When you speak or write about sex work and sex trafficking, your words have enormous power. Law enforcement and anti-sex-worker organizations use language to strips sex workers of agency and voice in this debate. Below is some of the language to use or avoid.

However, when speaking to someone about their involvement in the sex trade, its best to ask them what term they use to describe their work and then be respectful and use that term.


It’s okay to use terms like Prostitute. Prostitute and prostitution have historic meaning as well as specific criminalized activities currently in state statutes specifically Arizona ARS 12-32-14 which makes it a crime to knowingly engage in prostitution: trading sexual favors for money or some of value.  It is also a crime to solicit prostitution, which is offering or agreeing to trade sex acts for money or some of value. Prostitution is a class 1 Misdemeanor and there is a 15 day mandatory jail sentence for first time offence. In California,  Penal Code 647(b),  the solicitation for prostitution is illegal. Prostitution is illegal in state basis. It is good to use this term when you are speaking specifically about prostitution. People are arrested for prostitution, but not all forms of sex work.

Sex Work or Sex Worker

Sex work refers to any person whose work includes selling sex or sexual activity, or otherwise engages in erotic labor.  This includes, but is not limited to, prostitution, exotic dancers/strippers, internet-based cam workers, internet-based adult content creators, adult film performers, pro-dommes/submissives, phone sex operators, escorts, sensual massage providers, and others. 

These terms should not be used for survivors of sex trafficking, as they did not consent to selling/trading sex because of choice or circumstance, unless they also worked in the sex industry as a prostitute or other sex worker. 

Sex Trafficking​ 

Sex trafficking is forced labor in the sex industry, or any participation in the sex industry that involves force, fraud, or coercion. Any commerical sex act with a person under the age of 18 is considered sex trafficking.

It is often and incorrectly conflated with sex work, which is consensual. 

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking refers to any labor that results from force, fraud, or coercion. The most common types of human trafficking include construction, domestic labor, and agriculture. Sex trafficking is a kind of human trafficking.


Anti-trafficking is an umbrella term to describe activities meant to stop human trafficking. However, many groups and individuals in the anti-trafficking sector, including law enforcement, equate all sex work with sex trafficking, and are viewed negatively by sex workers.

Sex Industry/Sex Trade

Sex Industry and Sex Trade are umbrella terms for the array work and services provided by those in the sex industry, legal and illegal. If you are speaking about both sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking, “people in the sex trade” is the broadest and best description. 

Sex workers can have experienced sex trafficking at some point in their lives, either before or after otherwise working in the sex trade. Because of this, sex workers can be among the most invested in preventing and stopping trafficking. 

Decriminalization or Decrim

Decriminalization or decrim refers to the repealing of laws that criminalize prostitution and other criminalized forms of sex work, while preserving laws against sex trafficking. 

Amnesty International​, ​UNAIDS, the ​ACLU​, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization have all endorsed the decriminalization of sex work as a human rights issue.

For most sex workers, decrim is preferable to legalization.

Legal / Legalization​

Legalization of sex work, which introduces government regulation and oversight into sex work, is largely opposed by sex workers. Legalization can sometimes be used, paradoxically as a method of criminalization and surveillance, particularly for those who can not comply with bureaucratic regulations, compulsory management structures, or public registries. Until sex workers have the access to equal protection under the law, and are able to come forward and participate in regulation schemes that would apply to them, legalization is recriminalization of the most marginalized.


FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) are bills introduced in the House and Senate, and signed into law by President Trump in 2018. 

FOSTA/SESTA devastated sex industry, and destroyed many critical sex worker resources, from advertising sites to sex worker safety resources.  The law made internet platforms (such as Facebook or Craigslist or WordPress) legally liable for content posted on them by individual users if that content involved potentially involved sex trafficking. 

Rather than differentiate sex work from sex trafficking, many platforms chose to ban any discussion of sex work and/or banned sex workers entirely. Many sex workers who had previously worked independently online, or used online services to find or screen potential clients, were pushed into more dangerous or exploitative work. FOSTA/SESTA may paradoxically have increased sex workers vulnerability to sex trafficking.

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