Katie Bloomquist, Vice President SWOP-USA and Eric Sprankle, PsyD


Sex work stigma is well-documented (e.g., Koken, 2012), and one effort among the multidisciplinary and intersectional sex workers’ rights movement is to correct stigmatizing language used in the media when reporting on sex workers (Schulte & Hammes, 2017). This multi-phase project examined the impact and importance of sex worker-related language use.

The Study

In Phase 1, 363 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of seven conditions (sex worker, prostitute, escort, dominatrix, stripper, prostituted woman, social worker, woman). The participants read a news article detailing a sexual assault on a person with one of the aforementioned labels. After reading, participants completed the Victim Empathy Scale.

Phase 2 included an international sample of more than 200 current sex workers recruited via social media. Participants provided their level of preference for words used in the media to describe sex workers. Participants were provided forced-choice responses which aligned with Phase 1, as well as write-in options.

The Results

  • Phase 1 indicated undergraduate student participants assigned to one of the five sex worker conditions expressed significantly less victim empathy and more victim blame than those assigned to the non sex worker conditions. However, there was no significant difference in ratings between the sex worker conditions.
  • This contrasted with the results of Phase 2 where current sex worker participants had a significantly higher preference for the term sex worker than prostitute and prostituted woman to be used in the media to describe sex workers (obviously).

The Implications

  • The results provide data to back up what we already know – the existence of sex work stigma. However, results also suggest that specific words used to describe sex workers in the media do not change stigmatizing attitudes towards sex workers by non sex workers.
  • Additionally, sex workers in our study expressed a strong preference for particular words to be used by the media when discussing sex work.
  • Using non-preferred language is a micro-aggression when used against a marginalized community. While using preferred language can be important (and feel important) it unfortunately does not eliminate prejudicial attitudes against sex workers.
  • In order to reconcile the difference between the two , it’s important to understand how language will not change the material reality of how sex workers are treated by others and experience stigma, but can be used as a collective identity for the social movement.
  • Sex worker participants in the study indicated 187 different labels used to describe their identity working in the sex industry. The most common examples were: provider, courtesan, and companion. The term sex worker is a collective political identity, which may be fragmented by multiple specific identities, thus serving as a barrier to collective movement.
  • Of special note, 74% of sex workers in our study identified as members of the LGBTQIA+ community –  this confirms what we already knew about sex workers being an incredibly sexually diverse group of people. This number highlights the fact that sex workers’ rights are intersectional with other social movements, particularly LGBTQIA+ rights.