Word choice matters: ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’ in The Hoopla


The Hoopla is an online news and commentary magazine for an audience of politically engaged and ‘predominantly older’ women (Bodey, 2013).  Recently it has published a couple of pieces on sex work that troubled me and I challenged its editor, political journalist and comedian Wendy Harmer, to reconsider its implicit stance against sex work as a profession.  ‘That’s bullshit, Daniel’, she wrote in reply, ‘the Hoopla canvasses all opinions, do a cursory search, you’ll find them.’

The site is notable in the Australian publishing sector for paying its writers, and it has the best paywall in the business — really low friction and a reasonably priced day pass at 99c per day.  The Age and Black Inc, if you’re reading this, nota bene!  So I took Wendy up on her invitation and used the search tool to undertake a quick and dirty content analysis of its articles.

Content analysis is a methodology “by which the researcher seeks to determine the manifest content of written, spoken or published communications by systematic, objective and quantitative analysis” (Zito 1975, p73).  It assumes that patterns in the subject matter reflect the attitudes of the people who create it (Berger, 1998, p23).

These days, the language around “systematic, objective and quantitative” sounds a bit quaint — most researchers are more likely to acknowledge that we bring perspectives and commitments of our own to the analysis, and that textual material is capable of being read in multiple ways, although these readings are themselves patterned by power relations and ideology.

As a writer and researcher around stigma and sexual health I have a particular concern for the way stigma operates to normalise discrimination and inequity in legislation regarding members of marginalised groups (Parker & Aggleton, 2003).

The Lancet shares that concern: in a special edition launched at the AIDS2014 conference in Melbourne, it published a series of studies supporting full decriminalisation of sex work as the best approach to promote the health and wellbeing of both sex workers and their clients.

As then-Prof (now Justice) Marcia Neave found in her inquiry into Victorian laws against sex work in the 1990s, criminalising sex work makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and extortion by both clients and police.

The same dynamic is found in laws criminalising sex between men: if consensual sex is illegal, and you are beaten up or blackmailed in connection with it, you can’t seek help from the police without making an admission of criminal wrongdoing.

In places where the law prohibits purchasing sexual services, as it does in many American states and Nordic countries, it creates an incentive for clients to drive with sex workers to places where police are few and far — an unsafe environment for workers if the client turns violent.

Laws that prohibit making any kind of a profit from another person selling sexual services also tend to apply to managers, cleaners and security staff.  The presence of ‘pimps’ and protection rackets is more likely when it is not possible to treat sex work as a legitimate business with all the administrative, security and occupational health and safety overhead support.

Finally, criminalising sex work creates a bigger ‘haystack’ in which to find the needle of people being trafficked.  This is one reason why Denmark, which decriminalised sex work in 1999, apparently finds four times as many trafficked people than Sweden, which has a much larger population and criminalises the purchase of sex.

I got that last factoid from an article by Gabrielle Jackson in The Hoopla (2/9/14) titled “The real cost of selling sex”, but I used my training in epidemiology to flip it around: more reported cases doesn’t mean Denmark has a worse trafficking problem; it could actually mean they’re better at finding trafficking cases.  (For the same reason, you can’t look at an increase in HIV diagnoses and ‘read off from the numbers’ what it means for rates of new infections.)

In her book Sex and the Margins (2007) Laura Agustin points out the many reasons why it’s tricky to nail down hard facts about so-called ‘trafficking’.  So hard, in fact, that the main index on trafficking actually measures worldwide media reports on the issue, rather than any primary data source on persons found to have been trafficked.  In due course, Jackson’s article and the many, many others like it — articles reporting on other articles — will be taken as proof that trafficking is on the increase.


Every time a journalist and her editor write about sex work on The Hoopla, they make word choices that reveal underlying attitudes and value judgments towards that topic.

I’m using a tactic I developed in my work around ‘sexual racism’ in the gay community, where many people argued that saying “No Asians” in their profile simply reflected a diversity of opinion their preferences for a particular body type.

Since it costs literally nothing to choose a more neutral phrase (“Prefer white men”) over the other (“No Asians”), I conclude they must have intended the negative judgment implicit in the latter, even if they don’t admit it to themselves.

I use market theory a lot in my work on sexual racism and in technical terms this is the linguistic equivalent of “revealed preferences” in the economic analysis of purchasing behaviour.  Yep, word choices are purchases: they buy different amounts of grief from different audiences with different material and symbolic interests in the subject.

