Salvo 08.14.2023 9 minutes

“‘Sex Work’” and the Language Games We Play 

Desperate woman is sitting on the hallway floor

The words we use shape reality.

An organization called “Project Liberal” recently tweeted a meme that caught my eye. It features a non-descript figure (whom the kids call “Wojak”) saying, “We need to stop human trafficking.” In the next panel, a young woman with smart glasses says, “Then legalize sex work!” The meme ends with a final panel that shows Wojak bursting into tears, presumably because he is unwilling to legalize “sex work,” and therefore (apparently) unable to stop human trafficking.

The meme grabbed my attention first because of its total and utter disregard for logic. Why would legalizing prostitution solve the problem of sex trafficking? I recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam, and locals told me that most estimates suggest that up to 60 percent of women in the red-light district (arguably the most strictly-regulated area for legal prostitution in the world) are victims of trafficking. I racked my brain trying to discover the logic of the meme. The best explanation was that Project Liberal assumes that if prostitution was legal, so many women would sign up for the sex trade that it would kill the market for trafficked sex slaves. But would mass participation in prostitution be a good thing? And wouldn’t there still be evil men who would illegally move women and children into “legal” prostitution for financial gain?

Reflecting on the image again, I became curious about the term “sex work.” As a student of rhetoric, I’ve noticed that this term has undergone a recent, rapid increase in popularity driven largely by political objectives.  

First, it is obvious that almost everyone who uses the term “sex work” is committed (or sympathetic) to left-wing politics. But their political motives become even clearer when you consider the phrases that the new terminology is meant to displace. Until very recently, the polite terms for “sex work” were words like “prostitution” or “escorting.” The less polite, more stigmatizing words included “hooking,” “whoring,” or “streetwalking.” The effort to substitute these older terms with “sex work” is part of a leftist effort to destigmatize, normalize, and dignify the sale of sex.

From “‘Crippled’” to “‘Differently Abled’” 

The Left often tries to bully us into changing the language we use to describe reality. Their well-worn admonition that “the words we use really do matter!” shows they understand how diction shapes our experience of the world. In 1950, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to refer to someone who couldn’t walk properly as “crippled.” That word hits our modern ears hard, in part because it makes no attempt to conceal its implication of limitation. Of course, any condition that hinders the mechanical function of one’s legs is, in fact, limiting—not a limit on a person’s moral worth or human dignity, but certainly a limit on the sort of activities one is able to do. The discomfort surrounding that implication was enough that by 1980, the more commonly used word was “handicapped.” That also hinted at limitation, but it at least effaced the specifics about what the limitation was: handicapped could be applied to a crippled person just as readily as to the blind or someone who required an oxygen tank. Handicapped didn’t eliminate the negative connotations, though, so more change was needed.  

By 1990, the word “disabled” had replaced handicapped. Disabled didn’t necessarily suggest a bodily defect—it merely suggested that there were certain activities that a person was unable to perform. That is also true of every able-bodied person on the planet, so the term had a neutrality that made it attractive. Still, disabled focused on what people couldn’t do rather than what they could, which meant that our language needed further revisions. By 2000, the term “differently abled” had become popular. It, too, is a neutral term (everyone has different abilities). But even better, it takes a bodily weakness (the limiting disability) and sells it as a strength—a virtuous identity that implies special abilities that the able-bodied might be lacking. The lack of specificity and deliberate vagueness achieved by the new words ensured a broadening of what can be claimed as a disability, which radically increased the number and variety of such claims. Now, even “differently abled” is forbidden. We end up living in a world with people claiming “time blindness” as a legitimate medical condition that keeps them from arriving to work on time. 

From “‘Illegal Aliens’” to “‘Migrant Workers’” 

Only a few decades ago, the phrase “illegal alien” was common and accepted. However, many uneducated Americans were ignorant of the older usage of the word “alien,” so it sounded to some like we were dehumanizing Mexicans or Hondurans by comparing them to spacemen. We switched to using the term “illegal immigrant.” But there were still problems. After all, “no human is illegal,” as they say. Further, “immigration” is something that the government is formally tasked with regulating, and leftists don’t want it to be regulated. Obviously, then, more changes were in order.  

