Sensitivity Lessons with the U.S. State Department


The State Department doesn't like the term sex worker:

The 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.

"Of course, one can rationalize words such as 'sex worker' and "child sex worker" in an effort to avoid a demeaning label such as 'prostitute," said John Miller, the office's director.

"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 Miller, who retired Friday after campaigning extensively across the globe to stem the human trafficking problem.

"What is occurring is the use of the language to justify modern-day slavery, to dignify the perpetrators and the industries who enslave," he said.

Women used in prostitution. I generally hesitate to accuse anyone of "objectifying" women, but refusing to associate them with active verbs qualifies as sufficiently demeaning. And even if we were to grant that sex workers are by definition victims, as Miller prefers, the supposed need to switch terms is hard to understand. I think child soldiers are victims. Do I have to call them children used by war? Isn't the reality of the situation disturbing enough without the added offense to Strunk and White?

The effort to control language is part of a larger campaign to conflate sex slavery with good old-fashioned hooking, making it easier for officials to use horrifying tales of the former in their campaign against the latter. John Miller, who is being used by the State Department to promulgate anti-prostitution policies all over the world, considers all sex workers to be slaves—whether they're Manhattan call girls or trafficked Cambodian children. It's hard to know what slavery even means in this context, given that it bears no relation to the concept of consent.

Whole State Department song and dance here.


NEXT: Ticking Bombast

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  1. Then there’s the world’s second-oldest profession, motherhood.

  2. So what should we call a gigolo, or better yet a pimp?

  3. This is pretty much standard fare for the federal gov’t at this point.

    As another example, there’s a poster up in the cafeteria where I work listing preferred sensitive terminology to refer to people with various conditions (i.e., “mobility challenged” rather than “crippled”.)

    The last one on the list–no joke–is to use “person without a disability” rather than “normal”.

  4. Is the implication that it’s impossible to have sex without coercion?

  5. Well, if there is anybody who is classified as a “person without a disability” they’re just not trying hard enough. For instance, I’m a white, middle-class male who is physically fit, healthy and not bad looking. I’ve had every opportunity growing up. Yet, I’m still “rhythmically challenged”.

  6. Argh, I know it’s impossible for ME to have sex without coercion, but that’s because I’m not rich and have an awful personality. Coercion is the only tool in my kit.

  7. “Is the implication that it’s impossible to have sex without coercion?”

    That’s what they taught my sister in Women’s Studies.

  8. I think child soldiers are victims. Do I have to call them children used by war?

    Of course not, but let’s not call them “war workers” either. Just call them soldiers. And call the prostitutes, “prostitutes,” not “sex workers.”

  9. Andrea Dworkin, meet the Republican Party.

    If you start with the assumption that all women, everywhere, even in the Enlightened West, are essentially non-rational actors under the control of the Patriarchy, or property, when you get right down to it, then you reach the conclusion that everything they do is coerced.

    Women require “special protections” that men do not need because they are easily manipulated. Especially if they are poor. That is the argument of social conservatives and it dovetails neatly with those of a certain strain of feminists, though certainly not all of them. Behind the insulting mask of fake concern is a more familiar hatred of women who deny the mainstream view of sex and marriage for one they find more profitable. The war on this particular form of dissent has been going on from time immemorial.

    If they want to end slavery, they will find it distressingly common in Africa and South Asia, among men as well as women, and especially children. But they don’t really give a damn about slavery. It’s all about sex.

  10. As we approach the Solstice, I want to thank Kerry for haunting my daydreams by constantly blogging on sex related topics.

    Many happy returns

  11. For instance, I’m a white, middle-class male who is physically fit, healthy and not bad looking.

    So what are you doing later?

    I’m not rich

    Oh, never mind.

    The last one on the list–no joke–is to use “person without a disability” rather than “normal”.

    In German, “normal” has come to mean “heterosexual”. I guess if you’re thin-skinned and you’ve spent your life being considered “not normal” there’s room for a little resentment there. But sheesh.

  12. James’ last comment is on target. I have no trouble calling an adult who engages in prostitution of his or her own free will a “sex worker.” Anyone coerced into sex work or into an army, or who is too young to consent to those jobs, is a slave.


  13. Does “normal” still mean cream and sugar in your coffee in NYC? Or is it now “Brewed Fair Trade coffee product enhanced with natural sweetner and high-lactose milk product”?

    But then why be surprised at this silliness when:

    People of color=good

    Colored people=bad

    Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s how you say it….

  14. I define “normal” thus:

    Any person not offended by the use of the word normal.

  15. Jeebus H.

    Shouldn’t these tools be spending their time and out money on something like, I don’t know, actually helping people, rather than engaging in these kinds of utterly pointless discussions?

  16. Does “normal” still mean cream and sugar in your coffee in NYC?

    You meant “regular,” Bubba.

  17. Is the implication that it’s impossible to have sex without coercion?

    I know that I, for one, am always being coerced into sex by women and their sexy bodies… ­čÖü

  18. I am a man used in librarianship.

  19. So, if a slave can’t be a “worker”, can s/he “work”? Was picking cotton “field work” for some and “field slavery” for others? Did some workers work harder than others at their work, and some slaves slave harder than others at their… what, place of enslavement?

    What’s most remarkable to me about this story is how good we can get at demonizing (in our own minds) a political opponent, to the extent that someone could, with a straight face, suggest that his opponents have intended to whitewash child sexual slavery.

  20. What’s interesting, and disheartening, is that the government will use all this “framing” of the discussion to justify arresting prostitutes. I had a conversation with a cop once, and I asked why prostitution is illegal. He said because the girls are victims. So I asked, “Why do you arrest the victims of the crime?” He said that eventually, after they’ve been arrested enough times, they’ll help the police catch the pimp, who is the perpetrator.

    “So, if you throw a battered wife in jail enough times, she’ll eventually testify against her husband?”

    “Probably, but we only use that strategy with hookers.”

    That was the last time I bothered to discuss anything but the weather with a cop.

  21. Is ‘mean-hearted’ a disability?

    Is it the same as ‘normal-hearted’? Would ‘normal-hearted’ equal ‘person without a heart disability’?

    There were a lot of good comments. My prize, worth much less than a regular coffee, would be to Micael for:

    People of color = good
    Colored people = bad

    By the way. A pimp is a sex-buyer-enabler.

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