Friday, May 01, 2015

Sex Work Style Guide

Many journalists would like to write ethically and accurately about sex work, but don’t know the best terms to use. Here is a quick guide to current words and phrases to do with sex work for use in news reporting and journalism.

Problematic terms:  
These are terms that, unless you are directly quoting someone, or quoting from another piece of writing about sex work, should be avoided. 

Hooker, whore, streetwalker, ho: Do not use these words, they are offensive. Sex workers sometimes use these words either in casual conversation or to make a certain point, but journalists (unless they ARE sex workers) should not.

Prostitute/Prostitution: These terms are generally considered to carry a negative connotation. But in many countries, they are legal terms, so it’s sometimes necessary to use them. But use them sparingly, and only if it is specifically in connection with someone being accused of a crime. Whenever possible, say sex work, or sex trade, or sex industry.

Courtesan and sugarbaby are marketing terms used by sex workers. However, in a news story, they come across as affected, and usually imply that the person speaking/being spoken of thinks they are “higher-class” and “different from” other sex workers. There may be certain times when the use of either of these terms is necessary - for example, if one is writing about sugardaddy/sugarbaby websites. But do not use them as general terms for sex workers.

The word pimp should generally not be used in current journalism about sex work. Its original meaning has been co-opted into other uses, and it is at best a glamorous description of someone who has an abusive/criminal/exploitative interaction with a sex worker. Anti-sex work activists use the term to bring about a confused emotional response in the reader that’s strongly rooted in racism. If you must speak of someone who has a business relationship with a sex worker, find out what that person actually does for her, and say manager, booker, driver, security, administrative assistant, etc. (The exception would be if someone is formally charged with a crime with the word pimping as part of the language of the law.)

The word madam is archaic and should not be used except in historical references.

Prostituted woman, prostitution survivor, sex slave: these are all inflammatory terms that objectify the person being spoken of, and both fetishize and disempower people who have done/are doing sex work.

Sexual surrogate: This is a very specific (and controversial) type of therapy, and many people do not consider sexual surrogates to be sex workers. Only use this term if you are completely clear that the specific person being discussed calls themselves that. Do not use any other sex worker terminology to refer to a sexual surrogate.

Do not use the term trafficking victim as a synonym for sex worker. Also, do not use the term self-trafficked, as it has no logical meaning.

Do not use the term child prostitute. 

Do not speak of men buying a sex worker, or using her. Say visiting her, seeing her, hiring her, having a session with her. Also, do not speak of someone selling her body.
Do not use the word john. It is extremely dated and negative, and no one but anti-sex workers uses that term.  Use the term clients or customers.

Better Terms To Use:

Sex work/Sex workers: this is the most general and the least judgmental term you can use. It's an umbrella term that encompasses everyone in the sex industry; escorts, dancers, dominatrixes, porn models, cam girls (or boys), everyone. Those terms are all non-judgmental terms to use to describe specific jobs in the sex industry. (The term is also sometimes written as one word: sexwork, sexworker, especially on Twitter.)

The term call girl is not an offensive term, but it is rather dated, and not much used any more. Mistress (meaning: not a dominatrix, but the other kind of mistress) is rather vague, but not offensive per se.

Domme, dominatrix, pro domme, pro sub, Mistress: these are all acceptable terms for people who provide BDSM-related services. 

There is no one generally accepted term for people who do massage or other bodywork with a sexual element, but sensual touch provider is probably the most polite. Sometimes the term Tantric touch provider is used.

Women who work in strip clubs can be either dancers or strippers. 

It is acceptable to refer to someone who does in-person sex work as a professional companion. 

Clients who frequent sex worker review boards will sometimes use the term hobbyist to refer to themselves. Also, some sex work review sites refer to sex workers as providers (as short for “adult services providers”), and sex workers occasionally use this term themselves.
To call someone a sex worker is to say that they have agency in their behavior, so it is contradictory to speak of "forced sex work". However, if on occasion you need to strongly differentiate between people who are being victimized versus people who are not, you can speak of consensual adult sex work, or just adult sex work. To do so every time would be redundant and unnecessary. The opposite of sex work is criminal sexual exploitation, or simply rape, kidnapping, etc.

If you wish to speak of people who are the most vulnerable and marginalized in sex work, you can say street sex workers, or survival sex workers.

