How Language Shapes Stigma: The Power of Positive Terminology in the Context of Sex Work

Let’s talk about how language can either create stigma or help remove it, particularly in the context of sex work. There are various terms used to describe sex workers, including prostitute, hooker, whore, escort, working lady or man, and sex worker. However, these words can evoke different images and ideas for different people.

Unfortunately, some media outlets, movies, and even academics choose to use negative terms such as whore or prostitute to describe sex workers, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and stigmatizing those in the industry. This can create barriers for sex workers to openly discuss their work, make it difficult for them to find safe and respectful work environments, and even put them at risk.

Many sex workers advocate for taking ownership of these terms, reclaiming them, and removing their ability to hurt. However, it is important for society to understand why these words, when used in a negative context, can be harmful.

Stigma can cause sex workers to feel marginalized and excluded from society, impacting their ability to access basic human rights and protections. In Australia, each state has different laws surrounding sex work, which further emphasizes the need for both sex workers and their supporters to use positive terminology and work together to remove stigma.

Using appropriate and empowering language is essential in creating a society that values and respects all individuals, regardless of their occupation or background. The Australian Human Rights Commission has emphasized the importance of using inclusive and positive terminology in addressing discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Similarly, using respectful and empowering language can go a long way in reducing the stigma associated with sex work and recognizing it as legitimate work.

The Australian Human Rights Commission report on addressing sexual orientation and/or gender identity discrimination notes the importance of ‘using appropriate, inclusive and empowering terminology’.

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