The dangers of rebranding prostitution as ‘sex work’

The steady creep of “sex work” into 21st-century vernacular is neither incidental nor accidental. The term didn’t just pop up and go viral. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), an organisation that openly campaigns for brothel-keeping and pimping to be recognised as legitimate jobs, credits itself as largely responsible for “sex work” replacing “prostitution” as the go-to terminology for institutions such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“More than mere political correctness,” the NSWP proudly states, “this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex work toward a labour framework.” The fact that prostitution involves sexual acts and some kind of payment is a given. However, engaging with it first and foremost as a labour issue, using the term “sex work” as if it was an adequate and appropriate shorthand for what takes place in strip clubs, on porn sets and in brothels, serves a deeply political goal. Not only does this framework shrink the field of analysis to the seller (to the exclusion of men’s demand and its social impact), it hides what should be front and centre of our response to the transaction: the inherent sexual abuse.

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