Mind your language

Sorry, but saying ‘sex worker’ won’t lift the stigma

The term has been in uneasy company since its first recorded appearance

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

‘Of course,’ said my husband in his worst smirky way, as though waiting for an appreciative chuckle, ‘as soon as she found out he was a politician, she broke off the affair.’

That was not the only unoriginal remark about poor old John Whittingdale, who last week admitted to going out with a woman for six months without realising that she was a prostitute. Hearing about the thing on Sky News, I thought its use of sex worker for the woman was an eccentric example of political euphemism. But then I found the BBC using sex worker, and even reputable newspapers. The Times too called her a sex worker. In one report, the BBC referred to ‘a relationship that John Whittingdale had with a woman who turned out to be an escort’. This shows the awkwardness of euphemisms. He was literally her escort. She turned out to be something else professionally.

Why say sex worker? The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is ‘typically used (especially when in preference to prostitute) to avoid or reduce negative connotations and to evoke affinity with conventional service industries’. I’m not sure the negative connotations were all that much reduced by the use of the term in the first citation that the OED has found, from 1971 in the New York Times, which bracketed ‘thieves, postal workers, sex workers, factory workers, and the inevitable unemployed’.

Sex workers were only possible once the word sex came to be used as shorthand for sexual intercourse, carnal knowledge or what not, which happened between the wars. The sex worker is not in linguistically comfortable company, along with sex maniac, sex kitten or sex-killer. Take your pick. In the 1920s women drudging at home were also sometimes pitied as sex machines. Since James Brown’s song, from 1971, the year the sex worker was born, that term has had a rather different meaning.

Prostitute seems to me as neutral as one can get. No word can escape the connotations. The Authorised Bible preferred harlot (first used of men, with the meaning ‘knave’) to the older whore. The Whore of Babylon still sounds poetic. The Sex Worker of Babylon sounds like a modern novel up for a literary prize.

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  • Landphil

    Solicitor sounds better.

    • WTF

      Naw, I want to do the scre**** not be scre*** !

    • Malcolm Knott

      The Victorians had a word for it, as in ‘The ‘Whitechapel Refuge and Asylum for Unfortunate Women.’

  • 1234567890

    How about “soiled doves”. Sounds so regressive, oops, I mean, progressive. No, I DO mean regressive. As a point of information, it was what those “nasty” religious men called them over 100 years ago. Progressive..facing forward but marching backwards, into the future (actually, the past).

  • MikeF

    Whenever the term being discussed was first coined it only really became widely used, as I recall, from the early 1990s onwards. It was no coincidence that that followed on from the collapse of the socialist economies of the former Eastern Bloc and the conversion of much of the old ‘working class’ in the West to the new economics of Thatcherism. That left much of the political left looking like a movement without a cause and so for a brief period they began to cast around for new ‘proletariats’ to claim to represent.
    For some reason prostitutes seemed to fit the bill – maybe, without being too indelicate, the manual element involved recommended them – and so we began to hear of the term being discussed here. The point, though, is that the part of the term that excited the ‘left’ was not the first word (that seems to trigger automatic ‘modding’) but the second ‘worker’.
    Since then, of course, the left has effectively abandoned the ‘workers’ whose interests it once claimed to promote and indeed, apart from patronising them at election times, now regards them with contempt. Instead it has found new constituencies to promote defined by first on ethnic and now increasingly on religious grounds – with one religion becoming predominant.
    The term being discussed here has remained in use but in truth it is a sort of living linguistic fossil and nothing more. It is certainly not about defending the dignity of those who, as the old Victorian definition had it, “trade in commerce what should be given in love”. We don’t have language like that any more.

    • Tom M

      You are correct about the mod. I’m awaiting approval for saying there is a pecking order for such people. “Indoor” *** worker having apparently a higher status than “outdoor” *** worker.

      • MikeF

        I think you will wait an awful long time. Try resubmitting your comment with some appropriately euphemistic phraseology,. This is, of course, utterly ridiculous because the modding is blocking comments that use the term that the article is discussing.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Mods will put your contribution on PENDING for using the word *hor* even though it must appear literally hundreds of times in the Jewish Book of Fairy Stories.

          • EUSSR 4 All!

            I always thought “Simple Hailey” on the Private Eye was based on no other person but you!

          • Miss Floribunda Rose

            Do they allow Horlicks?

