Earlier this summer, I (along with many other readers) objected to Kathy and Marcy’s (of Annie’s Mailbox) use of the term “professional woman” to denote “sex worker.” Originally, a female lawyer wrote in to protest, and M&K insisted the term was a “common” way to refer to sex work. I had never heard it that way, and a Google search revealed no connection between the two. Today, another professional woman–this one a scholar–weighs in:
Dear Annie: Your reply to “Professional Woman,” who complained about your use of the term to refer to a stripper, was way off base. Sure, most people probably knew that you were referring to some sort of sex worker, but how sexist is that?
In the 19th and even 20th centuries, the phrase “public woman” was used to refer to prostitutes on the assumption that any woman who would occupy public space without a proper male escort must be a prostitute. It provided a handy way to exclude middle- and upper-class women from public spaces, stigmatize working-class women (who appeared regularly in public spaces), and render as sexual prey all women who went out in public.
The double entendre implicit in the phrase “professional woman” undoubtedly serves a similar purpose, insinuating that sex work can be a profession for women and also that “professional women” are sexually available. It’s sexist and discriminatory. — Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor of History, Binghamton University (SUNY)