Sex work and demeaning language: can we drop it?

By Loni Cooper
Thu 18 August 15:13 AEST
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This article contains reference to sex work and violence against women.

Why are the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph using demeaning language in their coverage of the drug conviction of a young Sydney woman?

19-year-old Madeline Sawyer was today sentenced to a community service order for offences related to supplying drugs. During the police investigation, it emerged that she had been working in the sex industry.

And here’s how Sydney’s major papers are reporting today’s court decision on their websites:

How the Daily Telegraph reported the sentencing.
How the Daily Telegraph reported Madeline Sawyer's sentencing.
SMH Madeline Sawyer
SMH coverage of the sentencing today.

For years, sex workers have been asking not to be referred to as prostitutes. They argue the term is derogatory, perpetuates stigma around the sex industry and dehumanises sex workers, as we reported last month.

“’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,” Jules Kim, CEO of sex workers’ association Scarlet Alliance, said.

The Herald’s article itself doesn’t use the term, only the headline. Why? Are the SMH sub-editors using it as clickbait?

The Tele, meanwhile, is currently featuring two separate stories about ‘prostitutes’ on its front page, and refers to Ms Sawyer as such in both the headline and accompanying story.

The Daily Telegraph's home page this afternoon.
The Daily Telegraph's home page this afternoon.

The only saving grace is that they’re no longer calling her a ‘hooker’, as they did when her case was being heard - although, as Jules Kim has argued, the use of the term prostitute might actually do more damage than more extreme language.

“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.

Both the Herald and the Tele are doing some fantastic work in reporting on violence against women. But using terms like ‘prostitute’ sends readers mixed messages. Experts argue this language foments violence-supportive attitudes towards sex workers, and women in general. Isn’t it time we just dropped it?