Some notes on language

As an organisation, we try to choose our words carefully.

We recognise that language shapes and drives perceptions. All of us are directed – whether consciously or unconsciously – to think in certain ways by the way language is used to frame conversations or debates. Sometimes this linguistic ‘choice architecture’ is given to us intentionally, a deliberate effort to establish the terms of reference and to steer us towards compliance with certain ideas/beliefs.  At other times it’s unintentional, merely the unconscious passing on of inherited ways of thinking, not actively owned, just never subjected to scrutiny. Either way, it is easy to find ourselves unwittingly co-opted into narratives that have implications beyond our understanding or intentions, even while they may quietly be influencing both.

Each person must come to their own conclusion about what they believe but, for all the reasons above, we encourage scrutiny and care over language.

Here are some thoughts on difficult words and themes that come up in our work.

Sex work / prostitution / commercial sexual exploitation

Finding the right terminology here is a minefield. We prefer to use the term commercial sexual exploitation. Although a cumbersome phrase, it seems less misleading than some.

Sex work

As is clear from Some facts about the sex industry, we avoid the term ‘sex work’. We give some reasons there why this term is not one we can use. We might add to our comments there that the phrase ‘sex work is work’ seems to include two main assumptions:

  • That as long as consent is given, it’s work
  • That work is the exchange of anything for money as long as the law permits it

But is that true? What is work and what is consent? We suggest here that consent is not a robust or clear enough concept to carry such determining authority by itself.

And what is work? If it centres on the idea of exchanging goods or services (anything deemed legal), then we enter into difficulty:

A person’s body is not a ‘good’ that can be sold. The phrase ‘selling sex’ overlooks this truth by suggesting that what is sold is some kind of product that can be passed from one person to another. Yet, what is actually being sold is access to another person’s body. Sex is not a product; it is an act of relational intimacy. As such, it comes with ineliminable vulnerability. And since risk is not the same as vulnerability, whilst it may be possible to limit the risks of physical ‘danger’ from sexual acts, vulnerability will always remain. It is part of sex’s design and what lends it so much power.

If we then say that selling one’s body is a ‘service’, we might ask in what way we define that term. What is the difference between service and servitude? Are we cycling back to the notion of agency and consent? But that is problematic. Are we in fact seeing a service as something more than just consensual, as something that builds the common good? That too is problematic.  In the case of sex ‘buying’, the ‘worker’ often represents a short term fix in a cycle of tension and relief that operates for the ‘buyer’. She is part of his escapism, part of a cycle of compulsion that often has features of addiction and drives an objectification of women that harms his ability to form healthy and mutual relationships. In the case of the ‘worker’, an array of trauma-related symptoms such as addiction, dissociation, anxiety, PTSD, feelings of shame, worthlessness and hopelessness typically accumulate during her time in the industry. Where dissociation becomes her survival mechanism to cope with what she does, in many cases she is unable to switch this off and find meaningful rest in other moments of life. There are others affected too. A growing body of research looking at the ‘shadow women’ behind the men who pay for ‘sexual services’ – their wives, girlfriends and daughters – suggests a multiplication of harmful effects on the lives of those around the ‘sex buyer’. 

Prostitution

Some of the reports we cite use the term ‘prostitution’ which some might find stigmatising. What might be surprising is that many women who’ve exited intentionally opt for this term in an effort to resist and delegitimize the notion of ‘sex work’. We respect this choice but also recognise that it can be a polarizing term and can cause misunderstanding with regard to the intentions of those who use it, especially if the context is poorly understood.

“It’s not sex and it’s not work. I’ve worked with many, many women and I’ve been an activist for 23 years since I exited prostitution, and I can tell you now, I’ve never met a woman who’s empowered by prostitution, so for me sex work doesn’t describe what it’s really about.”

Fiona Broadfoot

Consent

If a woman’s decision-making is, as it has been said is often the case, ‘an anguished agency much constrained by circumstance’ then is it really consent? Was it actively chosen with a sense of other alternatives being available? Was it just resignation, capitulation?

Secondly, even if consent is given, it’s a known fact that people sometimes choose things that harm themselves. Substance misuse is a case in point. This is often because of harm done to them in the past and the carrying on of this process in similar or altered forms. Just as healthy discipline is provided by parents with a view to this being internalised by their children over time as self-discipline, the fruit of a healthy conscience, so abuse over time can be internalised as self-abuse, the fruit of a poor sense of personal boundaries. Just because someone is consenting to an act, that is not enough to make it okay. When it comes to sexual acts, the additions to the Domestic Abuse Act in relation to ‘rough sex’ are significant in this regard. The law is constantly having to plug gaps where it recognises that the notion of consent alone is not enough to confer legitimacy.

We might even want to ask – have we given the notion of consent too much weight ? Doesn’t it belong to the language of justification rather than of generosity? Isn’t it a term belonging to a culture that has reduced sexual relationships to a single determining factor and test. There is nothing here about love, only the notion of a minimum standard to get what we want.

“A key part of effective social change [….] is assisting people to counteract their internalised oppression. It is often not clearly understood that most forms of damage done by oppression is done by its internalised forms. If people did not internalise the oppression, that oppression could not be maintained for very long. Memmi (1968) talks about the ‘spiritual ruin’ wherein the oppressed consent to their own abasement. Many social change movements have been unsuccessful, ultimately because they viewed change as being, solely, about the removal of the external barriers or oppression.”

‘Leadership and liberation: A psychological approach’, Sean Ruth

“It is disingenuous to argue that prostitution is a choice, particularly given that an overwhelming number of women enter prostitution due to poverty, and at least half report that they are coerced (APPG, 2014). Financial concerns create a continuous cycle of prostitution and debt, with many women unable to complete education or training, limiting future employment options.”

‘Multiple and Intersecting Experiences of Women in Prostitution’, Hodges and Burch

Shame

Shame can be a dirty word for some who confuse it with shaming. But acknowledging the presence of shame is not at all the same as shaming. The simple fact is just that many women carry shame from their participation in the sex industry. If we remember that many abuse victims suffer shame – projected from the abuser to the abused – then this is not surprising:

  • Shame just is. It is a normal reaction to abuse.
  • Abuse/neglect are shameful, but the one perpetrating the harm often passes this burden of shame to the victim.
  • Shame is very frightening to acknowledge, and many of us would rather avoid it, for example via substance misuse or dissociation or reframing it as shamelessness
  • But to avoid it doesn’t heal it. What is not acknowledged cannot be healed.
  • Shame is a relational wound and so is also healed through relationship

Unlike the ones that caused harm, the relationships that dismantle shame must be ones of safety, care and honour. As a Christian organisation, it is our privilege not only to seek to build these relationships around women, but also to witness the difference it makes when women experience God’s love as the primary one that un-shames and restores them. We offer women opportunities to connect with this healing love, but never make it a condition of engagement with our services.

Soong-Chan Rah states that ‘lament recognizes a shameful history’. The important word here is ‘recognizes’. Recognition does not shame, or cause shame; it acknowledges the disgrace that has been done and deems it worthy of grief.

Relume is the working name of Relume Stoke CIO, a charity registered in England and Wales (registration number 1202524)