Anti-sex workers sometimes call themselves abolitionists, but sex workers often call them sex work prohibitionists.

Decriminalization of sex work is very very different from Legalization. Do not use the words interchangeably. Decriminalization means the repeal of all laws that impose any criminal penalty on the private, consensual and appropriate adult exchange of sex for money. Legalization means that the consensual adult exchange of sex for money remains mainly a crime, but the state creates a few strictly-controlled loopholes for situations in which it will be tolerated, although still heavily stigmatized.

(Note: I did not list what terms to use when talking about male sex workers, because I'm not one. If I get information about what terms male sex workers prefer, I will add that here.)
This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Snakes In The Garden Of Eden 

UPDATE DEC 2014: The final expose on the lies of Megan Griffiths and her movie Eden. 
This is a long but amazingly-researched and thoughtful article by The Stranger's Jen Graves, who was one of the people who originally voted to award Megan Griffiths The Stranger's "Genius Award". A must-read about how sex trafficking lies are created and unquestioned, until it's too late. In this article, the movie Eden is finally shown as the complete fraud that is really is.

Also excellent reporting from Jan 2015: Rolling Stone UVA Story, Eden, and Media Exploitation, by Noah Berlatsky.  

My original post from July 2014 is below.


Let’s talk about Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths. It will be a fairly one-sided conversation, you understand, because she won’t talk to me. She won’t talk to anyone – at least, not about the subject at hand, which is her breakthrough movie, “Eden.” But somebody connected with that movie has told a lot of big lies about sex workers, and I really want to know who.

The story begins in 2012, when Megan Griffiths co-wrote and directed Eden. The film was billed as true story presenting the reality of sex trafficking in the US, and a graphic and harrowing account it was. In the mid-nineties (so the story goes), a young Korean-American woman named Chong Kim was kidnapped by an international ring of sex traffickers, held captive, raped, tortured, was witness to several murders, and along with hundreds of other kidnapped women and girls, forced to be a prostitute. After some time, she made a daring escape. 

The real-life Chong Kim then went on to became a highly-visible professional spokesperson for anti-trafficking campaigns, and so it was that Seattle producer Colin Plank got her and Megan Griffiths together to make Eden. Eden was released at SXSW to huge critical acclaim, and went on to garner multiple awards and fawning reviews. Megan Griffiths gave several interviews together with Chong Kim, strongly emphasizing that the movie was a true and accurate portrayal of Kim’s experiences and about the reality of sex trafficking within the US. (Here and here.) All of the publicity materials and all other spokespeople for Eden did likewise.
Fast-forward to now: in the wake of the Somaly Mam scandal about faked trafficking stories, people are suddenly examining the stories told by other professional anti-trafficking activists more closely. Around June 4, 2014, Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking organization that Chong Kim was a board member of, publicly accused Ms. Kim of fraud. This organization, Breaking Out, says that Chong Kim was never a victim of trafficking, and that she completely invented her story in order to get money. They have also produced court documents indicating that in 2009, Kim was convicted of a felony charge, Theft By Swindle, for the amount of $15,000.
So far, there have been four stories published about the allegations:
Basically, everything that Eden says about sex trafficking is a lie. (It’s certainly not the first time a movie about sex trafficking has been based on lies. Remember the movie “Taken”, with Liam Neeson? The man whose real life experience it was supposedly inspired by was later arrested for fraud. Here, and here.) No one but Chong Kim can really know what happened to Chong Kim, and she is free to tell her story as she wishes. But as the creators of Eden were quick to say, Eden is not just a story about one woman. Sex workers around the world are organizing and fighting for our civil and human rights, and Eden is a piece of propaganda specifically crafted to fight our movement.
Here’s why: While adult consensual sex work is definitely not the same thing as sex trafficking, there is no distinction made between the two in law, or in anti-sex worker rhetoric. So from a law enforcement point of view, when one speaks of “fighting trafficking” what that means is “arresting whores.” Some anti-sexwork campaigns claim to focus on arresting clients, but the vast majority of people arrested for sexwork are the workers, and they are not dangerous international gangsters. They are usually women and transgender people, predominantly people of color, and they’re usually poor.
Interestingly, all the cops in the movie Eden were also bad guys who were in league with the traffickers. If the main character of Eden had come in contact with any non-crooked cops, she would have been arrested and very probably imprisoned.  But all the spokespeople for Eden seemed to feel strongly that tougher laws and more arrests is what we need to combat the mythical many-headed hydra of sex trafficking.
Eden also had a somewhat murky financial relationship with a number of anti-trafficking NGOs. When these organizations speak of “sex trafficking” what they mean is: ANY exchange of sex for money, even if it is between two adults and completely voluntary. No one, they say, can really choose to do sex work willingly. People who think they are doing sex work willingly are victims of “false consciousness” and must be rescued from their own folly. By force, if necessary.
Anti-trafficking “rescue” organizations like this, many of them church-based, work hand in hand with police. To an anti-sex worker, being arrested is "rescue", so when they speak of “rescuing victims”, they are talking about people brought to them by police, in handcuffs. They utilize many of the same strategies as anti-gay conversion therapy schemes and crisis pregnancy centers. The ACLU is currently investigating one prominent “rescue” organization for civil rights violations. 
Eden is to the sex industry what “Reefer Madness” is to marijuana legislation reform. It’s a titillating sexploitation movie, purposely created for a neoconservative agenda of arresting more people and controlling sexual behavior. It is a feel-good film for a sexual police state, pernicious rubbish used to legitimize stigma and state-sponsored violence against sex workers. It perpetuates the misery of people who are trapped between poverty, a right-wing Christian anti-sex agenda, and the prison-industrial complex. Eden should never have been used to solicit charitable donations and get lucrative grants. It should very definitely not be used to sway voters, influence public policy or government funding, or to direct the focus of law enforcement.
In spite of repeated requests for comment, no one connected to the film will make any statement in response to these allegations. (Griffiths did publish one Tweet on saying she was “deeply concerned” about the allegations, but nothing more.) If they stand behind their work, then why won’t they speak? I believe that Colin Plank and Megan Griffiths knowingly perpetrated a fraud with the movie Eden. They showed negligence of, if not actual disdain for, the truth. What they have done may not rise to the level of legal fraud, but it is certainly a moral one. And it’s a fraud that is still harming sex workers.
Overall, I do not speak for any organization, only myself. But in this particular matter, I am endorsed by the members of the Sex Worker Outreach Project of Seattle

