Online media has recently been full of news stories and opinion pieces on Amnesty International's decision to take a stance on the decriminalisation of sex work. The debate itself is so polarised and seems to result in such deep entrenchment on both sides that I've no interest in getting into it here and now - and anyway, I doubt there's anything I could say that hasn't already been covered elsewhere in the media. However, what I want to think about is exactly that: the way the Western media (read: UK and US outlets) deal with this issue. Watching Amnesty debate being vehemently fought over by pro- and anti-decriminalisation advocates on social media, feminist blogs and in major news outlets, it occurs to this feminist that the way the issues surrounding sex work are reported remain deeply retrogressive.
Every piece I read on the subject, whether pro- or anti-decrim, was accompanied by a picture of an anonymous woman, clad in a short skirt, high heels or other revealing/"sexy" clothing, standing on a dark street corner, leaning into a car, or on display in a window (Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Daily Mail, CNN). Articles were by human rights lawyers, prominent feminists or Amnesty staff, but the voices of sex workers were conspicuous by their absence, unless a pseudonymous victim of abuse was being interviewed, usually giving graphic details of violence and sexual coercion. MSBNC interviewed a district attorney, a professor, and a writer on Melissa Harris-Perry's show, but no one with any direct experience of the industry.
This is where media outlets on both sides of the debate fail hard. The voices of the women (and men) whose lives and work are being batted about like so many feminist footballs are either completely omitted, or if they are included, it's as footnote to the voices of "real" experts (read privileged academics, head of NGOs, Hollywood actors), or in order to bolster the already established opinions of the writer/campaigner.
In the case of anti-decrim op-eds, these usually dismiss the validity of the term sex work because the writer deems all sex work exploitation, and yet they often ask that women in this industry re-exploit themselves by detailing their horrendous experiences. I've read more graphic, bordering-on-pornographic, tales of both real and imagined sexual and physical abuse in anti-sex work articles than I have anywhere else ("imagined" meaning when the writer details the hypothetical horrendous acts that they believe women will be forced to submit to if sex work is decriminalised, and yes I've read this kind of thing). While I appreciate that the authors are trying to appeal to what they see as the much-needed compassion of the reader, their tactics come across as not dissimilar from that of anti-abortion advocates - cheap, nasty shock tactics that take real stories of women's lives and then use them to bolster the profile of individuals already privileged enough to have a platform. Feminists often decry PETA for their abysmal uses of the female body in its ad campaigns, rightly pointing out that, whatever your cause, throwing women under the bus is never an acceptable way to get attention for it. Yet by demanding a constant supply of horror stories from women who were victims of trafficking, violence or coercion in the sex industry, anti-decrim feminists are doing much of the same. As Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing The Whore, supporters of the abolition of sex work claim that sex work objectifies its operatives, yet “it’s objectification too, when these “supporters” represent sex workers as degraded, as victims and as titillating object lessons.”
Pro-decrim articles have not necessarily been any more enlightened in their tactics. The media outlets featuring them remained happy to use usually decapitated images of scantily clad women's bodies as shorthand for sex work. I've never seen one of these pictures accompanied by a caption "posed by models," so I assume these women are real sex workers and wonder if any of them were actually asked for permission to be photographed? As Gira Grant also writes in her book, “The portrait of street-level prostitution. . . as it’s on display in media accounts – a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one – is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite." The Guardian published a sole article in favour of decriminalisation, written by a (pseudonymous) sex worker and still accompanied by the requisite photograph of two women in short skirts on a dark street. This was the only article by an actual sex worker which I read on this subject, despite dozens of op-eds on it appearing in major media outlets over the last few weeks.
The fact the sex worker in question doesn't use her real name shows how stigmatised her job remains - thanks in no small part to this bizarre media prurience surrounding sex work which means we view the industry as full of shadowy, headless figures in thigh-high boots, but containing no actual real people - and I suppose it's not surprising that there are few others like her willing to come forward and actually pen a piece for a major newspaper, given the risks of being outed, the amount of abuse she's likely to face, and the fact that if she is pro-decrim, she will be expected to defend her job to a degree that people in few other industries are obliged to. Nonetheless, I'm glad she wrote it, and for an outlet that pays, too. Nothing gets my goat more than people being asked to provide written content for free by newspapers who pay their staff writers yet come up with BS excuses like "we don't have a budget for online content" or "we only pay professional writers;" and sadly, I see it more and more. The Guardian social care blog asks carers (yes, us badly paid, disrespected, overworked and underappreciated souls who evacuate bowels and wash bodies and are treated like disposable monkeys for it) to write about their experiences, but as far as I know, doesn't pay for the privilege. I'm a writer and a care worker. Want to know why I do the latter job? Because the former doesn't pay enough. Needless to say, I don't write for anyone for free these days, and I'm sure as shit not going to indulge in the supreme irony of giving my time and skill to write about how badly paid care work is, for an outlet that won't pay me for that writing.
In a similar spirit, as Melissa Gira Grant documents, journalists are happy to ask sex workers not just to provide their stories for free, but also in her case - as a journalist who has done sex work in the past - they pretty much expect them to help write their pieces. In this great blog post, which reflects many of my own gripes about being expected to work for free, Gira Grant refers to various instances where journalists have expected her to function as a seam of sex work anecdotes that they can mine at any time - such as when a journalist asked her to critique his article after she declined to be interviewed by him, or when a feminist emailed Gira Grant less than twelve hours before the programme she was making aired, seeking to “pick her brain,” or when "a TV producer wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, [telling] me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue.” And, quite rightly, Melissa Gira Grant tells them all where to get off.
It seems the media is only interested in sex workers as long as it can use them for a bit of easy, quick titillating clickbait, detail their horror stories or relentlessly perky happy hooker tales (like this piece by a worker in one of Nevada's legal brothels, incidentally written for Independent Voices, another outlet that doesn't pay its writers), or as Gira Grant finds, basically ask them to do journalists' jobs for them.
Wherever we stand on the issue of sex work, coverage of it needs to be held to higher journalistic standards if it is going to be reported on in any meaningful and feminist way. This means journalists doing their jobs, and if necessary, letting those who actually know firsthand what they're talking about take centre stage, and be acknowledged and remunerated for telling their stories. This means editors thinking of something other than the laziest possible accompanying photos when they encounter an article on sex work (as someone who keeps their blog relatively image free, I doubt this will ever be realistically considered, but I do wonder exactly why any accompanying image is necessary at all in many cases - it seems like a pretty feminist act to refuse to reduce the sex work debate to pictures of women's body parts). This means any news outlets that pays its writers can damn well pay everyone who writes for them, journalist or not, if it wants them to create content for what is, after all, a profit-making enterprise, and ditto interviewees or sources who are helping create that content. Til then, all we're going to get is more cliches, no meaningful discourse, just soundbites, dogma and the voices of real people muffled and stepped over by those with an axe to grind or an article to pitch.