Discussing prostitution: an issue of words and power

The oldest profession in the world. How many have never heard this phrase, an argument commonly used to defend – or to avoid a debate on – prostitution. And yet, prostitution is something we cannot pretend to ignore: even today in the UK, more than 80 000 women[1] are living on commercial sex. As a complex social issue which divides feminisms and international organisations, prostitution becomes more and more present in the political discourse. However, in order to further our understanding of this complex issue, a focus on the language used to speak about prostitution is necessary to reflect the divisions it causes.

Consider the example of the “oldest profession” statement: it implies that although commercial sex is not fundamentally pleasant, it is a necessary evil, something that has always existed and therefore is unquestionable and inescapable. With these two words only, the debate appears closed and further reflexion is deemed pointless. Should the discussion stop here then? Of course not. And not only should we keep on discussing prostitution, but we should pay great attention to the way we talk about it.

Indeed, the way we speak about prostitution and about the people involved in it impacts on the way we perceive it and on the political debate.

The first instance in which language is crucial to the prostitution debate is the victim/enemy duality. How do we talk about prostitutes? Are they exploited, abused victims of a patriarchal society, or emancipated women freed from moral judgement? Two conflicting voices speak on behalf of women in prostitution: the exploitation survivors and the sex-workers. For the advocates of the “sex work” argument, prostitution is a job like all others, and women should not be viewed as victims. For those who take sides with the exploitation approach, prostitution is in most cases not a choice; and if having sex for money is your only way to pay your rent, this is not consent, therefore prostitution is rape.

The issue of power is already very present in these two simple expression: power of the body, or power on the body? Are women empowered by paid sex, or subjected to the power of their buyers or sellers? The issue of passive VS active is at stake, even in the words themselves. The term “sex workers” is meant to be more “morally neutral[2] than the word “prostitute”, and thus neutralises the issues of power implied by the commercialisation of sex. Catharine MacKinnon, fervent abolitionist, prefers to speak of “prostituted people”. She thus puts the stress on the power exerted upon prostituted people; and the identities of the women (or to a reduced extent, the men) who are prostituted are not inherently defined by what they do for a living.

This being said, we do speak about the women. An incalculable number of derogatory – even squarely insulting – words exists in every language to name prostitutes. What we do not speak about are the buyers, the sellers, and the acts in themselves. Johns, pimps. The most common name in Anglophone countries; and a word deriving from the French pimpant, meaning smart, elegant[3]. Can we spot the linguistic problem here? Numerous theories have been made about women in prostitution, aiming to explain how prostitutes are different from other women, and why: are they abnormal, is it a pathology, are they criminals or fallen women?[4] However, it hardly seems to be questioned whether or not feeling entitled to buy or sell sexual acts from another person is normal or not. The acts stay taboo, and the perpetrators of prostitution (almost exclusively men) keep the privilege of anonymity.

Language does shape thought, and the way we speak about prostitution does have an undeniable effect on the way it is apprehended and acted upon. The words we use all have an impact over how we view the balance of powers at stake in the issue of prostitution. There are no neutral terms; and the mere fact of wanting to be neutral and abstaining from moral judgement on the perpetrators of prostitution, the clients and the pimps, is per se taking stand in their favour.

This is why we must keep discussing prostitution, in terms that force us to constantly remember the humans present behind the words. And this is why we must never give way to thoughtless locutions encouraging us to stop thinking and arguing, since prostitution is unavoidable anyway: discussion is essential, and “inevitability” is the oldest excuse in the world.


MacKinnon, C. (2009). Prostitution, Trafficking and Inequality. Speech in Bihar, India.

Phoenix, J. Dr. (1999) Making Sense of Prostitution. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shrage, L. (1994). Moral dilemmas of feminism. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, B. (2003). Trafficking in Women. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 5(1), pp.67-91.



[1] http://people.exeter.ac.uk/watupman/undergrad/aac/uk.htm

[2] Shrage, L. (1994). Moral dilemmas of feminism. New York: Routledge.

[3] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pimp

[4] Phoenix, Joanna, Dr. Making Sense of Prostitution. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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