Should the AP Stylebook change ‘prostitute’ to ‘sex worker?’

red umbrella

Sex workers and their allies are asking the AP Stylebook to change the term “prostitute” to “sex worker” in its 2015 edition. 

Every year, the AP Stylebook, the style guide of record for reporters, editors, and journalism students, solicits suggested revisions and additions for their new annual edition. Many of these additions are slang or pop cultural terms, such as the recent additions “hashtag,” “swag” or—shudder—”selfie.” But some of the suggested revisions are from those pushing to update outdated or politically incorrect terms. Case in point: The Twitter campaign for Associated Press editors to change the term “prostitute” to “sex worker” in the style guide:

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To those outside the sex work community, the distinction between the two terms might seem negligible at best. But to many sex workers and their allies, the AP Stylebook referring to sex workers as “prostitutes” is symbolic of how mainstream society shames and stigmatizes those in the sex industry.

“Words have power. Many people who sell sexual services find the term ‘prostitute’ demeaning and stigmatizing, including the sex worker-led groups that Open Society supports,” Sebastian Krueger, communications officer for human rights organization Open Society Foundations, tells the Daily Dot. 

“As a result, the term ‘prostitute’ can contribute to sex workers’ exclusion from health, legal, and social services. The words that the Associated Press chooses to use have wide reach and set a standard that people across the world look to.”

Mike Stabile, a Bay Area-based filmmaker and sexual health activist, says the shift from “prostitute” to “sex worker” will force the mainstream media to acknowledge sex work as a form of labor like any other. Unlike the term “prostitute,” which can be used as both a verb and a noun (it’s common for anti-trafficking activists, for instance, to refer to women selling sex in the passive voice, as women “being prostituted”), “sex worker” gives women in the sex industry more agency. He likens the difference between the terms to the difference between “homosexual” and “gay”:

“[Prostitute] is antiquated and more useful for law enforcement and moral crusaders than the actual people it purports to be describe,” says Stabile.

It’s not just that the term “prostitute” is archaic and offensive: In many cases, the term is not even accurate. While “sex worker” can be used to describe women who engage in forms of legal sexual labor, from cam performers to nude models to professional dommes to exotic dancers, “prostitute” refers specifically to the illegal act of exchanging money for sex. Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer for the Sex Worker Outreach Project in New York City, says there’s a need for a term that can encompass the breadth of all forms of sex work.

“The folks involved in the sex trade are a diverse population, and people identify differently. ’Sex worker’ is a much more inclusive term which represents many of the nuances of the sex trade, and is rooted in terminology of self-determination,” D’Adamo says. “’Prostitute’ is not only a term which is often derided, it is a legal term which will always be associated with committing a crime.”

Because many women in the sex industry engage in legal forms of sex work, lumping the lion’s share in with “prostitutes” is “woefully inaccurate much of the time,” she adds.

If the AP Stylebook Guide takes the suggestion to heart and changes the term “prostitute” to “sex worker” in its next edition, which will likely be released in June, that would be “absolutely a step in the right direction” in reducing the stigma surrounding sex work, D’Adamo says.

But not everyone in the community agrees. Ms. R, for instance, who describes herself on Twitter as a “current worker,” says she prefers the term “provider” to “sex worker,” which is how most women on community boards, such as the now-defunct My RedBook, described themselves. She takes umbrage with being referred to as a “sex worker,” rather than a “worker.” “There’s a need to sexualize and eroticize our existence,” she says.

In the event that the AP Stylebook does make the change from “prostitute” to “sex worker,” Ms. R. is dubious that it’ll do much to advance the cause of sex worker rights. For those who actually do sex work and don’t just rely on the AP Stylebook Guide to help them write about it, what the mainstream media calls them matters far less than what they call themselves, and what labels they apply to their own labor.

“We assume identities and label ourselves according to what makes us feel safe in our lives,” she says. “We face criminalization and discrimination and we navigate [a world that is hostile to sex workers] in our own unique ways.” Only those in a position of privilege, she says, can afford to quibble over semantics: “Workers are working while the discourse about semantics happens mostly without us.”

Ultimately, Ms. R doesn’t think the most urgent issues affecting sex workers today have so much to do with nomenclature as with the deep-rooted stigma surrounding sex work as a form of labor. And she’s not optimistic that the Associated Press will do much to change that. “The penal code and criminalization are the problem,” she says. “The words used to keep us [oppressed] matter less.”

If you would like to propose a revision for the next edition of the AP Stylebook, you can visit their 2015 AP Stylebook Suggestions page here. The deadline for submissions is October 31.

Above: A red umbrella, the universal symbol for sex workers’ rights. Photo by Eva Maria Vogtel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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