The Grammarphobia Blog

Prostitute or sex worker?

Q: A recent headline on the website of the NY Times refers to prostitutes as “sex workers.” For me, “sex workers” is bloodless and sanitized. What’s the latest on the usage here?

A: You can find both “prostitute” and “sex worker” in the New York Times, though “prostitute” is found much more often.

A recent search of the newspaper’s online archive shows that “prostitute” has appeared 147 times over the last 12 months, compared to 11 appearances for “sex worker.”

In fact, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) recommends against using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute” in most cases. Here’s the relevant section:

sex worker. Avoid this vague and euphemistic term, except on the rare occasions when a blanket term is needed to encompass a range of activities. Ordinarily prostitute is preferable. But be sensitive to the fact that in many situations prostitution is linked to human trafficking and violence. Whenever possible, describe the circumstances.”

The Jan. 9, 2018, article on the Times website, a feature about a shelter in Mexico City for former prostitutes, uses “prostitute” or “prostitutes” five times, once in a photo caption and four times in the body of the article.

Although the term “sex worker” or “sex workers” appears three times, one appearance is in a comment by a former prostitute and another is in a remark by the director of the shelter.

The headline on the website is “Retired From the Brutal Streets of Mexico, Sex Workers Find a Haven.” The headline in the Jan. 10, 2018, print edition is “A Shelter With No Room for Stigma.”

Why was “sex workers,” not “prostitutes,” used in the website headline? And why was neither term in the print headline?

The copy editor who wrote the website headline may have been unaware of the stylebook’s objections. The editor who wrote the print headline had more time to consider the issue, and less space to deal with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sex worker” as “a person who is paid or employed to provide sexual services, esp. one working in the pornography business or as a prostitute.”

“Typically,” the OED adds, the term is “used (esp. when in preference to prostitute) to avoid or reduce negative connotations and to evoke affinity with conventional service industries.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from a review in the Nov. 7, 1971, issue of the Times of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a musical by Melvin Van Peebles:

“Coupling rage and laughter, detailing joys among urban field hands, thieves, postal workers, sex workers, factory workers, and the inevitable unemployed, and letting them specify what America is to a great many black folks.”

Although “sex workers” is often used as a euphemism for “prostitutes,” it’s also used as a more general term that includes phone-sex operators, actors in porn films, “adult” models, and so on.

Some organizations opposed to sex trafficking support legalizing “sex work” and unionizing “sex workers.” They believe that unions could help combat forced prostitution and child prostitution. The Gates Foundation, for example, has supported such a union in Calcutta.

However, the issue is controversial. When Amnesty International decided in 2015 to endorse the “full decriminalization of consensual sex work,” many members in Norway and Sweden resigned, saying the organization should seek to end prostitution, not condone it.

Nicholas Kristoff, a Times columnist who has written extensively about forced prostitution and childhood prostitution, is opposed to using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute.”

In a column published on Jan. 23, 2006, Kristoff says: “I’m in the ‘prostitute’ camp; I don’t see any reason for euphemisms, particularly those that tend to legitimize something that is usually closely linked to organized crime and violence.”

As for us, we’d use “prostitutes” for people who engage in sexual intercourse for money, though we might use the broader term if we were referring to several different kinds of “sex workers.”

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