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Letter to the Editor of the NY Times re: “What It Means to Call Prostitution Sex Work” by Pamela Paul

September 6, 2023

To the Editor:

Paul vehemently opposes the term “sex worker,” yet does not provide a formal definition of it. Per the sex worker-led Global Network of Sex Work Projects, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UNDP, and World Bank, “sex worker” refers to “… people (over 18 years of age) who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally… sex work is consensual sex between adults, which takes many forms, and varies between and within countries and communities.” This definition recognizes the diversity of people’s experiences in the sex industry – bad, good, and in-between—while uniting them under the banner of “worker” to facilitate collective mobilization for rights and protections against harms, such as those Paul describes. “Prostitution,” conversely, is a legal term for a crime; it carries stigma and underlying ideological assumptions and stereotypes about sex work, which are used to justify sex work criminalization laws. Rigorous, empirical research evidences negative impacts of social stigma and criminalization laws – which disproportionately affect marginalized people, including LGBTQ+, non-white, and migrant people – on sex workers’ health and wellbeing. Furthermore, sex workers say criminalization constrains their ability to partner with initiatives to help trafficked people. Moreover, journalists systematically refraining from using the broader term sex worker would limit free public discourse on these issues, and accurate representation. While people in the sex industry should be able to self-identify using the terminology of their choice, the media should default to language that is aligned with principles of human rights and conveys respect.


Amelia Rock, Tamika Spellman, Chibundo Egwuatu, Kate D’Adamo, Mariah Grant, Yvette Butler, C. Nickel, Tierney Cross, and Haley Hansen, Sex Worker
Advocates Coalition (SWAC) of DC, USA
Charlotte Latham, Decrim Now, UK
Christine Nagl, Projekt Pia, Austria
Cindra Feuer, AVAC, USA
Coast Sex Workers Alliance, Kenya
Elizabeth Onyango, Coast Sex Workers Alliance, Kenya
Empower Foundation, Thailand
European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP), Europe
European Sex Worker Alliance (ESWA), Europe and Central Asia
Exploitation Intervention Project, USA
Flavio Lenz, Coletivo Puta Davida, Brazil
Freedom Network USA, USA
Grace Kabayaga, Empowered At Dusk Women’s Association, Uganda
Grace Kamau, Africa Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), Africa
Josephine Aseme, Greater Women Initiative for Health and Rights (GWIHR), Nigeria
Kate Mogulescu, Brooklyn Law School, USA
Key Affected Populations Health and Legal Rights Alliance (KESWA), Kenya
Legal Aid Society, USA
Madison Zack-Wu, Strippers Are Workers
Maggie’s, Canada
Melodie Garcia and Savannah Sly, New Moon Network, USA
Michael Gibbons, Omar Rana and aisha lewis-mccoy, UAW Local 2325, LGBTQ Caucus of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, USA
National Ugly Mugs, UK
OTRASEX, Dominican Republic
Peers Victoria Resource Society, Canada
Raphael Oyeniyi, The Most Supportive Initiative, Nigeria
Red Light District by TW!O, USA
Reframe Health and Justice, USA
Ricci Levy & Mandy Salley, Woodhull Freedom Foundation, USA
Robyn Learned, SWOP-Sacramento, USA
Silvia Okoth, Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program, Kenya
SWAP Hamilton, Canada
SWOP Sacramento, USA
UTSOPI, Belgium
Whose Corner Is It Anyway, USA

Sex Work
Sex Workers

photo of a protester

Photo of a person wearing a surgical face mask with blond hair wearing a white shirt with a sign that reads "Sex work is work. My body is my business." (Erik McGregor/Getty Images)

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