After the New York Post/DSK “hooker” issue —of the Post calling his accuser a hooker based on one unidentified source, and the accuser’s resultant libel suit against the Post — GOOD magazine’s blog asked, what should we (we, being, journalists) call “them” — whore, prostitute, hooker, or sex worker? Notably, no actual whores, prostitutes, hookers, or sex workers were asked what they want to be called. Neither did the writer float the notion of asking the subject of a story what they want to be called.
Watching journalists grapple with questions of sexual identity can be confusing and awkward. Still, in terms of respecting sexual identity, we’ve come some way, if not a long one. Imagine a headline, “Gays, homosexuals, twinks, bottoms — what should we say?” Still, I’m glad some journalists are at least asking the question. I just wish they understood that the best answer is, “what that person wants to be called” — internal style guide be damned.
For people who sell sex, though, this isn’t just an issue of fairly representing sexual identity — it’s about how one conceives of one’s labor and expertise. If I were interviewing a scientist who specialized in a field that was mostly unknown to me, I would ask her how she wanted that work described. If I were profiling an artist who worked in a medium I didn’t know anything about, I’d pay close attention to how he describes his work. Same with lawyers and policy wonks. (And I love interviewing lawyers and policy wonks. Because they often love these questions.)
When I write about people who are involved in the sex trade, here’s how I make my decisions.
In a historic piece, like the one I did for The Raw Story, I can’t go back and ask a Bowery girl how she describes herself. I know she wouldn’t call herself a sex worker, as that term wasn’t in use until the late 1970’s. I’ll use the term “prostitute” if the person I am writing about is a player in a larger social, economic, or legal story about the institution of prostitution. It’s only been a few hundred years that we called anyone “a prostitute.” Much like the practice of calling a person “a homosexual” or “a heterosexual” is only a little over 150 years old, selling sex (and same-sex sex) existed long before these identities had social meaning. The term “prostitute” is contested today, but in a historic context, it can make the most sense to use — especially as most modern readers aren’t familiar with some of the other terms used throughout history to describe people who sell sex (which is a feature I’d love to write). Post-WWII, the sex trade has segmented into a range of markets and workforces. Accurate terms to describe that workforce also are highly context-specific. A “call girl” is not always an “escort,” and an “escort” is not always a “prostitute.”
In light of all the different ways people in the sex trade identify themselves and their labor — and how easy it is to forget that the practice of categorizing and naming sexual identities has a history, and that history has social and political consequences — paying close attention to how people describe themselves goes beyond “not offending people.” (For everyone who’d balk at being called a “whore” there’s a few people who don’t mind one lick.)
To the extent that we can write and report from a place of accepting that accuracy isn’t just what we, or our editors, think someone is, it’s what someone calls themselves — I aim for that, and am open about when I can’t.