Sunday, April 29, 2012

a better word for "prostitute?" let's try "woman"

"If you pay a prostitute you're financing human trading." 
A public service announcement created by Mikado Publicis, an add agency in Luxembourg

We’ve heard a lot of talk about secret service agents and their illicit activities in recent weeks.  It’s the story that keeps on giving.  Testifying at an oversight hearing for the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that she would be surprised if the incident in Colombia were part of a pattern. 


True to course, with the little cartoon bubble still floating in front of her mouth, additional allegations of sexual misconduct involving U.S. military and government employees emerged. 

In one account, twelve secret service agents are said to have fraternized with prostitutes in El Salvador in March 2011.  In another incident, U.S. Marines allegedly injured a Brazilian prostitute when they pushed her out of an embassy vehicle in November 2011.

While the news is disturbing enough, I have found the media’s failure to humanize the women involved incredibly frustrating.  One Washington Post article used the words, “swarming,” “hissing,” and “hustle” when referencing prostitutes in Cartagena.  These words evoke images of rodents, insects, cats, criminals, and more generally, pests.   

During Napolitano’s briefing last Wednesday, Senator Lindsey Graham found himself flummoxed over how he should refer to the women.  When describing the events in Colombia, he cited the “argument between one of the agents and [pause], I guess, a prostitute, for lack of a better word."  For lack of a better word?  Well, I can tell you Mr. Graham, the “better” word that escapes you is “woman.”  

Women reside at the center of this whole mess: the economic plight of women; the abuse and exploitation of women; and the trafficking in women so blatantly supported by the American men in question.

Ironically, U.S. Attorney General Eric Hold gave a speech on human trafficking last Tuesday.  He hailed the U.S. policy of “zero-tolerance” toward human traffickers with passion and sincerity.  For all that sincerity, however, he never mentioned the recent behavior of U.S. military and governmental personnel abroad.  How is that possible?  You don’t have to be a drunken secret service agent to bump your head on the elephant standing in that room. 

I think Hold got away with this gross omission in part because the media hasn’t framed the issue as a trafficking problem; instead, it has focused on the men’s behavior as it relates to security, duty, and national reputation. 

Such a narrow view amounts to an opportunity lost.  With so many heads turned to attention, news stories could have shone a light on the estimated 40 million women who work in the sex trade worldwide.  Just some of the reasons for resorting to prostitution include poverty, lack of education, limited employment opportunities, and domestic abuse.  In this light, stories featuring party-boys caught with their hands in the cookie jar also expose the vulnerability of poor women to the power of the American military and governmental personnel who travel in their countries. 

Apparently, not only are these philandering men low down dirty scoundrels, they’re cheap too.  Both the Brazilian and the Colombian incidents involved arguments regarding payment.  In Brazil, when the U.S. Marines allegedly pushed the woman out of their car, it was during a conversation about money.  She broke her collar-bone and two ribs; she also punctured a lung.  In Colombia, when a secret service agent locked a woman out of his hotel room, it was also during a dispute over money.  Both stories highlight the power that men exercise over women in such situations. 

I wonder how these women ended up working as prostitutes?  Do they have children?  Do they have extended families who rely on their income for food, shelter and clothing?  Do they have other means of paying the rent, buying food, or paying for college tuition? 

If we don’t make an effort to fill in these blanks, then we perpetuate the stereotype of sex workers as promiscuous, diseased drug addicts who are no better than pests: devoid of morality or human worth. If we do that, then we also perpetuate the behavior of men who can’t see beyond a woman’s body to her person. 

So sure, let’s be outraged about the behavior of these agents, let’s applaud when the heads roll and the stricter rules take effect, but let’s also talk about the bigger picture.  Let’s not forget the word “woman” when we talk about prostitution.


  1. Thank you for moving beyond the label and calling her woman. She's a daughter, a sister, a mother, a friend. And even beyond that, she is a fellow human being, whether female or male.

    When we strip away the labels and the "you" vs "me" when begin to see the "we" and ways we all are. Removing the labels is part of it. Moving from judgement and labeling and identifying let's us move towards simply loving.

    I think this is also true for these men. If we start to move beyond perpetrator and victim, we transcend the label and can see into the shared humanity.

    1. so true, meredith. your all-connected world view really comes through on this. thanks!

  2. Excellent post, Deb. I've been thinking something similar, but haven't been able to verbalized it so well.

    A problem like this is loaded with issues of gender, race, and class. Vital issues. Turning it into scandle and slut-shaming in the media is a convenient way to ignore what is actually making people uncomfortable.

    1. thanks jesse. it's funny you say you have had trouble verbalizing this. it was a REALLY hard post to write. i started it last thursday and gave up on it twice. i think you said it really concisely: "turning it into slut-shaming in the media is a convenient way to ignore what is actually making people uncomfortable."

    2. you both said it so well! so glad other people noticed. most people i hear treat it like boys being boys playing and that's just how it is.

      i did hear one woman who worked in a high position in pentagon discuss the strength of a female secret service agent who brought this out bravely. and the need for more female leaders.

  3. Hi Deb. I read the above post, and as usual, agree all the way. The way American men with power and money often dehumanise causes so much pain and even death. Those nice-looking American men in their pressed white collars are often monsters in disguise.

    But I am here today to get back to a topic we have discussed before. I have read a bit about anxiety in kids on this blog:
    But it is scattered throughout her blog, so not so easy to read all of the happenings at once. I wanted to get back to you on that. My girlie is not fighting her anxiety very well lately. We have seen a shrink and will be doing behavior therapy. How long did it take for Olivia to start doing things she really did not want to do? Right now, my daughter keeps giving in to the anxiety more and more. She is using her stubborness against *us*, not her flippin' OCD or anxiety. Making me more crazy than I already was :/

    1. yes - i actually just came from watching the film "MissRepresentation." it was so powerful and illustrated just how much pain the dehumanization causes...

      as for the anxiety: i could write a book about it (and actually, i'm hoping to do that!)email me at and we can talk. put franny or something in the subject so i know it's you. i'm sorry your daughter is having a hard time! i know how hard that is...

  4. Great post, Deb. So insightful, as always.

  5. So great to read your blog posts in China where we don't get near the news at the rates you do, Deb. Thanks for your humor and insight!!! xoDeb

    1. hey deb lane! how cool to hear from you! thanks for reading all the way from china :)