In the analysis that follows I’m looking at patterns in the word choices made by The Hoopla in its coverage of sex work.  Given that it has multiple writers, I want to know what its average way of describing sex work is, as well as the range of different stances it takes on sex work, as signalled by those word choices.

I do this by counting the word choices: sex work or worker vs. prostitute (noun or verb) or prostitution, taking care to differentiate between authors using a term themselves vs. quoting an interviewee or secondary text using the term.  I created a spreadsheet where you can view how I coded the articles and the key quotes from each one.  I used the search tool available on TheHoopla.com.au with a 99c day pass and I coded every article it returned.

In particular, from a semantic perspective I’m interested in what differences do their writers observe between sex work and other practices like trafficking, child abuse, and rape? — given that many anti-sex work advocates like Kajsa Ekis Ekman argue there is an essential continuity between paid sex work and human trafficking since, in their view, humans are ‘bought and sold’ in both.  This analysis is inherently more open ended than the quantitative analysis of word choices; reasonable people could disagree on the interpretation so I spell it out here and I welcome constructive responses in the comments below.


Word choices

I found 45 articles making a word choice between ‘sex work’ or ‘prostitution’.

  • In three articles (7%) the author used ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ exclusively.
  • In one article (2%) the author quoted someone using ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ exclusively.
  • In nine articles (20%) the author used both ‘sex work/er’ and ‘prostitute’ or ‘prostitution’.
  • In six articles (13%) the author quoted someone using ‘prostitute’ or ‘prostitution’ exclusively.
  • In 26 articles (58%) the author used ‘prostitute’ or ‘prostitution’ exclusively.

Takehome: these numbers do not support Wendy Harmer’s view that The Hoopla canvasses diverse opinions on sex work.  By an overwhelming majority, the articles on The Hoopla represent sex work as prostitution.  This is discussed further below.

Two articles either by or featuring Gabrielle Jackson went full flush: the author used and quoted people using both forms.

Themes and differences

1) Dead prostitutes as entertainment for The Hoopla‘s readership

In my tweet about ‘rough cut results’ last night I drastically undercounted the number of times the site mentions ‘prostitutes’.  I thought there was something hinky about the search function; it was returning a whole bunch of book reviews in error.

Turns out… not an error.  Eleven results for ‘prostitute’ were for synopses of novels reviewed by Meredith Jaffe, who might just need PTSD counselling by now.  Have a read and see if you can spot the theme.

“In the Newgate prison, four young women are allied by their need for friendship and protection in a world where life is fragile and, if no one is there to watch you back, it’s short as well. Loud, brave prostitute Friday Woolfe is their protector.”
“Bestselling, award-winning mother/daughter writing team P.J. and Traci Lambrecht aka P.J. Tracy are back with another nail-biting thriller, Two Evils. A group of young Native American girls are abducted from their reservation, fresh fodder for under-aged prostitution.”
“A suburban madam is found dead in her car supposedly having committed suicide and a few suburbs away, Heloise Lewis has more than a passing interest in the woman’s death. Heloise is very careful about blending in. As far as her neighbours are concerned, Heloise is just another suburban mum, a young widow who works as a lobbyist for pay equity for women. No one knows that Heloise is also a suburban madam, she’s just a lot more careful about how she runs her business than the dead prostitute.”
“In the late 18th century in the south of India, a daughter Maya is born into a family of devadasi, the temple dancers who are married to Shiva and thus regarded as a higher caste even as the priests and brokers prostitute them to wealthy patrons.”
“Because she is the daughter of the town prostitute, she does not seem to be an especially valued resident, and many of the locals are dismissive of what has happened.”
“Into their circle enters a stranger, the Scottish lawyer Walter Moody, himself travelling under a false name and escaping a past that has transpired to follow him. At question is a murder, a prostitute found half dead on the road to Arahura, a missing trunk, a stolen identity and the whereabouts of one Emery Staines, a wealthy gold digger cum business man.”
“At question is a murder, a prostitute found half dead on the road to Arahura, a missing trunk, a stolen identity and the whereabouts of one Emery Staines, a wealthy gold digger cum business man.” / “On the Gulf Coast of Texas after the American Civil War, a prostitute called Lucinda steals out of the bordello in which she has been a virtual prisoner, and sets course for Middle Bayou.”
“Some weeks after Angie’s death, a girl was found dead in Kings Cross, killed in the same manner. Kelly was a homeless teenage prostitute, a heroin addict and there was nothing to link the two murders except the killer’s use of a scarf tied in a distinctive manner. But Erin knows the murders are connected and she is determined to find out which member of Jane’s family holds the secret.”
“Jade’s mother is a drug addicted prostitute and when she dies of an overdose, it is Banjo’s family that takes the wild teenage orphan in.”
“The wealthy and powerful Cavanagh family has put a price on Mak’s head. She asked too many questions about the dead Thai girl found in a dumpster and the Cavanagh heir Damien’s involvement in the illegal, under aged prostitute’s death. “
“But when prostitute Jane Delaney turns up in the morgue murdered and detectives Butch Bonnie and Rick Landry identify her as Lucy Bennett, Amanda and Evelyn decide to risk their almost non-existent careers and investigate the crime.”

