The Weight of Words

Our word choices are critical when we discuss policy and current practice concerning sex work. I cringe at the phrase ‘selling sex’ or ‘selling their bodies.’ The implication of selling oneself or selling a service is that for a certain time, I surrender control of my own body. That is absolutely not the case. At any time, in every session, either participant can say ‘no’ to any activity. Does that sound like slavery? I don’t think so. Instead of ‘selling sex’ I ‘have a session’ with a client. It is important to realize, even when we’re fighting for the right to ‘sell our bodies’, the terminology puts negative connotations into the mind of our audience who then resist out of the goodness of their hearts. Who would choose to allow anyone selling themselves for anything, even if it’s by choice?

Another set of terms I discussed last week involve the idea that we as providers have less power than our clients. Many sexual positions involve the apparent submission of the receiving partner but any participant in an explicitly submissive/dominant relationship knows that is an illusion. While the receiving partner may appear submissive, at any moment the safe word will stop all activity at once. The truth of each session is that I do not submit to your demands, I accommodate your desires as far as I am comfortable. I am not subservient to your will, I am obliging to your requests so long as they are within the boundaries of our interaction. This means that, while it may appear by my propensity for yes and my smaller size that I am being made use of, I have complete agency.

In my community, there have been a few discussions of what to call ourselves. It’s pretty common to describe the ladies as providers and I find it fits me well. I have clients I see for a set amount of time during which we engage in a variety of entertainments depending on how much time we have and how my client is feeling that day. Our arrangements do not venture into our personal lives, though they are deeply personal. I have heard some suggest ‘patron’ as a term for our dear ones. I would have to disagree though I appreciate the intent. To me, a patron is one who has an ongoing, consistent relationship with his artist. Similar to a courtesan, the erotic artist relies on the regular contributions and they see each other as his schedule allows. Thus she is assured of her income and he is assured of her companionship. A John is often seen as a derogatory term but I propose a neutral definition: a John is a client who is not interested in long engagements or intellectual connection. Shorter, less mentally intimate sessions work for prostitutes with busy schedules or who simply don’t like socializing with their Johns. It sounds terrible because of the social connotations of the term but I intend it only as a way to differentiate styles of entertaining. I do not consider myself an artist because I have no patrons. I do not consider myself a prostitute because I do not offer short, non-intimate sessions. I consider myself a provider because I have clients. This terminology is all my own and is in no way intended to denigrate styles of sex work. Different strokes, as they say.

Another term that comes up is ‘the hobby.’ Apparently some people find the term offensive to various degrees. The problem is, what else do you call it? Punting? Hooking? Patronizing? Trading? I’ve thought about this off and on and I still can’t find a better term. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice. Hobbies are fun, we do them because we like them, and they often add interest to our lives. On the other hand, they are non-critical, easy to set aside, and often considered frivolous. I’m not particularly invested in this one but it is an interesting term with an interesting, if low-importance, debate around it.

That’s what I can remember at the moment. I will of course follow up if anything important comes up and I am open to suggestions for further thought.

I hope you, my reader, will consider setting aside any judgements for a moment to consider your emotional reaction to all of the terminology I’ve presented. Interesting how some of them make you feel good and some of them are upsetting. Recognizing that the way you say something changes how it is perceived is a huge step towards effective communication.

Update as of 12/17/15:
I realized as I continue writing that I have come up with an alternative term for ‘the hobby’. I often use the term ‘the industry’ and refer to ‘clients’ who partake. I didn’t realize that I had been using it for a while and that it makes a fine alternative for those who don’t like the frivolity that hobbying implies. It does bestow an element of professionalism on our work and opens the door to terminology you might hear at an OSHA meeting. Words are important. Use them 🙂

Update as of 01/04/16:

I found this article today. I don’t agree about the offensiveness of terms, but it helps to disambiguate (made up word?) some terms.

The text is quoted below.


Prostitute is a Slur

Prostitute is a word that is used entirely to criminalize sex workers.

The word refers specifically to exchanging sex acts for money, which is a crime in most places, and is part of the reason other terms like ‘escort’ came along; escorting is selling one’s time which may or may not include sex, and is paid by an hourly rate, whereas prostitution is paid by the sex act. In many places, ‘escorting’ allows a loophole for full service sex work though it also has some classist implications. It remains though that prostitute is a word that strips full service sex workers of our humanity and reduces us to criminals; this is the history and intention of it. It is a slur, so don’t use it except to self refer if you’re a full service sex worker yourself.

Hooker is a Slur

Hooker is a disparaging term for a full service sex worker, often linked to street-based work, which again has class issues. It is used to demean and degrade full service sex workers. Don’t use it.

Whore is a Slur

This is an area where a lot of people fuck up, believing bullshit like “but whore is used to target all women!” No shit, guess why? Because it refers to full services sex workers. That’s the entire reason why it’s offensive. When you call someone a whore, you are literally calling them a full service sex worker. Don’t do it, and don’t use it for yourself if you’re not a sex worker (the word can be applied to sex workers who don’t do full service in some situations, but only to self refer). 

