Sex Work and Language, why does it matter?

Alisha OstbergBlog, human rights, sex work, stigma, support

shiftLanguage shapes the way we perceive the world around us, how we interact with it, and how others respond in return. If we want to provide the best possible care and support to sex workers, exploring our use of language is a great place to start.

Shift provides support and advocacy services for sex workers in Calgary, but we also offer education for health and social service providers regarding sex work-related topics. When I first started doing these trainings a year ago, for some reason I would explore the use of language only at the end. It quickly became clear that in order to address the stigma associated with sex work, it’s critical to look at the language we use. Because of this, language is now the very first slide in our 3.5 hour workshop, Shifting Perspectives, and I devote some time exploring why it’s important in supporting sex workers.

As described by Stella, a Montreal agency serving sex workers, the way we talk about sex work is anything but neutral – it communicates meaning and influences how people understand sex work.

Terms defined by the Canadian Public Health Association (2014):

  • sex work is the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money or goods,
  • prostitution is the term used by Canadian law to describe the exchange of sexual activity for monetary payment.

Popular culture and media may use derogatory and stigmatizing terms, including “prostitute” or “prostituted women”, which are not typically used by sex workers or advocacy groups, since those terms imply criminality, suggest coercion by a third party, disregard male sex workers, and dehumanize the individual. There are many other terms that might come to mind as well.

The term sex work is now commonly accepted but unfortunately, sex work, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking are often grouped together. To be clear, these terms are not interchangeable and conflating them results in poor outcomes for both sex workers and victims of trafficking. To learn more about trafficking, visit ACT Alberta.

Because sex workers have diverse backgrounds, privileges, challenges and experiences, it’s best to let them identify what sex work means to them, and how they wish to be addressed, rather than imposing labels based on our perceptions of the sex industry. Some people prefer escort, companion, sex worker, etc., but remember, they are people first!

For clarity and dignity, we recommend using the terms sex work, sex industry, and sex worker. By adjusting the language you and/or your organization uses, you’re helping create a safer space for sex workers in our communities and reducing the stigma they face in their everyday lives.

We can do it!

Dominique Denis-Lalonde BN RN
Team Lead, Prevention and Education