#20yrsEndDemand: A reflection on language

In summer 1998 the General Assembly of the European Women’s Lobby passed a landmark motion, where we affirmed that “prostitution and trafficking in women constitute a fundamental violation of women’s human rights”. Since that time, we have continued to assert that no woman should be faced with such a lack of financial choice that she must risk her safety, wellbeing and long-term health for survival. To mark this 20 years of an abolitionist stance on prostitution, we are highlighting the actions of our movement at international and national levels, including our secretariat, members, and former colleagues who played key roles in our campaigning. Follow #20yrsEndDemand online and join the conversation.

Abolitionists around the world are fully aware of the importance of language in prostitution. We understand the danger of abhorrent expressions like the infamous “sex work” and we realise that by refining the terms on prostitution, we can foster changes in mentalities among ever larger segments of society. However, despite the appearances we are not isolated particles hovering above society and for us too it is quite difficult to detangle from linguistic errors.

The biggest lie of prostitution (if one could ever come up with such a hierarchy since there are so many lies) is that prostitution is sex. Time and again, feminists have proved that prostitution is rape. Sex, understood both as genitalia and the relation, can never be bought, sold or exchanged like a pack of oranges as Kajsa Ekis Ekman might say. You cannot remove your vagina from yourself nor can you charge a relationship: what is left of a friendship that is bought (Ekman, 2010)? The purchase of consent is the proof of its absence. All is left is constraint and a constrained sexual penetration is, as we know it but are sometimes too shy to say, rape (Bouvet, Mellul, 2018).

From this, why are we still talking of the “sex trade”? Prostitution is rape. Then we might want to say the “rape trade”. What is sought is vulnerability, possession, domination. Nothing to do with sex. The more we qualify breaches of women and girls’ intimacy as “sex”, the more we contribute to the pro-prostitution agenda and the further we place ourselves from a renewed understanding of sex, one characterised by an equal relation and not a hierarchy as it seems to be the case today.

Now, the problem remains that in many countries, rape is defined by a penetration. Thus, in “rape trade” we could not include practices such as pole or lap dancing. Moreover, if one cannot exchange “sex”, then surely one cannot exchange “rape”, no matter how relevant the term is for prostitution. In this case, perhaps, “the trade of women and girls” would constitute a further precision. The movement for the elimination of prostitution is called “abolition” because of the understanding of prostitution as a form of slavery after all. By combining humans (women and girls belong to this category as crazy as that sounds) to commerce we can pinpoint the ongoing dehumanisation of prostitution. At this point, I myself have not been able to come up with a more appropriate expression to “sex trade”, but I do believe that “sex” ought to be progressively eradicated from the abolitionist vocabulary.

Hence, my endless irritation at the expression “sex buyer” or “men who buy sex”. Again, sex cannot be bought/sold. Prostitution is “paid rape” as puts it Catharine MacKinnon. So why “sex buyer”? The expression is plain wrong. There are already expressions to designate the men in prostitution: “prostitutor” as Gunilla Ekberg puts it (Ekberg, 2003). Prostitution only comes into existence through a duo. We understand it for certain professions: teacher-student, doctor-patient. If we don’t say “prostitutor-prostituted”, there still remains a question mark on the demand side. The more we vehicle the mirrored nature of prostitution in our terminology, the more we can insist on the idea that prostitution can never ever be a choice. Even if you as a woman, in such a hypothetical situation that even apocalypse scenario lovers would be baffled, “choose” to “prostitute”, you cannot do it unless a man chooses to prostitute you too (Arica, 2018). You might want to specify “male prostitutor”, but the term “sex buyer” is unacceptable in an abolitionist approach.

These very short comments are meant to spark a further reflection on our language highlighting some easily avoidable traps.

A contribution from Yagmur Arica, member of the European Network of Migrant Women, reflecting on the language we use when discussing prostitution.

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EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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