Activists Urge the AP to Adopt “Sex Work”

The Associated Press (the world’s largest newsgathering organisation, based in New York City) is accepting suggestions for the 2015 version of its stylebook, a writing style guide for journalists. The stylebook is updated annually to reflect changes in writing style and new guidelines, and this year sex worker activists are urging the organisation to drop “prostitute” in favor of the preferred “sex worker.”

While activists have been advocating for this change in terminology for years, the most recent campaign began on October 7 when Open Society Health tweeted “Want AP to use “sex worker,” not “prostitute?”” in response to a tweet from the Associated Press soliciting suggestions for the 2015 stylebook.


Similar messages soon followed from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, SWOP Chicago and Mama Cash, all urging followers to take a minute to complete an online form at the stylebook website with the request.

The following week, online outlet The Daily Dot reported on the campaign quoting Open Society’s communications officer, Sebastian Krueger who said: “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. 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.”

The Daily Dot also spoke to Kate D’Adamo, community organiser with NSWP member group SWOP-NYC.

"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 said. "‘Prostitute’ is not only a term which is often derided, it is a legal term which will always be associated with committing a crime.”

The term “sex work” was coined in 1980 by Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, who writes in her essay “Inventing Sex Work” (which appears in the anthology Whores and Other Feminists edited by Jill Nagle):

“The word ‘prostitute’ was tarnished, to say the least. In fact, ‘prostitute’ is yet another euphemism, like lady of the night, hooker, filles de joie, etc. “Prostitute does not refer to the business of selling sexual services – it simply means “to offer publicly.” The euphemism veils our “shameful” activity… We needed a new term.”

The term came into more common use with the 1987 publication of Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Industry (edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander). Since then it has been adopted by health agencies around the world and, to some surprise, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton first publicly used the term in 2011.

“The usage of the term “sex work” marks the beginning of a movement.” Carol Leigh wrote in her essay. “It acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our status.”

If you would like to suggest the Associated Press recommend journalist use the term sex worker, you can fill out the online form. Submissions close October 31.


Regional Correspondent: North America and the Caribbean