Prostitute. Dead prostitute. Half dead prostitute. Underaged prostitute. Prostitute on the run. Missing daughter of town prostitute. Homeless teenage heroin addicted dead prostitute.

Seems The Hoopla are plenty happy to recommend as light entertainment a book in which a dead prostitute is a plot device.

More seriously, all of these hackneyed plots reinforce a single Judeo-Christian moral: the wages of sin is death.

2) Blurred lines

Articles in The Hoopla repeatedly fail to distinguish between sex work — sex between consenting adults for money — and rape of children or adults.  There’s something particularly obscene in referring to ‘underaged sex work’.  That’s child rape.  Likewise, ‘forced sex work’ is multiple rape.  Examples include:

“They talk candidly – *intimately* – to camera about their issues of the moment: getting married, having a baby, graduating from school, being forced into prostitution, living with violent oppression.” and “In Cambodia, child prostitution, in the projects of New York, drugs and gang violence, in Sydney, the lure of suicide.” (The Hoopla, 30 Aug 13, “I am a girl. I need to be seen.”).

“Bestselling, award-winning mother/daughter writing team P.J. and Traci Lambrecht aka P.J. Tracy are back with another nail-biting thriller, Two Evils. A group of young Native American girls are abducted from their reservation, fresh fodder for under-aged prostitution.” (Meredith Jaffe, 1 Feb 13, “January’s top 5 Aussie books”).

“In the late 18th century in the south of India, a daughter Maya is born into a family of devadasi, the temple dancers who are married to Shiva and thus regarded as a higher caste even as the priests and brokers prostitute them to wealthy patrons.” (Meredith Jaffe, 28 Jun 13, “The silent book club”).

‘Just like the Australian man who married a woman from Iraq and brought her back with the promise a “new life”. “When she came to Australia she was locked up in a hotel room and the husband then started bringing his friends and acquaintances and forcing his newly acquired wife into sexual servitude, into prostitution.”’ (Antoinette Lattouf, 25 Oct 13, “No say in her future”).

One quote in particular demonstrates the conceptual slippage that occurs when anti-sex work advocates paint consensual sex work and sexual slavery with the same brush:

“Would women choose sex work if they had well-paying options with real work flexibility? It is difficult to think about sex workers in the west without thinking about sex work in developing countries, and how many girls and women are traded/forced/raped/abused sexually. Often, for them, being in the sex industry isn’t a choice.” (Catherine Walsh, 18 April 2014, “Should we turn off the red light?”)

In fact, at the recent International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, a sex worker from Africa said in a plenary, “please stop buying me sewing machines. I could afford to buy ten sewing machines — if I cared to get paid $3/hour.”  For many women, sex work is the well-paying option with real work flexibility.  

But the author quickly skates away from her own question to raise the more emotive issue of “girls and women (who) are traded/forced/raped/abused sexually”.  When emotions are raised, our guard goes down, and perhaps we don’t notice that a paragraph that begins talking about “sex work” ends with “being in the sex industry isn’t a choice” for some women.

It matters to use terminology that recognises a difference between sex work and rape or trafficking. For many people who support decriminalising sex work, a key reason is that it makes it easier to spot illegal practices. Research shows that when sex work is not illegal in its own right, male clients of sex workers actively participate in reporting suspected coercive practices.

Lastly, I’d note that all five quotes above concern non-white women being forced into sexual slavery.  There is absolutely zero demand for narratives about a highschool teacher in California who has been sacked and now lives on minimum wage because she has a rap sheet for an arrest for soliciting, even though she was never tried or convicted.  

