Fear-Mongering, Whorephobia, and Anti-Trafficking Language

raquel savage trafficking whorephobia

This past month I gave three lectures to graduate and PhD-level counselors around competency and advocacy for Sex Workers. I’ve spent the majority of my career exclusively being in community with Sex Workers and those who explicitly support Sex Workers – I rarely engage with anti-SW people or people who are neutral around the subject of Sex Workers’ humanity. In my bubble, SW is awesome and nuanced and annoying and a job and loads of other things. And Sex Workers are entitled to safety and autonomy and humanity and rights. None of this is debated or questioned within my circle and, often, we spend more time talking about our job the way bank tellers or teachers might, as opposed to the validity of our personhood. Some days are good. Some days are bad. We work because we have to. We cash out, when we can.

Stepping (back) into academic spaces has popped my bubble, so to speak. These spaces aren’t heavily curated to support or affirm my existence or job choice and it’s a stark reminder why I’m committed to showing up authentically and advocating for SW’s every chance I get. Counselors, no different than anyone else, are brimming with whorephobia. They stay far away from Sex Workers and stand closely to the idea that we are forced into this work by gold chain-wearing pimps who smack us around if we refuse to give up our days’ worth of earnings. They believe Liam Neeson’s Taken is a direct lived experience of all of us and shiver at the thought of decriminalizing Sex Work, god forbid their daughters are stolen in alleyways and taken across the country into trafficking rings with no possibility of being found.

But unlike everyone else, counselors work directly with people, responsible for holding space and hands as clients unload their worries and provide guidance as people discover new insights about themselves, informing their (dys)functioning. Counselors have great impact and influence on people and are positioned as authorities when it comes to mental health and well-being. I shudder imagining their whorephobia seeping into sessions, showing up as “I know what’s best for you” lessons guised as counsel.

In my first lecture, I spoke about the differences between sex by choice, circumstance or coercion and, often, how there’s space for fluidity between the three. A hard sell. I included a section in my lesson about youth survival Sex Workers. My goal was to highlight the systemic issues that inform survival SW. Homophobia and transphobia. Capitalism. Racism. Immigration status. Elitism around degrees and certifications, much like the ones the students I was speaking to were working towards earning, that create obstacles for accessing other jobs. I said, “oppressive systems that create barriers are what we ought to contest, not Sex Work or Sex Workers, themselves.” I thought I was doing good and then the questions rolled in.


“Are you suggesting children choose Sex Work?”

“How do we help and protect these young girls?”

“Are you saying we shouldn’t report children who have sex for money?”


I wanted to be stunned but then I remembered my bubble is not reflective of the world. I asked, first, what prompted them to use the language “child” and “young girls” when I said youth. I then asked them how they understand systems of oppression and those as prerequisites for survival work. I asked what jobs they’ve worked and if they’ve ever hated their boss, if working has been something they wanted to do or needed to do in order to eat. I asked, “what’s coming up for you right now?” We ended up spending lots of time unpacking this and with little success. People were so wrapped up in their emotional responses of “saving children,” stolen girl-innocence, and Taken that they couldn’t unpack their luggage enough to humanize anyone in the sex industry. These future counselors will go on to do major damage to Sex Workers and civilians, alike.

A few months ago I saw a meme on a pro-consent Instagram page that underscored the importance of language and its usage around minors, sex and the sex industry.


“Child prostitute” Wrong.

Children can’t consent. They’re “rape victims” or “sexual assault survivors.”


I paused.


People so consumed by saviorism around children even though it’s performative and offers no actual savior or safety (or clarity). I commented under the post that this meme was a bit reductive and required more nuance and in came the fear. It didn’t help that I have “slut” in my bio; my assumption is, they believe I contribute to the issue by being a whore. I removed myself from that conversation. So, instead I write to you.

“Child prostitute” is a loaded phrase. Who are they referring to exactly and what is its utility? This is language of anti-trafficking orgs that use fear mongering to create a sense of urgency, so you’re fueled to donate. So you can’t say no. You must save those poor, Liam Neeson, white babies being gang raped by foreigners. The imagery. This is not reflective of the average experience of a trafficking victim nor is it a useful term that gives any direction to the goal of ending exploitation. In fact, the bulk of trafficking is around labor exploitation, not sex, but, of course, that is rarely discussed by big orgs because the end of labor trafficking would require dismantling capitalism and xenophobia – we’d be hard pressed to find orgs who intentionally misappropriate people’s money championing the end of cash-based dominance. So, sex trafficking is an easier sell.

 An inflation of the numbers by combining survival SW’s with trafficking victims creates the illusion of an even more rampant problem, desperate for your attention and funding. Anti-trafficking orgs and politicians have no desire to separate the two because, again, what they’re capitalizing off of is oppressive systems. Eradicating what informs survival Sex Work would be counterproductive to their goal (to exploit us all).

And “children.” Oh, the heart strings that word tugs on with great power to move you into submission. I mean, you have to save the children or you’re a bad person, right? Language is powerful and, in this case, intentional. It makes a difference to say children are being taken because then you imagine beautiful, white 6-year-olds instead of Black 17-year-olds displaced because of poverty, racism and transphobia. With no desire to erase the existence of literal children being trafficked, I very much so desire to amplify who truly reflects sex by circumstance and/or coercion. It’s not the former.

These counseling students were drowning in misinformation. Their identities hinged upon the patriarchal values that inform whorephobia and rape culture and make othering themselves from sluts a necessity to validate their own self-worth. We’re socialized to buy into it all and pretend we don’t know the harm it creates. There’s no incentive to comprehensively work toward competency and advocacy for Sex Workers when you don’t believe they should exit in the first place. And this doesn’t even begin to dig into who’s maintaining the existence of trafficking and circumstantial Sex Work – politicians, the rich and police. It’s too big a task to ask folks to lean towards abolition and “eat the rich” when they’re excited to rub shoulders with the elite. It’s a lose-lose.

The lives of those in the sex trade, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion, deserve humanity and gentleness and celebration and support. Counselors can’t offer that. So, the harm continues.


Raquel Savage

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