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  • Michigan Journal of Gender & Law Online

Sex Worker, Not Prostitute

By Alexandrea Doroba


I first heard about using the term “sex worker” instead of “prostitute” while listening to an episode of “My Favorite Murder”,[1] a true-crime comedy podcast, demonstrating how the debate over the term has become mainstream. People have used the word prostitute since approximately 1520,[2] although the exchange of sexual acts for compensation has existed throughout history, since the Sumerians.[3] For example, Carol Leigh first used the term “sex worker” in the early 1980s.[4] She preferred saying sex work instead of prostitution because it “prioritized the work of the provider rather than the customer.”[5] The term is now used widely, including by notable groups such as the World Health Organization.[6]


This blog post discusses the change in rhetoric regarding sex work and how that change contributes to the legalization thereof. There is currently no global consensus on the legalization or criminalization of sex work.[7] Several countries have decriminalized sex work,[8] whereas other countries still impose fines—and sometimes even corporal punishment—for the work.[9] In the United States, sex work is illegal in every state, except for some counties in Nevada.[10]


A heated debate surrounding the advisability of legalizing sex work continues. Some believe it should be legalized to respect sex worker’s bodily autonomy, decrease health risks and decrease the stigma currently associated with sex work. Others maintain that legalizing sex work furthers violence against women by legitimizing a system where women are frequently physically and sexually assaulted.


The change in language from “prostitution” to “sex work” supports legalization of sex work. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) stated that “this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex work toward a labour framework.”[11] Focusing on sex work as a service industry guarantees women full human rights as workers. If sex work is decriminalized, it can be regulated, which will decrease health risks and increase workers’ ability to change professions. If workers do not have a criminal record for sex work and do not have to pay fines related to arrests for sex works, they will have a better chance at a way out, thus increasing workers’ autonomy.


The movement to decriminalize sex work in the United States has gained traction. Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently announced an extensive criminal justice reform resolution proposing that sex work be decriminalized throughout the U.S.[12] Several conservative lawmakers oppose this resolution, claiming that it is “hollow”.[13]However, this resolution is a huge step in the right direction, even if it just brings the idea of legalization of sex work into mainstream political conversation. Until the law finally decriminalizes sex work, we should continue changing language used in discussions of sex work to decrease stigma for those involved.


[1] 12 – Our Bodies, Our Twelves, My Favorite Murder (Apr. 14, 2016) (downloaded using iTunes).

[2] Dictionary.com, https//www.dictionary.com/browse/prostitute (last visited Nov. 21, 2019).

[3] New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Prostitution (last visited Nov. 21, 2019).

[4] Carol Leigh coins the term “sex work”, Global Network of Sex Work Projects, https://www.nswp.org/timeline/event/carol-leigh-coins-the-term-sex-work (last visited Nov. 21, 2019).

[5] Id.

[6] World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/en.

[7] Countries Where Prostitution Is Legal 2019, (Oct. 10, 2019), http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-where-prostitution-is-legal/.

[8] Id.

[9] Penal Code, Ta’azirat Ch. 18, Art. 637, 638 (1996) (Iran).

[10] Staff, Prostitution Laws Around the World, Global News (2013), https://globalnews.ca/news/128029/at-a-glance-prostitution-laws/.

[11] Global Network of Sex Work Projects, https://www.nswp.org/.

[12] Marina Pitofsky, Ayanna Pressley introduces extensive criminal justice reform resolution, The Hill, (Nov. 16, 2019),https://thehill.com/homenews/house/470791-ayanna-pressley-introduces-sweeping-criminal-justice-reform-resolution.

[13] Id.