Sex Worker Voices
'Nothing About Us, Without Us'
Mistress Matisse is a professional dominatrix, blogger, and columnist for Seattle-based alternative newspaper, The Stranger. Her bi-weekly columns, entitled The Control Tower, offer sexually-related advice about polyamory, kink, the business side of her work as well as the BDSM culture at large. You can follow her at @mistressmatisse
Many journalists would like to write ethically and accurately about sex work, but don’t know the best terms to use. Here is a quick guide to current words and phrases to do with sex work for use in news reporting and journalism.
These are terms that, unless you are directly quoting someone, or quoting from another piece of writing about sex work, should be avoided.
Hooker, whore, streetwalker, ho: Do not use these words, they are offensive. Sex workers sometimes use these words either in casual conversation or to make a certain point, but journalists (unless they ARE sex workers) should not.
Prostitute/Prostitution: These terms are generally considered to carry a negative connotation. But in many countries, they are legal terms, so it’s sometimes necessary to use them. But use them sparingly, and only if it is specifically in connection with someone being accused of a crime. Whenever possible, say sex work, or sex trade, or sex industry.
Courtesan and sugarbaby are marketing terms used by sex workers. However, in a news story, they come across as affected, and usually imply that the person speaking/being spoken of thinks they are “higher-class” and “different from” other sex workers. There may be certain times when the use of either of these terms is necessary - for example, if one is writing about sugardaddy/sugarbaby websites. But do not use them as general terms for sex workers.
The word pimp should generally not be used in current journalism about sex work. Its original meaning has been co-opted into other uses, and it is at best a glamorous description of someone who has an abusive/criminal/exploitative interaction with a sex worker. Anti-sex work activists use the term to bring about a confused emotional response in the reader that’s strongly rooted in racism. If you must speak of someone who has a business relationship with a sex worker, find out what that person actually does for her, and say manager, booker, driver, security, administrative assistant, etc. (The exception would be if someone is formally charged with a crime with the word pimping as part of the language of the law.)
The word madam is archaic and should not be used except in historical references.
Prostituted woman, prostitution survivor, sex slave: these are all inflammatory terms that objectify the person being spoken of, and both fetishize and disempower people who have done/are doing sex work.
Sexual surrogate: This is a very specific (and controversial) type of therapy, and many people do not consider sexual surrogates to be sex workers. Only use this term if you are completely clear that the specific person being discussed calls themselves that. Do not use any other sex worker terminology to refer to a sexual surrogate.
Do not use the term trafficking victim as a synonym for sex worker. Also, do not use the term self-trafficked, as it has no logical meaning.
Do not use the term child prostitute.
Do not speak of men buying a sex worker, or using her. Say visiting her, seeing her, hiring her, having a session with her. Also, do not speak of someone selling her body.
Do not use the word john. It is extremely dated and negative, and no one but anti-sex workers uses that term. Use the term clients or customers.
Better Terms To Use:
Sex work/Sex workers: this is the most general and the least judgmental term you can use. It's an umbrella term that encompasses everyone in the sex industry; escorts, dancers, dominatrixes, porn models, cam girls (or boys), everyone. Those terms are all non-judgmental terms to use to describe specific jobs in the sex industry. (The term is also sometimes written as one word: sexwork, sexworker, especially on Twitter.)
The term call girl is not an offensive term, but it is rather dated, and not much used any more. Mistress (meaning: not a dominatrix, but the other kind of mistress) is rather vague, but not offensive per se.
Domme, dominatrix, pro domme, pro sub, Mistress: these are all acceptable terms for people who provide BDSM-related services.
There is no one generally accepted term for people who do massage or other bodywork with a sexual element, but sensual touch provider is probably the most polite. Sometimes the term Tantric touch provider is used.
Women who work in strip clubs can be either dancers or strippers.
It is acceptable to refer to someone who does in-person sex work as a professional companion.
Clients who frequent sex worker review boards will sometimes use the term hobbyist to refer to themselves. Also, some sex work review sites refer to sex workers as providers (as short for “adult services providers”), and sex workers occasionally use this term themselves.
To call someone a sex worker is to say that they have agency in their behavior, so it is contradictory to speak of "forced sex work". However, if on occasion you need to strongly differentiate between people who are being victimized versus people who are not, you can speak of consensual adult sex work, or just adult sex work. To do so every time would be redundant and unnecessary. The opposite of sex work is criminal sexual exploitation, or simply rape, kidnapping, etc.
If you wish to speak of people who are the most vulnerable and marginalized in sex work, you can say street sex workers, or survival sex workers.
Anti-sex workers sometimes call themselves abolitionists, but sex workers often call them sex workprohibitionists.
Decriminalization of sex work is very very different from Legalization. Do not use the words interchangeably. Decriminalization means the repeal of all laws that impose any criminal penalty on the private, consensual and appropriate adult exchange of sex for money. Legalization means that the consensual adult exchange of sex for money remains mainly a crime, but the state creates a few strictly-controlled loopholes for situations in which it will be tolerated, although still heavily stigmatized.