The Plank

Just Say No... To Sex Workers

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The State Department, hard at work:

The State Department's office combating human trafficking issued a directive Friday to US agencies urging them to avoid using terms "sex worker" or "child sex worker" and even advised governments not to use them. ...

"However, there are other substitutes such as 'women used in prostitution' or 'sexually exploited children' that are neither pejorative nor pretend that violence to women and children is 'work,'" said [office director John] Miller, who retired Friday after campaigning extensively across the globe to stem the human trafficking problem.

As Jessica Valenti points out, it's not entirely clear why "women used in prostitution" is less pejorative than "sex worker." On another level, though, the change is telling. To put this in context, Maggie Jones wrote a piece for Mother Jones a few years back about legal groups that were raiding brothels in countries such as Thailand in order to "save" the women working inside, even though many of them appear to have no desire to be rescued. "We need to make money for our families," one sex worker said. "How can you do this to us?"

Sex work is, of course, a complex issue, and many women obviously don't fall into this category--they really are trafficked against their will. But the State Department has long held that no woman works in a brothel of her own accord, and that any group that tries to distinguish between the two categories (such as the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women) is on the wrong track. USAID has declared that it won't offer grants to any anti-trafficking organization that supports legalizing prostitution. Nations such as South Korea, meanwhile, have been pressured by U.S. anti-trafficking officials to pass sweeping laws making all prostitution a crime. This has been going on for quite some time, and now, curiously, it seems the final step is to rewrite the sex-work lexicon.

--Bradford Plumer

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