Consider two possible headlines about the same crime:
•Hooker killed in alley
•Mother of two found dead
Which one do you care about more?
Leslie Jeffrey is certain it’s the second.
“As humans, we are language-focused,” says the UNB Saint John political science professor. “We label things. And we label them good or bad. And that’s what gives us licence to act or not act.”
Jeffrey is right. It’s all garbage, but we treat recyclables with more care than trash. They’re both cars, but Jaguars garner more attention than Hyundais. And most people respond differently to a headline about a murdered “mother” or “sister” than one about a “prostitute” or a “whore.”
“Those old labels are heavily loaded with negativity and marginalization,” says Jeffrey, co-author of the 2006 book, Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back. “They are all ways we say that these women are bad.”
That’s why Jeffrey says we should use the terms “sex work” and “sex worker,” instead of other not-always-considered-pejorative pejoratives in our everyday speech.
The term “sex work,” she argues, moves away from the realms of legality and morality to the world of economics. It steers the discussion away from whether sex work is right or wrong, and away from the law, toward the real way most sex workers see their trade — as work. “Good managers, bad managers, well paid, not well paid — it’s a job.”
Sex work is an increasingly common term in the global south, Jeffrey says, because there the work is seen more in the context of poverty and economic survival.
In the Maritimes, we’re still mired in morals and stigma.
Jeffrey tosses out the imaginary “Hooker killed in alley” headline example.
“It sets up the audience to not care,” she says.
It sends the message that “these women or men don’t matter. So if they are killed, we aren’t going to investigate. I am not going to go to the police and say this is horrible and call up my radio station and demand that people do something. Because what I just heard was: ‘This person who was looking to die, because they were a bad person, died.’”
That message begets stigma and violence.
(And those are no small issues in the sex trade. Halifax sex work advocacy and outreach organization Stepping Stone is so stretched in its efforts to support current and former sex workers — running a drop-in centre, compiling a bad date list, doing food and clothing bank referrals and co-ordinating housing and court support — the board eliminated its executive director position this week so that salary could go into programming.)
“(Sex workers) see and hear themselves being talked about (negatively),” Jeffrey says, “and they know it will mean people will feel comfortable treating them with disrespect and even violence.”
But can words make a difference?
“Look at all the powerful social justice movements we have had in the last 40 or 50 years,” Jeffrey says. “They have all revolved around changing the language.”
We have seen it in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement.
“It seems at first that you’re just changing labels,” Jeffrey says. “But what we see, and what psychologists have told us, and linguists have told us, and social scientists have told us, is that human society works on language and labelling. How we understand something is how we act toward it. It is enormously powerful.”
To make “hooker” synonymous with “human,” then, perhaps means doing away with that label, and others like it, altogether.
“Changing the language,” Jeffrey says, “is the first step.”