'Prostitution', or 'sex work'? Is it only economic semantics?

15 Jun 2018


In pondering what kaupapa (matters) I might take to our Green Women's Conference next week, I was serendipitously contacted by Renee Gerlich, an advocate for a better government policy response to prostitution. 

Like many others, she points out that the decriminalization of prostitution on the one hand serves somewhat to bring prostitution out into the light (ironically), legitimizing the industry so it’s ‘workers’ may be covered by labour laws.  That’s a good thing.  On the other hand, rebranding prostitution as ‘sex work’ merely optimizes a failed space when we consider all the ‘bads’ associated with prostitution, like:

  1. How dehumanizing prostitution is, thereby supporting its perpetuation violates such values like “employment with dignity”;

  2. How prostitute ‘workers’ disproportionately are women who come from a poor background (symptomatic of both systemic gender and economic inequality), and other vulnerable persons;

  3. Prostitution’s connection with drugs and violence; and

  4. How, along with other ‘low quality’ jobs (symptomatic of inequitable distribution of wealth and power in society) it exemplifies the truth that the capitalistic economy is demonstrably NOT objective and made up of willing/ free buyers/ sellers, but rather it’s inherently and insidiously rigged to:

    • Serve the needs of a relative minority of elites and oppress and enslave the rest of us; and

    • Reduce humans (and the natural environment) to merely resources to be consumed and exploited to death - either:

      • A ‘slow’ death - emotionally, mentally and of the wairua, the soul; or

      • Directly and rapidly – in terms of people who are driven to suicide, or participate in any drug-related or other life-threatening activity associated with prostitution.


Our collective failure to address the underlying drivers of prostitution correspondingly (and perversely) bleeds into promoting it as an appropriate vocational “choice” of sorts. It's one thing to do all in our power to protect affected vulnerable persons in 'the industry'.  It's quite another to reinforce (whether intentionally or accidentally; or whether by passively standing by, or actively advocating for 'reform') the structural violence that is the underlying contradictory value system which simultaneously holds contempt for and legitimizes 'sex work' (note: I distinguish this from respectful sex therapy or sex surrogacy, the primary goal of which is to increase the wellbeing of the client rather than making money, and is delivered in a way that keeps both the professional and the client safe). The bigger questions, then, are:

  • Why do we tolerate our mothers and daughters (and their counterparts in the male and/or LGBTQ gender groups) participating in prostitution? 

  • Why settle for treating prostitution as just another “work” option; and

  • Why don't policy-makers put more attention on mitigating the root causes that goad people into having to participate in sexual acts for money in the first place (including pressures on our men to seek it out and create the demand, even though many know they're fleeting and meaningless and feel "intense guilt and shame" for doing so)?



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