Friday, April 18, 2014

Originally Published 2007

Ok, so I have to tell you an amusing story about an elevator encounter I had this past weekend... Or more accurately, one Candy and Jae and I had.
Candy and Jae have played with Traveler and me before, and they all like each other, so when I suggested they come visit us late one evening, he said, “Why don’t we all go to dinner first?” So we all went out to a lovely dinner, and there was some wine, and perhaps we were all feeling just a touch merry and uninhibited. Although really, we can all get that way without wine.
Now, you probably don’t know this, but there was a big convention in Seattle these last few days – of orthodontists. When I say big, I mean we heard there were something like thirty thousand orthodontists in Seattle. Not just American orthodontists, either - there were Spanish orthodontists, there were French orthodontists, there were Indian orthodontists. Heck, there were orthodontists here from countries I couldn’t find on a map. I saw a lot of said orthodontists in lobby and elevator of the Fairmont, and plus, we got the skinny from the valets, because those guys always know what’s going on. And they like to chat with cute girls.
We were looking more than just cute, actually, all dressed up for an evening of fun and games. I was wearing a slinky, skintight black Wolford top and skirt and spike heels, Candy was wearing very high heels and a flippy little black and white dress which made one think that her legs might really and truly be a mile long, and Jae was wearing an outfit that we decided could best be described as “a kinky SS cheerleader”. We were quite a sight, in the lobby of the serene and conservative Fairmont Hotel. We seemed to cause something of a stir on our way out to dinner, so on our way back in, I told Traveler to drop the three of us off at a side entrance, so he didn't have to escort us back past the interested gaze of the various hotel staff. I mean, the man stays at the Fairmont with his business companions as well, let’s not complicate his life by raising too many eyebrows.
So we three ladies are in the elevator, riding back up to the suite, and an older couple – perhaps late-sixties – get on with us. They were both all dressed up, obviously coming from some social event, and something about the lady’s expression reminded me of one of my great-aunts – the one who was essentially a kind person, but sometimes a trifle querulous.
Perhaps it was the reminder of dealing with older relatives that made me say to them, “Careful, this elevator’s been bouncing a little when it’s stopped, don’t trip.”
Just being a good citizen, you know? But Candy and Jae took my remark as a cue to begin bantering with the man in a manner that one might call flirtatious.
He looked mildly startled but pleased. His wife’s face suggested that she didn’t know quite what to think about these oddly dressed and chatty strangers, but that given some time, she might work up to being displeased by them.
This was not exactly my idea of being low-profile, but, luckily even a quaint old elevator like the Fairmont’s doesn’t take long to get up seven floors. The couple were going on up, and I breathed a small sigh of relief as Candy and I got off the elevator, with Jae a few steps behind us, saying a polite goodnight to them like the former debutante that she is.
And the woman calls out, in a half-sweet, half-suspicious voice, “Are you three orthodontist-girls?”
Now, the first thought that went through my mind was: what exactly would an orthodontist-girl be? A female orthodontist? Oh, wow, that’s real feminist of you, lady. Gloria Steinem thanks you.
Or maybe she means orthodontist’s assistants. I didn’t know what such a person’s correct title would be. Neither did she, apparently.
But, while I am sure there are some very tarty, kinky-looking people who work in orthodontist’s offices in all capacities, my strongest reaction was: lady, do we fucking look like orthodontists?