On the other hand, there is so much demand for narratives that tug at the heart strings and feed into White Saviour Complex, they have led to moral entrepreneurs like Somaly Mam creating the narratives and coaching people to recite them for Oprah.  This is an example of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story” about the developing world.

3) Prostitution as pejorative

Another article by Meredith Jaffe (12/10/12, “The Hoopla Literary Society”) talks about how a publisher loses its $500K advance when Julian Assange decides not to go ahead with a book deal, announcing “All memoir is prostitution”.

This illustrates the pejorative moral connotations of the word “prostitute”, which have their roots in Judeo-Christian morality, and underpin the argument of neo-conservative feminists like Kajsa Ekman and Gail Dines.  They express the idea that sex work is “selling the self”, rather than being paid for a skilled service for a particular period of time on terms and conditions. 

This is apparently a problem exclusive to sex work and not, say, working for a major law firm, or in immigration detention.

Further, in one of the quotes under (2) above, priests and brokers prostitute the temple dancers to wealthy patrons.  This points to the inherent ambiguity of saying ‘prostitution’ as opposed to ‘sex work’.  You can prostitute someone else to a third party; the term is inherently transitive. 

Sex work is by definition paid and consensual.  If the sex is not consensual, it isn’t work, it’s rape.  The concept of work comes with expectations around free agreement to a contract, a fair wage and safe working conditions, all of which can and are currently protected for sex workers by the institutions of workplace relations and occupational health and safety.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to read this by Caroline Baum:

“Whether you call that semantics or simply rebranding it’s a bit like prostitutes calling themselves sex workers. It’s true, but it’s not the whole story.” (17 July 2012, “Don’t dance at my funeral”).

Also, frankly, I call it a bit weird, in an article about funeral arrangements.  


The results and discussion here suggest The Hoopla needs to have a think about how it talks about sex workers.

Calling sex work prostitution is at best hopelessly loaded and ambiguous.  At worst, proposals to criminalise it smoosh together sex work and rape/slavery — as if sexual consent didn’t make a difference between them.  That might make sense in some neo-conservative feminism informed by Judeo-Christian values that see a sex worker as a ruined woman, but it doesn’t make any kind of sense within progressive, sex-positive feminism — the kind I was brought up to practice and believe in.

I’ll leave it there.  Please feel free to leave constructive responses in the comments section below.  

5 thoughts on “Word choice matters: ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’ in The Hoopla”

  1. Great article. I am an escort and I always take offence to being called a prostitute, as to me that implies that I am willing to sell my morals and ethics for money. Something which is most definitely not the case. If we are going to make any headway in tackling institutionalised discrimination I agree that it is important to look at the discourse around sex work in online media publications and analyse/ critique how the sex worker and sex work is portrayed. We are consistently portrayed as people with little power or value, the trash of society or victims of crime and violence. From my experience sex workers are just normal people. We don’t need rescuing from a life of sin and debauchery. I am having a great old time thank you. I get to choose my hours, I get paid well to travel and make people feel good. It fits around my other commitments to family and study. Yet I have to constantly lie to people about my occupation, knowing that they will not be able to see me anymore because they will be so blinded by the stigma.

  2. Great analysis, Daniel, and I look forward to Wendy Harmer’s response. I am really hoping that she gets your point and uses her power as editor to tighten up the way sex workers and sex work are represented in The Hoopla. I see her as open-minded and respectful of difference and her reaction will be an indication of the accuracy or otherwise of my belief.

    More evidence to support the poor accuracy of figures of trafficking is in Elizabeth Pisani’s annecdote in the Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk where she described helping some Chinese women (who she met on a plane coming to make their fortune in East Timor) fill out their paperwork. Later someone said “I heard evidence of trafficking; a white woman was with Chinese sex workers and looking after their paperwork”.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and consistent encouragement, Linda. I know that story Elizabeth tells, it’s a good yarn, she tells it in The Wisdom of Whores as well. 😉

  3. I don’t think it’s about words mostly… I mean you can whitewash the whole industry and start using other names but the reality behind it is still there. Anyway you should most def read kajsa Ekis’ book on the topic because the analysis of prostitution and trafficking she puts forth in there is not as simple as you state it, that people are bought and sold in both. It’s a very interesting read!

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