Recently I have found myself in trouble twice for my choice of words. The first time was for calling sex workers “prostitutes,” and the second time was for calling prostitutes “sex workers.” Frankly, I didn’t buy either of the arguments. The first person to chew me out objected to the word “prostitute” on the grounds that it is a name that was probably invented by “some man.” As a “professor” I find that kind of reasoning a little silly (perhaps I should be an “academic worker” to rid myself of that same stigma?). The second person who objected to “sex worker” felt it gave those workers too much respect—a line of reasoning I find, frankly, offensive.
Since then, I have stuck to using “sex worker” because I believe that reducing stigma towards workers in the sex trades is a worthy goal—and apparently the Chinese government agrees.
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced this week that while prostitution is illegal, the government feels the workers themselves deserve respect. In a move to achieve that, they are replacing the word for prostitute with a word that essentially means “women going astray.”
According the China Daily (which is the Chinese English language newspaper run by the government), the Ministry is implementing new programs that are aimed at helping women transition out of the profession, if they choose to, while at the same time protecting those women’s rights when it come to health and privacy. The idea is not to become more lenient when it comes to sex work—which is illegal and will stay that way—but to adopt a more sympathetic approach that will hopefully reduce the stigma attached to sex work, and to make more government services available to workers in the profession.
While advocates for sex workers in North America might find this approach a little patronizing, it is interesting to see a clearly market-driven intervention to solve a social program in a country that is still trying to figure markets out. But this is what I like about China; they are not afraid to tear down and rebuild from the ground up.
Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Asian sex workers are trafficked around the world each year. China’s problem with sex workers is not just a domestic issue. Policies that punish sex work in China are likely to increase sex trafficking out of that country. An effective policy that reduces sex work in China, by giving women viable alternatives, though, has the potential to benefit other the nations that have struggled to stem the tide of Chinese sex workers into their own countries.
I’ll let the China Daily have the final word the final word on their new approach:
Prostitution will never be eliminated in a society that refuses to acknowledge, much less discuss, the problem. While the Ministry of Public Security does not want to throw “women going astray” out of society, programs are needed to educate them to live with dignity.
This post originally appeared on my blog Dollars and Sex at Big Think.