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Media Must Stop Using the Term “Sex Work”: It Inappropriately Legitimizes an Industry Sustained by Gender-Based Violence

Posted: July 8, 2022

On May 23, 2023, the Inquirer published an article titled “As Philly Prostitution Cases Dwindle to Almost Nothing, Some Worry that Sex Workers Won’t Get Help” by Vinny Vella. In his article, Vella uses the phrases “sex work” or “sex worker” fifty times to describe activity and people caught in a coercive, exploitive life of violence and pain. By equating exploitation with labor, terms like “sex work” distract from the systemic causes of human trafficking, inappropriately legitimizes an industry sustained by gender-based violence and prevents the sort of informed problem-solving that is needed to adequately support victims and survivors. This practice reflects a deeply troubling media trend related to the ethics of accurately reporting commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking

The phrases “sex work” and “sex worker” are problematic for several reasons. First, using the phrase “sex work” is an inappropriate attempt to legitimize a system of oppression where sex buyers commodify the bodies of their victims. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, commodities, like corn or oil or semi-conductors, are goods or services subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market. Notably, sex buyers are predominately white men. Victims of commercial sexual exploitation are predominately women of color. The obvious comparison here is to pre-Emancipation American slavery, where the “work” of black and brown bodies could be “exchanged and exploited” by privileged white men “within a market.” We call slavery what it was; then why does the media insist on obfuscating the truth about commercial sexual exploitation by calling it “sex work?”

Second, the media’s use of the phrase “sex work” ignores the coercive nature of commercial sexual exploitation, thus introducing a legal and grammatical paradox. The recent Inquirer article describes a survivor of sexual exploitation and Project Dawn graduate as having been “coerced her into sex work” by her boyfriend “as a means of supporting them both.” Statements like this one ignore the self-contradictory nature of “coerced sex work” as a concept. In most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, sex that is coerced is rape. Therefore, “coerced sex work” etymologically equates to “rape work.” But, if someone is raped, they are the victim of a crime, not a “worker”.  Then why do journalists, whose profession is the stringing together of words that form the public’s impressions about the world, insist on using such internally inconsistent phrases? When we understand that most victims of commercial sexual exploitation are coerced into that existence “as a means of supporting” themselves, or by actual, violent coercion, we cannot permit the media to hide that violence behind sanitizing terms of art like “sex work.”

Finally, this article and many like it, articulate a classic misunderstanding about sexual exploitation: that drug use precedes commercial sexual exploitation, rather than the other way around. Numerous studies and interviews show that drug use amongst victims is primarily a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma of commercial sexual exploitation; in other words, drug use is more often a result, not a cause, of commercial sexual exploitation. The second clear problem with the “scared straight in the back of the paddy wagon” model is that police officers often occupy an even more coercive position to exploit victims. Numerous advocacy groups, including one quoted in this article, have found that contact with the police often exacerbates the traumatic symptoms in victims. “Work,” to be worthy of the name, should not require drug fueled coping and consistent, traumatic contact with the police.

Words have power, and that power incurs a duty of accurate reporting by the media. The phrase “sex work” violates that duty because it wrongly sanitizes and legitimizes a system of oppression that treats an individual’s body like a commodity, ignores the inherently coercive nature of commercial sexual exploitation, and perpetuate misconceptions about commercial sexual exploitation. By proliferating terms that equate criminal sex trafficking with labor, the media distracts the public from the real issues and prevents our society from seeking solutions that truly support survivors. “Sex work” should be removed from our social lexicon, and that movement must be led by trauma-informed journalism.

Shea M. Rhodes, Esquire

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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