        • Miss Floribunda Rose

          Fallen women, ladies of the night, strumpets, common street walkers, Great ho’s of Babylon. Whatever you call them, they all charge money for a quick knee-trembler.

      • Miss Floribunda Rose


  • Charlie Angel

    I always think the strangest one is “Working Girl”. I know one person who used to be a social worker who insists on using this term for prostitutes even though it always causes confusion for most people.

    Especially for those of my generation who can only think of dear Melanie Griffith’s character when we hear it…

    • Malcolm Knott

      All social work jargon is horrid.

      • anonuk

        Don’t you mean “inappropriate”, the equivalent of Orwell’s “doubleplusungood”?

        • Malcolm Knott

          Aaaaagh! The “i” word again. It’s doing my head in.

          • anonuk

            In social worker utopia, nothing is ever “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “evil”, because moral judgements are “inappropriate”. Whether the subject matter is about allowing kids to stay out until midnight at one end, or murder and abuse at the other, the word “inappropriate” is used to make all types of moral judgments without being “judgmental”.

          • Malcolm Knott

            Now the J word – enough already!

  • jeremy Morfey

    When I lived in Rotten Park, I used to call them businesswomen, because I’d be forever being asked “do you want some business, love?”. “Therapist” has a nice ring about it – they should be on the NHS.

  • carl jacobs

    Just the future that every father envisions for his daughter – being a prostitute. It’s an inherently degrading occupation and its legitimization (by among other things using this ridiculous euphemism “s*x worker”) further solidifies the idea that the penultimate purpose of s*x is personal gratification. Nations die from that attitude because their citizens neglect to form families and have children. Which pretty much defines the West, come to think of it.

    Here’s the test. Assume for the moment that public relief is conditional upon a willingness to accept proffered legal employment. If a woman on relief was offered a job as a “s*x worker” and refused to take it, should she therefore be stripped of her relief? If you say “No”: then you have defined the difference between normal labor and “s*x work.” If you say “Yes” then … you have got deeper problems.

    And I haven’t even talked about the concept of a married “s*x worker”. But then what has marriage got to do with s*x anymore anyways?

    • Malcolm Knott

      Great test – highlights humbug.

    • Using the term “relief” in the context of discussion about prostitution is not terribly apt. Do you mean welfare payments?

      • carl jacobs

        Yes, and it wasn’t actually theoretical.


        Life in the Secular paradise that is modern Europe.

          • carl jacobs

            Are you saying I should distrust those paragons of virtue, the high priests of democracy, the keepers of the eternal flame of limited Gov’t – the distinguished members of the Press? Are you saying they would be so incompetent as to print an untrue story, or worse yet, LIE? What are you saying, Jack? These are Journalists we are talking about! You will leave me with nothing to believe in.

            Anyways. Do you have a source that doesn’t have the word “feminist” in the title? (I can listen to most people but I do have my limits.) I followed the Snopes link to a German language link. Not very useful. A quick google of “Telegraph brothel story retract” yielded nothing. But if it is false, I appreciate the info. I read it in reputable sources so I assumed it was true.

            And, of course, it doesn’t invalidate my example as a good test. Funny thing. I didn’t think of that story until you replied. But I found it on one search, and that must have been the source for what I said. The idea has always stuck with me if the story faded.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Never fall in love with a *hore. She’s always waiting for a better man to walk through her door.

  • If it’s up for a prize, I’ll write it. Where do I send the manuscript?

  • Ambientereal

    I would call S..x worker to the male counterpart, who does all the effort, but a female s..x worker isn´t doing any “work”

  • Sophie

    So, anti-sex worker article AND only moderating comments that that agree with the writer… *slow clap*

  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    I used to work as a prozzie in Soho when I was a teenager, and couldn’t give a flying fox who knows about it! I used the name Lola, l-o-l-a, Lola (and drank cherry-cola). Cheers.

  • Frankly, Jack prefers the term “wh*re”. Why reduce the stigma?

  • David Arnold

    First of all, Whittingdale was divorced, so there was no “affair.” Secondly the woman he dated was a dominatrix who didn’t have s*x with her clients. So the term ‘prostitute’ doesn’t apply.

    And that’s why the term ‘s*x worker’ makes more sense. Cam workers, strippers, phone workers and the dominatrix don’t generally have s*x with or in many cases even meet their clients, yet they still provide s*xual services.

    S*x worker is also the preferred term by the majority in the industry.

  • Sue Smith

    I prefer “hooker”. It’s got the ring of truth.