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Speaking of “dead prostitutes”: how CATW promotes survivors to silence sex workers

In calling for the Associated Press to stop using the phrase ‘sex worker’, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women makes exaggerated claims about violence against women in order to censor representations of people who consensually perform sexual labor.

Sex workers and supporters protest on International Women's Day in London. Guy Corbishley/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) recently published an open letter to Associated Press Stylebook editor David Minthorn in response to an online campaign to replace the word “prostitute” with “sex worker” in AP's 2015 Stylebook.

CATW and its allies oppose the phrases “sex work” and “sex worker” because they feel "these terms were invented by the sex industry and its supporters in order to legitimize prostitution as an acceptable form of work and conceal its harm to those exploited in the commercial sex trade." 

CATW's letter is signed by “over 300 human rights groups and anti-trafficking advocates.” It includes a selection of statements from its signatories, who feel the term “sex work” erases or silences the suffering of people who identify as survivors of sexual exploitation. However, CATW's letter promotes people who identify as survivors by calling for the erasure and silencing of those who call themselves sex workers.

Survivors of violence are entitled to their voices, and it is important to listen to them carefully and sensitively. Yet, CATW and its allies seek to deny the experience of sex workers and to oppress their representation in the media by refusing to name the practices of people who earn a living from consensual sexual labor.

Both campaigns invoke a false binary by suggesting that journalists must choose between mutually exclusive notions of coerced prostitution or consensual sex work. The full spectrum of research and testimony evinces an enormous diversity of experience among people who exchange sexual services for payment. It is presumptuous to assume that just one or two labels could or should represent all of these experiences.

CATW's letter also deploys a revealing deception. It contains a litany of unreferenced statistics, which ostensibly "demonstrate that the commercial sex industry is predicated on dehumanization, degradation, and gender violence and causes life-long physical and psychological harm.” They include one remarkably shocking statement: “The average age of mortality of a person in prostitution is 34 years old.”

This bold claim was most prominently publicized in a 2011 Newsweek feature which claims, “Prostitution has always been risky for women; the average age of death is 34.” Its source is a 2004 American Journal of Epidemiology article titled “Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women”. It is a study of dead women: the authors “identified 117 definite or probable deaths” of “prostitute women identified by police and health department surveillance in Colorado Springs, Colorado, from 1967 to 1999.” In passing, the authors say: “few of the women died of natural causes, as would be expected for persons whose average age at death was 34 years.”

The crucial consideration here is that this study, by definition and by design, excluded the living. From the “open cohort of 1,969 women,” 117 deceased were identified. In other words, 94 per cent of those women in prostitution—1,852 living women—are parsed from the sample. “The claim that 'the average age of death is 34' is badly misstated from the actual finding,” Maggie McNeill observed in 2011. “This is exactly the same as concluding 'the average soldier dies at 21' by the simple expedient of excluding from the 'average' all those who survived!”

CATW's claim is unwittingly misleading if not intentionally deceptive. It gives readers the impression that the average woman doing prostitution or sex work can expect to die in her thirties. This implication is sensationalizing, stigmatizing, and false.

This mistaken mortality claim is a metaphor for CATW's argument, which suggests that the representation of the whole should be overwritten by the experiences of a select group: they misrepresent statistics about dead women in prostitution to suggest sex workers should not be represented at all.

This macabre move sets up the rhetorical power play in the letter's conclusion, where CATW calls for survivors' voices to be privileged in media representations:

“Attached are the words of survivors addressing the harm of the terms 'sex work,' 'sex worker' and 'prostitute.' These courageous individuals are leading a global movement to end commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. We urge the AP to engage with these survivors as policy experts.”

Why must conversations about prostitution and sex work be a zero-sum game? Representing the experiences of sex workers need not silence the experiences of survivors, the latter being amply represented in recent debates about prostitution law in Canada, France, and the UK, for example. Sex workers are crucial stakeholders in these conversations, and their experiences also deserve fair representation.

Sex workers do not deny that exploitation can occur in relation to the exchange of sex and money, though some sex workers question extreme claims about the pervasiveness of these wrongs. CATW's attempt to claim expertise and representation exclusively for survivors reflects a deep rift between the discourse of prostitution and the discourse of sex work, while refusing to recognize the vast diversity of experience that underlies this divide.

We need better language for describing the experiences we currently depict as trafficking, prostitution, and sex work. Meanwhile, CATW's promotion of survivors as experts on sexual exploitation and trafficking would seem much more fair if they would recognize the experience and expertise of sex workers, too.

About the author

Jason Congdon is an independent researcher from Vancouver, Canada. He tweets about sexual labor and social justice at @elfeministo.

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