When you use any of the above words, you are contributing to whorephobia; the specific marginalization that sex workers, usually women, experience in every aspect of society from interpersonal relationships to the state. This stigma often results in discrimination, violence, rape, death and even murder. Language matters. Words are important. 


Whorephobia is the term that sex workers coined in the 1970s to describe this oppression. This is the only instance where non sex workers can use the word whore. While there are problems raised with this word, it’s what we have, it’s been around for 40 years now so unless sex workers decide to change it (if that’s even possible) this is what we have whether we like it or not. The fact that this word contains a slur is no fucking excuse to attack people for using it, and the only people who complain about it are whorephobic fauxminists themselves who are trying to silence us by taking away our language to call them out on their bigotry while changing the subject, trying to paint US as misogynists. This is not a “new libfem term” and libfeminism has fucking nothing to do with sex worker rights anyway; sex workers have historically occupied the fringes of society, something which every brand of feminism likes to avoid. 

If you don’t feel comfortable using this word, feel free to write it as wh*rephobia instead.

Street-Walker is a Slur

This word specifically attacks street-based workers, who experience the worst marginalization of all sex workers with all other things being equal. Even in sex worker spaces, street-based workers are often looked down on by indoor sex workers such as escorts or brothel workers. This is called lateral whorephobia and it’s fucked up. No one gets to use this phrase except street-based workers. 

Pimp is another term that often comes up in these conversations. It has a complicated history and has strong anti-Black connotations. Pimping is a reality, it definitely does happen and there are situations where this word is appropriate. It’s also a concept used to attack sex workers by criminalizing anyone who assists us; legally, anyone who helps a sex worker organize their appointments or drives them to and from a client can be charged as a pimp. It’s a disparaging term that often targets friends and partners of sex workers. It’s also widely used by anti sex worker fauxminists to discredit peer-based organizations; SWERFs will baselessly claim that sex worker organizations are actually run by pimps. This virtually never happens as most organizations have strict policies regarding who can become a member; only sex workers can join peer-based organizations. 
John is a term used to refer to the clients of sex workers. We virtually never use it, we call them clients cos that’s what they are though some sex workers call their clients tricks. That’s really up to them, but non sex workers would be better off using clients, especially since not all clients are men anyway. 

Appropriate Language 

The catch-all term for anyone who sells their sexual energy is ‘sex worker’. This includes strippers, peep show performers, brothel workers, cam performers and many more. The key point is that they sell their sexual energy; there are people in the sex industry who don’t and therefore are not sex workers, such as security staff, DJs, drivers, managers etc. 

Since this is an umbrella term, you may need to refer to specific sex industry positions.

Full service sex worker is anyone who has sex with their clients. Sex can be a variety of things but usually involves genitals touching (some sex workers only do massage with hand relief, and they are not full service sex workers), though not necessarily every time. The term implies that some form of penetrative sex is an available activity. Porn performers aren’t usually referred to as full service sex workers even though they have sex because the people they’re having sex with are not their clients, though some porn performers do full service sex work in addition to performing in porn.

Indoor sex worker generally refers to any full service sex worker who works indoors. They may work for themselves privately in their own homes or from hotel/motel/rented rooms, for an escort agency, or in a brothel/parlor. Indoor sex workers generally experience lower risks of violence; from clients, strangers and police. 

Street-based sex worker generally refers to sex workers who work outdoors or in public/semi public places. Some people consider sex workers who meet clients via the internet/newspaper advertisements and see them in semi-public spaces (e.g. cars, public toilets) to be street-based but more commonly, street-based sex worker means the sex worker meets their clients in a public place; sometimes a bar or club but more often, a stroll (a stroll is a street where sex workers tend to work; clients know to go to that street in particular to find sex workers and vice versa). Sometimes strolls are decriminalized; in Sydney for example, it’s not a criminal act for sex workers to meet clients at Kings Cross, though it isn’t legal to meet them in public anywhere else. Public sex is always illegal. Sometimes ‘outdoor sex worker’ is used, but less commonly.

Brothel worker is pretty self explanatory, I’ve not heard of another term to refer to sex workers who are based in brothels. Some brothel workers also do escorting, either privately or via the brothel.

Escort is an acceptable word to use to refer to independent full service sex workers who work indoors, though some (like myself) dislike it because it has certain class connotations as above.

SWERF is an acronym that means ‘sex worker exclusionist radical feminist’ and illustrates the fact that despite their protests, anti sex worker fauxminists actually hate us, including those of us who are forced, coerced and/or trafficked. They hide this behind false statistics and pretending that anyone with a tumblr account is too privileged to have an opinion, but in truth, they just want to silence us and force us out of our jobs. 

I hope this covers all the language questions, if I’ve missed anything please let me know