However, I would not dream of saying such a thing to a blue-haired, pearl-wearing, great-aunt-ish lady. My Southern upbringing would never permit it.
So I turned around to civilly decline any connection with the tooth-straightening industry. Candy, however, is a woman of fewer words. She gave short laugh and a broad, dismissive wave of one hand, and sang out clearly, “Oh, hell no!” Then she turned and stalked off down the pastel blue hallway in her black and white faux fur coat, like Cruella DeVille gone vegetarian.
I was at the wrong angle, but I caught just enough of a glimpse of the woman’s face to decide that I would follow Candy, abandoning Jae, who stammered something about Tourette’s Syndrone as the elevator doors closed on the outraged lady.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe you said that!” I was laughing so hard Candy had to grab my arm to keep me from stumbling.
Jae caught up with us. She was laughing too, in that horrified way one does when one sees a sacred cow – Always be respectful of your elders – tipped over into the mud. “Jesus, you should have seen her, her eyes got big and her lips got all mad and tight, and her chin started quivering like a bobble-head doll.”
We reached the suite. Jae and I collapsed onto the couch, giggling madly. Candy looked slightly abashed.
“I didn’t really think about it,” she said, biting her lip. “I didn’t mean to be rude, it just - came out.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s probably good that you didn’t say something like: “Hell no, we’re not orthodontist-girls, we’re a bunch of perverted harlots, and we’re going to go stick needles through this guy’s nipples, you wanna watch?”
That made Candy laugh, too. “Yeah, well, that’s sort of what I was thinking. Only not the wanna-watch part.”
So if you’re a lady of mature years who had an encounter with three wild women at the Fairmont this weekend: Sorry, we didn’t mean to be rude. Want us to stick needles in your nipples to make up for it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unsolicited, Indeed: A Letter From Professor Patti Adler

Wow, did I get a weird email today. 

First, quick backstory: Professor Patti Adler is a professor of sociology at University of Colorado Boulder. Last year, a class she teaches about prostitution came under fire. There were conflicting reports about her being fired or leaving voluntarily, but it seemed she had left. Then, she came back. (Or maybe she never really left, it’s unclear to me.)

Adler, who called the class "the highlight of the semester in my signature course," described what goes on during the prostitution lecture: Professor Adler has some of her teaching assistants (who are undergraduates) dress up as various kinds of prostitutes -- she named as categories "slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services." They work with Adler on scripts in which they describe their lives as these types of prostitutes.

During the lecture, Adler talks with them (meaning: the teaching assistants, in character) about such issues as their backgrounds, "how they got into the business," how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS. The class is a mix of lecture and discussion, just like most classes, she said.

So basically she has student dress up in sexy outfits and stand up in front of the class and recite stories she teaches them about sex work. Presumably the students can also ask questions, which the students-pretending-to-be-sexworkers will answer, based on the information Professor Adler has taught them.

My impression, based on reading the stories about it, was that this was really not cool. Professor Adler’s list of sex worker social groups sounds extremely dated at best, and hardly academic at all. Her repetition of the word whore is offensive. And having student dress up in costumes and talk about what types of sex their character has is clearly a titillating feature that has no place in a classroom. 

