"Whorephobia": Why Are People Scared of Sex Workers?
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Whorephobia can be defined as the fear or the hate of sex workers. Sex workers like me would argue that it also embraces paternalistic attitudes that deem us a public nuisance, spreaders of disease, offenders against decency or unskilled victims who don't know what is good for them and who need to be rescued.
In its most violent form, whorephobia kills. Sex workers are far more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population: the recent killings in Bradford are the most recent and saddening example. However, it would be a mistake to think that sex workers are the only targets of these murderers. Attackers often target sex workers because they look like easier prey. Sometimes it is only once a non-sex worker is killed that the police take an investigation seriously. Until sex workers are safe, no woman is safe.
If men are the ones who attack physically, women are sometimes more prejudiced than men against sex workers. In most languages, the most common sexist insults are "whore" or "slut", which makes women want to distance themselves from the stigma associated with those words, and from those who incarnate it. The "whore stigma" is a way to control women and to limit their autonomy – whether it is economic, sexual, professional, or simply freedom of movement.
Women are brought up to think of sex workers as "bad women". It prevents them from copying and taking advantage of the freedoms sex workers fight for, like the occupation of nocturnal and public spaces, or how to impose a sexual contract in which conditions have to be negotiated and respected. Whorephobia operates as a way of controlling and policing women's behaviour, just as homophobia does for men.
One solution could be to reclaim the insults. Yet the English Collective of Prostitutes was criticised by the rest of the feminist movement in the 1970s for its slogan: "All women are prostitutes." It was indeed misunderstood – despite being a beautiful effort to unite sex workers and other women and to identify them as similarly oppressed and sexually and economically exploited.
The first step in the fight against whorephobia is to name the oppression. Feminist theories help to identify it as at the intersection of gender, class and sexuality. A further step would be to fight the hate crimes sex workers suffer instead of criminalising us. The work of Shelly Stoops in Liverpool is a good example: her Armistead Street outreach project and collaboration with the Merseyside police have helped to build trust between officers and sex workers, who feel now able to report crimes.