Monday, August 13, 2007

Some thoughts on the language of the Oldest Profession

I'm always amused by the media's use of the phrase "high class prostitute". It brings to mind that anecdote about Winston Churchill asking a respectable female acquaintance whether she would spend the night with a male stranger in return for a million pounds. Well, yes, she conceded, for such an enormous sum, she would certainly give it serious consideration. In that case, went on the Greatest Ever Briton, would she do it for a fiver? "Certainly not," the outraged lady replied. "What do you think I am?" To which Churchill responded, "We've already established what you are. Now we're just haggling over your price."

A high class prostitute means one who charges high prices, nothing more, nothing less.

For slightly different reasons, I also trip over that fairly recent coinage, "sex worker". Of course, you can see the intention here: old fashioned words like tart, hooker, trollop and so on have an undeniably judgemental, moralistic tone about them - which, understandably, those who make their living by selling sexual services feel uncomfortable with.

Usually, I take the view that if members of a minority group want to be referred to in a particular way, it's simple courtesy for the rest of us to respect their wishes. But, in this case, I find the approved term makes a demand on me that I don't feel entirely happy to meet. What "sex worker" asks of me is to accept that making a living by selling sex is just a job like any other - no different from driving a taxi, training as a tree surgeon or working in Top Shop.

And actually, I don't accept this. I don't think I'm exceptionally prudish; and I'm certainly willing to believe that the vast majority of people who work as prostitutes deserve our sympathy (and, if they want it, our help and support), rather than our condemnation. But would I feel happy if my recently graduated daughter came home and announced that she'd decided on a career in sex work? Well, no, I rather decidedly wouldn't (though I would console myself with the thought that at least she'd managed to steer clear of estate agency).

When we use words that carry an agenda like this, we're hoping that they will persuade others to agree us. But if we misjudge it, they can just as easily have the opposite effect.


At 11:55 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But you might change your mind if you listened to this.

Spoken, not written - but persuasive words nonetheless


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