Sex work comes with a lot of minefields you need to navigate around them. A hot topic currently is “is the word prostitute offensive?” and it turns out if nothing else, the word prostitute is dividing.

Firstly, the word prostitute is defined in the dictionary as someone who engages in intercourse for money. This can be applied to both men and women. It derives from the Latin word “prōstitūta” which means “to expose (for sale)”. It is also the legal definition in many laws when referring to people who sell sex for money.

Of course, these days it has a negative connotation. The word has been used in offensive context. There is a general social stigma against it. Images of immorality and being “lesser” as a person.

For this reason, we don’t see or hear the word prostitute often. The only times I’ve seen it used are in news articles when referring to someone from a legal standpoint, or being used in an offensive manner on the internet.

Why is it offensive?

Some people find the word extremely offensive. They consider the term to be a slur or personal attack. The use of the word “prostitute” can be considered so offensive that some people may find it completely unacceptable to refer to anyone as a prostitute, no matter the context.

The reasons behind this extreme reaction are because of the connotations society has of the word. In some countries, the act of prostitution is illegal or was illegal at some point. That then made the word itself link to criminal activity.

It’s undeniable that the word carries a lot of weight. In the same way that some people find the term “oriental” to refer to a person of far east Asian decent as offensive.

Many women who sell sex for money don’t want to be referred to as a prostitute as they find the term humiliating, degrading or just plain offensive. They offer alternatives such as “full-service sex worker” or FSSW for short.

Why it isn’t offensive

On the other side of the scale, however, are those that do not believe the word prostitute to be offensive. They understand that it has negative connotations, but they don’t think it should be banned as a word. Some, such as Charlotte Rose, award-winning sex activist and sex worker, wants to reclaim the use of the word prostitute.

In her words, Charlotte explains;

The word prostitute has such bad light due to societies perceptions of what the media has created, a diseased, drug or alcohol addict selling their body out of desperation. Well there are far more workers who enjoy prostitution then what’s read about in the media. I for one, is one of them. I love the words sex worker as a generalised term including webcam, adult performers, and also phone chat, yet prostitution is my profession and I’m taking the word back. It means a person that exchanges cash for sexual services that’s all, which I do everyday. It’s one of the oldest professions and I’m proud to be a part of it

Charities such as The English Collective of Prostitutes uses the word prostitute in their name and also their description. It’s a self-help organisation working towards decriminalisation of prostitution, for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to. They don’t feel that the term prostitute is a slur, but rather use it as a noun that describes a specific type of word. They use it without emotional attachment, just clear hard facts.

Alternatives for the word

It’s true that the term “sex worker’ is too broad. A sex worker can be anyone from an escort, to a stripper, to a camgirl, or to a pornstar. Words such as escort, however, are too narrow as they wouldn’t apply to brothel girls or street walkers. Courtesan, lady of the night and other such terms feel outdated.

The term full-service sex worker is also misleading, as it implies you give full sex work service, which surely would encapsulate stripping, camming, porn shooting etc. That being said, many women want to be referred to by this term.

Some people and media outlets have suggested the word “hooker” instead of prostitute. It’s interesting because some people find the term hooker more offensive, and some people fine it less offensive.

It’s all about context

In the end, the word prostitute can be offensive. It just depends on the context. If used maliciously with the intent on offending, then yes, it can be offensive. If used around people that find it offensive, it can also be offensive.

But the fact is there’s no overwhelming decision on whether or not you can use it. Although many women in the profession are offended by the term, just as many aren’t offended by the term. Neither group has more validity than the other.

It’s a word that should be used based on the situational context. If you are with someone that finds it offensive, don’t use it. If you are with someone that doesn’t care, then it doesn’t matter either. At the end of the day, there’s really no one true answer.

When in context, there are other words you can use. Escorts, call girls, street walkers – they can all be used for specific people. The word prostitute itself doesn’t need to come up as there are so many euphonisms. For most conversations, you can use sex worker neutrally if you want to be cautious.

But in the context of research, science or the law, the word prostitute is the most succinct and understood terminology with no adequate replacement yet. Plus by that time, women such as Charlotte Rose may have already reclaimed the word!