Euphemisms are dangerous

Ruthless people love euphemisms because they obscure the truth. So the inevitable and predictable deaths of civilians and the destruction of civil amenities in war are hidden behind the innocuous term “collateral damage” and genocide is hidden behind the bland “ethnic cleansing” and so on. Euphemisms are dangerous because they make it harder for us to see and understand the abuses of the powerful. And if we can’t see and understand something, we have no hope of resisting it.

But not only this. Euphemisms also make it easier for us to go along with something that we would know was wrong if it were named honestly. For example, it’s much easier to get a soldier to kill a member of a different community if they are told they are cleaning up society than if it were named correctly as murder.

“Sex work” and “sex worker”

“Sex work” and “sex worker” are euphemisms. These terms were first coined in the late 1970s and were taken up as part of a deliberate attempt to normalise and sanitise prostitution. By shifting the language from the word “prostitution” which is ugly and conjures up something of its reality, to “sex work” which sounds wholesome and healthy, it has become harder for us all to see and understand and resist the reality. The reality that prostitution is not simply another job like being a waitress.

Many people, including some of those in prostitution, think that using the terms “sex work” and “sex worker” will reduce the associated stigma and therefore make life better for the women concerned. Sadly euphemisms do not change the brutal reality. They just make it harder for us to understand it. So using these terms can actually make life more difficult for the women – because these terms suggest that there is something wrong with the women personally if they are not happy. Same old same old. If women aren’t happy with their oppression and subordination, it must be their fault.

There is a large international movement led by survivors of prostitution that asks that we do not use the “sex work” and “sex worker” terms for this very reason. Instead of “sex worker” they prefer the term “prostituted woman” in recognition of the forces that drive women into prostitution, whether those forces are people (pimps, traffickers and punters), our hypersexualised euphemism-laden culture, economic and social exclusion, or a combination of these factors.

“Child sexual exploitation

The success of the campaign to normalise and sanitise prostitution and rebrand it as work like any other that empowered workers use their “agency” to “choose” has meant that it has now become unacceptable to refer to child prostitution because this implies the child has chosen it. So they had to invent yet another euphemism – “child sexual exploitation”. This is unfortunate because it obscures the fact that this sexual exploitation is not simply the sexual abuse of children by one or two perpetrators (which would be awful enough) but the selling of the children to so-called “ordinary men” to sexually abuse – i.e. the pimping of children.

The media coverage of the many “child sexual exploitation” scandals in the UK has focused almost exclusively on the gangs of men who groomed the girls into prostitution and not on the “ordinary” men who bought the girls and who made the pimping of them so profitable (the going rate for a girl in Oxford was £500 per hour) and which was perhaps the main motivation in grooming the girls in the first place. If it had been named for what it was – the pimping and prostitution of children – the role of the punters would have been immediately clear and as a society we would have to look at ourselves more honestly. Because in what kind of society do “ordinary” men pay good money to sexually abuse children?

I answered phones in enough brothels to know the most common question is always “What is the youngest girl you’ve got?” – Rachel Moran

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