Street-Corner Semantics

The cover of this week’s British Medical Journal is emblazoned with the words “Sex workers risk prosecution under UK law if they carry more than six condoms.” The words “six condoms” are emphasized by a change of color of lettering from blue to green. Then the cover asks, “Would decriminalisation be safer?”

The commonly employed argument that prostitution is the oldest profession and no law has ever eradicated it seems to me a bad one. Whether or not it is the oldest profession in any literal sense, it is certainly a very old one; but then murder (if the Bible is to be believed) was one of mankind’s earliest activities. We do not propose to legalize murder simply because no law has ever eradicated it.

On the other hand, I can see the practical advantages of freeing prostitution from the attentions of the law (within limits, of course). But this question was not what I found most interesting about the cover. It was the replacement of the word “prostitutes” by “sex workers”—a replacement that is virtually de rigueur in medical journals these days.

Our Mutual Friend Dickens, Charles Best Price: $7.04 Buy New $15.50 (as of 12:50 UTC - Details) A century and a half ago, Charles Dickens satirized the tendency of his countrymen to use euphemism from a false sense of delicacy. Mr. Podsnap was a character in Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, a “man so eminently respectable” that “he was sensible of its being required of him to take Providence under his wing.” Mr. Podsnap had a daughter whom it was necessary for him to protect from the vulgarity and wickedness of the world:

A certain institution in Mr Podsnap’s mind which he called ‘the young person’ may be considered to have been embodied in Miss Podsnap, his daughter. It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it. The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person? And the inconvenience of the young person was, that, according to Mr Podsnap, she seemed always liable to burst into blushes when there was no need at all. There appeared to be no line of demarcation between the young person’s excessive innocence, and another person’s guiltiest knowledge.

The world’s medical journals seem to me in turn to be guilty of fulminating Podsnappery, treating doctors as if they were blushful Miss Podsnaps, who might faint at the mere mention of prostitution or its cognate words.

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