But the real point is: there are real sex workers who could speak about their lives, but are not permitted to. I myself have visited college classes and talked about being a sex worker. Having a guest come and speak to a class on this subject is very much a thing that can be done – if the professor wishes it. Professor Adler apparently does not want actual sex workers to speak in her class, she only wishes to have her students say what she tells them to say. 

I guarantee you that a lot of sex workers have had to sit in that class and watch all that. I myself have sat in college classroom and seethed as professors lectured the most arrant nonsense about my life. I cannot imagine how I’d feel if I had to watch a bunch of not-sex-workers dress up and play-act little skits about being me, and see that be represented as a college-level of education about sex work. I was glad she wasn’t going to teach it any more.

So that’s backstory. Today, out of nowhere, I got this email. And wow, do I have a lot of thoughts about this. I’m framing them, but in the meantime, feel free to reply to me on Twitter. 

Mistress Matisse,
Leonard says you might be open to giving me some help with my skit this semester. I’ve only gotten a 1-semester reprieve, and then I have to go, but I’d like to be more sensitive than I might have been and make sure I don’t insult or misrepresent anybody. I can’t have people come to my class because the class is really not about prostitution, it’s about deviant subcultures, and I use the example of prostitution to illustrate a stratification hierarchy. Many college students have only one image when they think about prostitutes and that’s probably a streetwalker, but I used a dozen people to come down and be interviewed by me starting with the slave role, the crack-addicted role, the streetwalker (male/female/pimp), women who frequent bars to pick up customers, brothels, and escort services. With that many people I can only give about 3 minutes to each and I ask most people the same basic things:
What’s your family background, your educational background, how did you get into what you’re doing now, what do you do and how much do you charge, what’s your risk of violence/arrest/disease, and what are your future prospects.
Might you be willing to give me some feedback on a particular stratum or two? Can you tell me what your area of expertise is?
Respectfully yours,
Patti Adler

From: Leonard Fahrni []
Sent: Friday, January 24, 2014 9:04 PM
Subject: some unsolicited advice
Hello Dr. Adler
I am a CU alum and I teach Math and Science classes at Metro State in Denver. I followed with some interest your brief notoriety and I am glad to see that you have been reinstated. I wrote a letter of support to president Benson and I'm sure my effort did very little to tip the scales in your favor. I was just so outraged at what looked like an attempt to censor your academic freedom that I had to vent. In full disclosure, Bronson Hilliard and I played on the same team in the CU trivia bowl in the 90s and I got him to help me direct my letter.
My unsolicited advice comes from my reading of an unusual group of authors on Twitter. I'm sure @mistressmatisse and @Maggie_McNeill don't represent the opinions of the entire sex worker community, but they both criticized you based on the assumption that people who are actual sex-workers need to have a voice in any discussion of them. I think that point has some validity. I also think either of them would be glad to share their experiences and knowledge with you. I am almost certain that a letter from you would totally floor them, so it might be worth a look just for that. Maggie mentions you in her blog here and can be contacted at; You can take a look at my contentious discussion with Mistress Matisse on Twitter on last December 16
here's an excerpt, where I claimed you were fired for the content of your class (Bronson and Phil DiStephano both said you weren't "fired" and I guess you weren't after all) I suggested that it would have been cool if she had been a guest in your class and she agreed with me there.
mistressmatisse ‏@mistressmatisse Dec 16 @LeonardFahrni I've been to lot of college classes where I talked about being a sex worker, and no one got fired. Because everyone involved was respectful.
Leonard Fahrni ‏@LeonardFahrni Dec 16 @mistressmatisse This one did, no matter what the administration claims. Too bad, she should invite you to speak.
mistressmatisse ‏@mistressmatisse Dec 16 @LeonardFahrni I would have. But there are lots of cool, smart sex workers in Denver. Some of them may have been students in those classes.
She can apparently be contacted at
Thanks for taking the time to look at this mess. I admire the fact that you are able to generate such long term interest for your class. I mostly teach service classes like Business Calculus or classes for Education majors. In the latter, I am always doing anything to get them to show a little independent thought. I tell them to question authority and it is always a disappointment that more of them don't see the irony in that statement coming from a person in my position.
Have a great semester
Leonard Fahrni
CU class of 77, 79, 88, 97, 05 and 10 (so far)