’ in the media perpetuates stigma around the sex industry and dehumanises sex workers. 

“It sends a message that it’s absolutely acceptable to discriminate against sex workers and speak about them in derogatory terms," she said. 

“’Prostitute’ is synonymous with the idea that one is selling oneself. And that’s definitely not the case for sex work. We sell a service - we don’t sell ourselves.”

She said that in the 1970s and 80s ‘prostitute’ was a term reclaimed by sex workers, but ‘sex worker’ was now preferred, because “it’s a gender-neutral inclusive term that positions what we do – rightfully - as work.”

Melbourne writer and feminist Kat Muscat wrote before she died, “There are a whole host of character judgments within the term ‘prostitute’, including implications of diminished worth, drug status, personality and sexual health.”
She said ‘sex worker’ made a distinction between the person and their job, as well as between sex work and sex trafficking. “The first is legal and consensual, the other is illegal and non-consensual. An active distinction is necessary if the conversation about sex worker rights is to move forward, and sex trafficking to be effectively combated." 

Meagan Tyler is the public officer for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia, an organisation that opposes sexual exploitation. She has concerns about a move to the term ‘sex worker’, because she believes it minimises the harm some women who have worked in the sex industry have experienced. But she says condemnation of ‘prostitute’ is universal among people in the industry, as well as those advocating for its end.  

It’s one of the few things that unites what are normally quite fractured debates about the sex industry,” she said. 

“Everyone agrees that we should be abandoning the term ‘prostitute’. We would never authorise the use of the term in anything we write and we would discourage others from using it.”  

A "teenage prostitute" in Yahoo7 coverage.
A "teenage prostitute" in Yahoo7 coverage.

Some media outlets are changing their approach to the use of the term. The ABC, for example, recommended to its journalists in a recent Language Report that “sex worker is to be preferred over prostitute” when referring to “people who engage in commercial sexual arrangements". 

The report found “Prostitute has been seen to have a distancing effect, reducing agency and creating a false sense of "the other". It is also seen to be pejorative, and skewed towards women.”

But many other outlets are still using it regularly. Just yesterday, WA Today and news.com.au reported on a court case involving a “transgender, HIV-positive prostitute” accused of passing the disease to a client. The Seven Network recently blamed a “teenage prostitute” for sparking a “sexual misconduct scandal” involving 30 police officers. And NewsCorp has been closely following the case of a young student who also worked as “a prostitute and drug dealer”.

WAToday reports on a court case involving a "transgender, HIV-positive prostitute".
WAToday reports on a court case involving a "transgender, HIV-positive prostitute".

Dr Tyler thinks ‘prostitute’ is often used as clickbait.

“Because it’s got those pejorative associations, there’s something that sounds kind of sleazy about it – it often goes along with terms like ‘sex scandal’ or ‘sexual abuse’.

“There was a women murdered in Leeds recently, and a lot of the headlines were ‘murdered prostitute’.  It’s as though it encompasses all of her - she’s not a woman anymore, she’s a prostitute. All of her is reduced to that, and obviously that’s a real problem,” she said.

Jules Kim said the use of ‘prostitute’ could potentially cause even more damage than terms like ‘hooker’.

“Of course terms like that are absolutely unacceptable. Particularly when it relates to a sex worker who is trans, or Asian, the language seems to get very derogatory, and there’s been some hideous reporting. But in a way it’s more overt, so people realise that it’s wrong. But using the term ‘prostitute’ is just as problematic,” she said.

The Courier Mail's notorious coverage of the murder of transgender sex worker Mayang Prasetyo.
The Courier Mail's notorious coverage of the murder of transgender sex worker Mayang Prasetyo.

Meagan Tyler believes the negative language used by the media to describe women working in the sex industry encourages violence-supportive attitudes.

“We see it as on a continuum with the way the media often represents women in the public sphere. They’re diminished often, they’re reduced to their sexual characteristics,” she said.  

“If you continually reduce women to sex object status then you are writing something that makes it seem more acceptable to commit violence against women - because they’re somewhat less than human in that representation.”

Will journalists and editors consider how using the term ‘prostitute’ in reporting affects women in the sex industry, and women in general? Should we be shifting to the term 'sex worker', or something else? We know that language matters in changing attitudes around violence against women. Sometimes that can mean changing a single word.