I’ve heard a few people recently referring to women who work as prostitutes, in pornography and as strippers, as sex workers. This, I have to say absolutely riles me. Why does it? I am sure some people will have not the slightest idea with what could be wrong with the term sex work. Considering that working in prostitution, pornography or as a stripper is a form of abuse, referring to it as some kind of work normalises it. It makes it okay. It sounds politically correct. But let’s not fool ourselves here. This kind of “work” is abuse. It is abusive to the women and men and sometimes even children involved. To be on the receiving end of abuse, allowing abuse to happen to you, being forced to have abuse inflicted on you, is not a form of work.
When I was a call girl back in the 1990s, I don’t know if anyone was using the term sex worker. Certainly, myself and the other working women I hung around with didn’t use that terminology. However, we had our own words for our own denial that we were harming ourselves. We didn’t call ourselves prostitutes, we called ourselves hookers, call girls and escorts. Though my friend Q would talk about her days as a streetwalker when she was originally forced into prostitution and I think of all my friends at that time, she was the one who would occasionally refer to herself as a prostitute. But then at that time, she lived in flats in the most sought after streets in London, had the best designer clothes, expensive jewellery often given to her by clients, and was taken away on luxury holidays. She had it all on the outside, like most of us did though she did have it best, but like the rest of us, she was just as messed up, damaged, hurt and confused on the inside.
We all needed to use that different vocabulary about ourselves to feed the denial that we weren’t in fact prostitutes. That weren’t acting out the sexual abuse we had suffered as children, thinking this time we were the ones in control, pulling the strings, having the last say. But when we were raped and beaten, that wasn’t the case, and that’s probably why we always just carried on working as if nothing had happened to us. Nearly every woman in that circle I knew well had told me of their childhood sexual abuse. Some of the others didn’t discuss their abuse but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d suffered it too, we just weren’t as close. We were used to being treated like sex objects. Some of us were called names like “whore” and “tart” and that self-fulfilling prophecy is what happened to us. We were viewed as sex objects when we were young, so we learned to treat ourselves as sex objects. We saw ourselves as sex objects. Sex is what men wanted from us, that was the commodity we traded in, so we may as well get paid for it.
I thought I was selling my soul in a telemarketing job in my very early twenties. I wasn’t selling anything illegal, it was a business to business sales role, but because of my childhood abuse I came to a conclusion that a normal woman wouldn’t arrive at: that it would be better to have sex for money, work less hours and earn more money. As simple as that. I didn’t see anything wrong with women who worked in prostitution and I still don’t see anything wrong with them. I feel a deep sense of sadness for them now just like I feel a deep sense of sadness for myself for putting myself through the ordeal for a few years and that I still pay a price for it now emotionally, psychologically, mentally, in relationships with men as well as friends, I have trust issues, the list goes on – that can be another post for another day.
Sex is not a kind of work, stripping is not a kind of work and neither is pornography. They are kinds of abuse. It would be great if society could see it for what it is and stop using the term sex work, which they see is politically correct. Call it what it is – prostitution, stripping, pornography, but separate the woman from what she does. She is not what she does. She is still a woman. So don’t call her a prostitute, a stripper, a pornstar/actress. Instead, call her a woman who is in prostitution, a woman who is in stripping, a woman who is in pornography. Don’t let her label become who she is and define her. She is a woman no more or less special than any other. She is deserving of the same respect as any other woman.
For women in prostitution, pornography and stripping and who want to call themselves sex workers that is their choice. Just like it was my choice and my friends’ choice to use terminology that made it seem okay to us – our words being hookers, escorts and call girls. I am not here to tell those women what to call what they do, but I am asking society not to feed into that denial, not to let that denial spread and normalise abuse against women by calling it work.