Why Is the Canadian Media Still Referring to Sex Workers as Prostitutes?
In many ways, Rob Ford is a gift to Canadian journalists, but that doesn't mean basic reporting ethics should be ignored. The term “prostitute” is outdated.
Rob Ford handling the media after telling the world he likes to smoke crack here and there. via Twitter.
Media organizations worldwide have been busy crucifying Rob Ford for his alleged crimes and intoxicated buffoonery—to which he has offered several, largely insincere apologies—but mainstream outlets in Canada have their own apology to make. They need to apologize for repeatedly presenting Ford’s crimes in conjunction with allegations of “prostitution,” a word they shouldn't even be using in the first place.
Having sex for money is not a crime in this country. Even though many activities associated with it remain illegal, having sex for money in this country is a job. Many people choose the line of work, and enjoy providing a much-needed service to their clients. Others wind up having sex for money out of necessity. Neither of these camps need to be further stigmatized, so why are journalists painting Ford’s alleged association with sex workers as a criminal act, when having sex for money has been legal in Canada since the 70s?
Every major mainstream media source in the city latched onto the “hanging out with suspected prostitutes” allegations. And in the coverage, they conflate law with ethics, sandwiching judgment of what they clearly see as Ford’s shoddy morals beside allegations of his crimes, which should be dealt with as two separate issues. Surprisingly, the Star used some of the worst language: in an article published last Wednesday, a reporter lumped “a hooker visiting city hall” in with “calling a taxi driver ‘Paki’” and “drinking and driving” in his lede. Are sex workers not allowed to visit city hall? Should they get back out on the street where they belong? And what makes someone a “suspected prostitute,” anyway? Fishnets?
I get that there are reasonable arguments to be made for being angry with Ford if he was, in fact, spending time with sex workers on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012. He is a married man, and his honesty, integrity, and general caliber of character could be called into question for being unfaithful to his now much embattled wife. And two: someone ostensibly so concerned with saving the public dime should likely not be having sex on it. Or—provided the allegations are true—on city hall furnishings. Fair enough. But that is a moral issue, not a legal one.
Another headline, posted four days ago on the National Post’s website, blares this accusation: “Rob Ford court documents reveal staffers thought prostitute was in his office, mayor was driving drunk.” Note that the presence of the prostitute is positioned before the drunk driving. Even our national broadcaster hopped on board: a CBC article says Ford was alleged to have “hung around with a suspected prostitute.”
The term “prostitute” is outdated. Following many years of misogyny and anti-sex attitudes, it has collected an unfortunate sheen of dishonour. It connotes an immoral, shameful way of life. Sex workers have been arguing this for quite a while, like this blogger, who chooses to remain anonymous, makes her living having sex, and is determined to reclaim the word “whore.”
“If you are referring to another sex worker, you should use sex work unless told otherwise,” she says. “Sex worker is the preferred language because it places sex work clearly as work. It doesn’t hold any connotations and it doesn’t make any judgments. It includes all of our community in all our diversity and shows respect to our stated wishes. Basically, you should call us sex workers because we said so, and you don’t need a better reason than that.”
The word "prostitute" is reductive to the point that it hisses when we say it aloud. Interestingly enough, when mainstream Canadian journalists needed to interview Terri-Jean Bedford of the now-infamous Bedford v Canada case, they used “sex worker” in their headlines. But now, given that Rob Ford’s story is salacious, they go right back to tawdry, outdated, dirty old terminology. This is a problem. By colouring sex work in this manner, journalists are only serving to further stigmatize a group which needs it least.
Aside from the crack scandal and the other alleged crimes surrounding it, members of the mainstream media have repeatedly lambasted Ford with numerous allegations of misogyny. As they should. The accusations range from domestic violence to the ass-grabbing of former mayoral candidate Sarah Thompson. But is it not hypocritical for them, then, to turn and sneer about so-called prostitutes visiting city hall?
Lizzie Smith, a research officer at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at La Trobe University, summed up the problem of chosen media terminology perfectly following the murder of Melbourne sex worker Tracy Connelly last summer:
“The term ‘prostitute’ does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of ‘knowledge’ about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health… When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.
This stigma is far-reaching and arguably does more damage to women who work in sex work than the actual work. This stigma feeds into understandings of women that are violence-supporting and referring to victims of violence as ‘prostitutes’ continues to ‘other’ these women…”
Issues with language aside, I do understand why people are angry about Ford fraternizing with sex workers. If he can’t keep a promise to his wife and be honest with her, what does that say about his relationship with the city? And how can Ford be saving the “taxpayers” money if he is allegedly on hot pursuit to get laid when he should be taking care of city business? These are fair arguments, but most of the coverage reeks of judgment for the company he keeps, rather than dissecting those points.
My concern here is that much of the reporting fails to separate sex work from criminal behaviour. Ford is the one to be blamed, but journalists come across as if they are directing blame at the sex workers themselves when they use hateful words like “hooker” and “prostitute.” To lump the act of engaging with a sex worker in beside rampant sprees of alleged, actual crime, is to enforce the moral purview of some onto the sensibilities of everyone else—and that is not the intended role of a journalist.
What I want to know is, why have Canadian journalists reverted to using “prostitute” in this case? Are they trying to further sensationalize a situation that is already an international circus, in order to gain a higher rate of readership? Did they skip sensitivity training? Or were they never offered sensitivity training?
Perhaps these journalists are simply just absorbing police lingo. The original court documents use the word “prostitution,” but the police also spell marijuana, “marihuana” in those same documents—so why should journalists use the same, comically outdated lexicon? When you use police lingo as a journalist, as opposed to dissecting the situation and using your own wording, you’re failing.
Ford may have committed a string of crimes. So far, he has admitted to crack cocaine use, drinking and driving, and purchasing illegal drugs during his tenure as mayor, among a litany of other grave blunders. None of these actions were laudable. But fraternizing with sex workers does not belong in that summary of crimes. The sex workers (provided they were actually sex workers) have done nothing wrong, legally or ethically, by being in Ford’s company on that fateful St. Patrick’s Day. Ford did something wrong from the ethical standpoint of some, in that he is a married man—but ethical judgments should not be stirred up in crime coverage.
In many ways, Rob Ford is a gift to the journalists of Toronto who now have an incredible amount of salacious material to work with—but the basics of good reporting should not fall by the wayside as a result. The public editors, or their equivalents, in the mainstream media need to offer up their own mea culpa for dragging a group of women into this conversation when they’re simply not a part of the problem. It would be a small, welcome victory in the midst of their regularly scheduled “Rob Ford is out of control” programming.