Next, they went with “undocumented persons,” which was extremely vague and neutral, hinting that the person in question had made a simple mistake like leaving home without a wallet. But still…“un” has a negative connotation, and undocumented begs the question of which documents they don’t have (and worse, why they don’t have them). By the time of the Obama Administration, the official phrase was “migrant workers.” A “migrant” is just someone who moves around, and Americans highly value freedom of movement. But what are they doing while they move around? Working! The Protestant work ethic that has been at the core of American identity insists upon the virtue of hard work. Thus, the “illegal alien” is reconstituted as a paragon of industry and individualism. Is it any coincidence that as we softened and neutralized this terminology, and thereby valorized the persons to whom it referred, our nation became less and less able to meaningfully address the problem of illegal immigration? Rhetorical manipulation is a power that the Left has applied to issue after issue, and it is a gambit that we need to grow more courageous in resisting. 

From “‘Hookers’” to “‘Sex Workers’” 

The Latin root of prostitute (used as a verb) simply means “to stand before” or “to stand in front of.” As early as the sixteenth century the word was used in the sense of selling sex for money. As the etymology shows, the term “prostitute” was an attempt at politeness—a word which avoided saying who exactly the person was standing before, in what state, and for what purpose. There were nastier words (and truer words) for what the practice of prostitution involved. To call a prostitute a hooker, for example, provides a more accurate picture. The person who sells sex tries to “hook” her customers, and as we know from fishing, being “hooked” is a painful experience. Sadly, the men who patronize prostitutes often become “hooked” in another sense of the word—they make a habit of these services, wasting their money and betraying wives and family. And the prostitute isn’t the only one who does the “hooking”—her customers hook her in a different way, again and again, devaluing her in the sexual marketplace and in polite society, each time making it more difficult for her to escape the sex trade.  

Over the centuries, though, even the polite word “prostitution” became so tied with sexual moneymaking that it needed to be replaced. The word “escort” was the popular alternative until just a few years ago. Escorts differed from street prostitutes in the sense that technology concealed various elements of the exchange in such a way that it allowed women to retain a bit more privacy. An “escort service” provided a phone number that men could call for a “date.” To escort, of course, simply means to accompany someone to a place. But the true purpose of a meeting with an escort was always sex. This fact established an association between a date and the supposed inevitability of sex, which may have accelerated the decline of our sexual culture. Nevertheless, the fact that the word “escort” refuses to name its sexual component became a problem for the Left. By concealing the sexual aspect of escorting, (rather than naming it explicitly), the term implied that there was something wrong with selling sex.

The neologism “sex work” is the solution to this problem. Appropriately, it names up front what it’s all about: sex. And lest we assume that the person selling her body for money is doing it because she is a libertine or because she cannot control her desires, we are reminded that she is simply working.

I suppose that the very intelligent rubes at Project Liberal would explain to us that if we just legalized sex work all the drugs, violence, and exploitation would disappear. This only shows that they are totally oblivious to the dehumanizing elements of selling sex. Given the Left’s disdain for capitalism and enthusiasm for communism, it is strange that they have no compunctions about the crass way that prostitution reduces the human body to just another commodity. The self becomes the very locus of a commercial transaction, a colonizing exchange that often leads to all sorts of social pathologies: unwanted pregnancy, disease, abortion, the breakup of families, depression, and more. To all this suffering the tolerant Left turns a blind eye. They also turn a blind eye to human nature, blithely assuming that violence and chemical derangement of the senses aren’t integral components of sex that is voluntary, yet transitory, humiliating, and transactional. 

Destigmatize Stigma 

The contemporary Left has forgotten that stigmas have a purpose. In their insistence that all stigma is “bad,” they deny the historical fact that stigmas typically develop around social practices that harm the community (and the individual) in some way. By eliminating stigma, they expose our society to the many threats and harms that those stigmas were meant to guard against. For people who claim to be obsessed with personal “safety,” this is a puzzling habit.  

Their primary tactic for breaking stigmas is the manipulation of language and rhetoric. By attempting to change the words we use to describe reality, the Left aims to change the way we see it. They blind us to the truth. When we resist these efforts, they use other weapons to neutralize our resistance: politeness and shame. If we refuse the terms “differently abled” or “migrant worker,” if we insist upon “prostitute” rather than “sex worker,” they say that we are being hateful, impolite, and intolerant. No one wants to be viewed as such, so many people fall into line. They use the new words, but in so doing, they help give birth to the world that the liberals and leftists demand: one with a language without truth, a society without stigma, and a world full of the dysfunction and suffering that necessarily follows. 

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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