Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote in June:
Prostitution is the most exploitative, degrading work on Earth. Despite those stories about high-class call girls, its practitioners are overwhelmingly the most wretched girls and women in society. Prostitution turns women into lumps of meat that are bought and sold for the sexual gratification of men.
Wente's dehumanizing language is a testament to how deeply ingrained the stigma against sex workers still is in our society. In reality, what's degrading is not sex work itself, but the language Wente uses to describe it, which reveals her personal disgust for those who engage in it -- both sellers and buyers. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, sex work has been part of every society for millennia and always will be. Denigrating it, or trying to eradicate it or criminalize it, only serves to harm those involved in it (most of whom are doing it by choice, even if many don't like the work). The reason sex workers launched a constitutional challenge to decriminalize Canada's prostitution laws is because the laws forced them to work in dangerous conditions and no one seemed to care.
Ironically, this column is being published on December 6, the annual commemoration of the 1989 Montreal Massacre in which 14 female students were singled out for death because the killer saw them as feminists -- they were studying engineering. Despite violence against women being taken much more seriously by our society in the aftermath of that tragedy, sex workers (who are mainly women) remain highly vulnerable to violence. It's not hard to see why. Their ability to work safely is criminalized, and those laws are also society's way of sending a strong message of moral disapproval for sex work. Such official condemnation is hugely stigmatizing against sex workers. It gives cover for predators to kill, assault and rape sex workers; it encourages prudes to hate or pity them; and it allows prohibitionists to disrespect them and deny their autonomy.
Words matter. We know they can lead to discrimination, violence and death. The recent tragic suicides of bullied teens attests to that, as well as the existence of hate propaganda laws and media bans on offensive language. Australian researcher Lizzie Smith explains some of the harmful effects of using the word "prostitute":
The term 'prostitute' … brings with it layers of 'knowledge' about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. ... This stigma is far-reaching and arguably does more damage to women who work in sex work than the actual work. This stigma feeds into understandings of women that are violence-supporting, and referring to victims of violence as 'prostitutes' continues to 'other' these women and locates them as somehow deserving: she knew the danger. More than that, it feeds into violence-supporting attitudes about all women.
Recently, journalist Sarah Ratchford recounted how the media eagerly conflated Rob Ford's alleged crimes with allegations of prostitution, "a word they shouldn't even be using in the first place." Ratchford pointed out that having sex for money is not illegal in Canada, and that the word prostitute is "outdated":
Following many years of misogyny and anti-sex attitudes, it has collected an unfortunate sheen of dishonour. It connotes an immoral, shameful way of life. … By colouring sex work in this manner, journalists are only serving to further stigmatize a group which needs it least.
Writer Lezlie Lowe shows how the word "hooker" in a headline about a woman's murder will set up the audience to not care about her, reinforcing stigma and continuing the cycle of violence against sex workers. She interviewed Leslie Jeffrey, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, who said that media use of the word "hooker" sends the following message:
[T]hese women or men don't matter. So if they are killed, we aren't going to investigate. I am not going to go to the police and say this is horrible and call up my radio station and demand that people do something. Because what I just heard was: 'This person who was looking to die, because they were a bad person, died.'
Ratchford and Lowe are rare examples of journalists trying to hold their media colleagues to account for the use of stigmatizing language against sex workers. Sex workers themselves have been complaining about it for years, and have put together fact sheets and glossaries to help researchers and journalists see the light and adopt new language.
All media outlets use terminology style guides that their reporters are required to follow. These are living documents that evolve with the times, yet I'm not aware of a single media outlet that has prohibited offensive terms for sex workers. Esther Shannon is a Vancouver women's rights activist and founder of FIRST, a feminist advocacy group for the rights of sex workers and for the decriminalization of sex work. When she first saw Margaret Wente's "lumps of meat" column in the Globe and Mail, she embarked on a campaign to persuade the newspaper to amend its style guide to forbid the use of stigmatizing language to describe sex workers. She wrote to Sylvia Stead, the Globe's Public Editor (as well as John Stackhouse, the Editor-in-Chief):
I have highlighted Ms. Wente's 'lumps of meat' sentence because it acts to strip all people doing sex work of any claim to be considered human. In so doing, it adds to the horrendous level of marginalization and stigma sex workers face every single day of their lives. Sex workers and their supporters believe this stigma strongly contributes to the violence many sex workers experience on the job.
The lesson of history is that certain words have been used with deliberate or reckless disregard to those who are the most affected by their usage. … Once black people were 'niggers' and once gay men were 'faggots'. It's now widely accepted that these hugely offensive words were -- and still are -- used to de-humanize individuals and to foster discrimination and hatred. Eventually, the Globe and Mail began to name this kind of racist and homophobic language as deeply offensive.
[But] now sex workers are 'lumps of meat.' I am asking the Globe to catch up to the understanding that there is a shift occurring in Canadian society as regards to the position, experience, and rights of sex workers. The Globe needs to tell all of its writers that it abhors the use of de-humanizing language in reference to sex workers.
From the get-go, the Public Editor consistently failed to grasp Shannon's core concerns around the import of stigmatizing words, and it's a failure that continues to this day. The most recent dialogue between them was sparked by Wente writing another column in November that used the demeaning word "hooker." Stead responded that while she would prefer that word to not be used in a news article, "opinion columnists should be allowed greater licence in their selection of language." Shannon told me: "I confess I did come to wonder how much [the Public Editor's] resistance had to do with the fact that people cannot even conceive of sex workers as having any form of agency -- they don't want to hear it, but what's worse is that they can't hear it."
Although the media is increasingly using the accepted term "sex worker," including a few hundred times by the Globe and Mail in recent years, that paper has also used both the words "hooker" and "prostitute" in the same stories 44 times since 2010 (and individually in countless more). The situation is similar across virtually all other media outlets, including even the liberal Toronto Star. So we still have a long ways to go. To that end, I've made a start on a new suggested "Sex Work Style Guide" for media. Improvements and additions are welcome in the Comments.
** Some third parties can be exploitive, but usually they aren't. Generally, their role is to facilitate work for sex workers and help keep them safe. However, the current criminal laws increase the risk that sex workers will be exploited because they have no legal recourse.
*** Prostitution is an acceptable term when referring to the criminal laws surrounding sex work. It is also sometimes used to distinguish the direct exchange of money for sexual intercourse from other forms of sex work, such as exotic dancing, web camming, phone sex, pornography, etc.
Joyce Arthur is a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada. She works as a technical writer and pro-choice activist.