Last week a Buzzfeed piece by Melissa Gira Grant was making the rounds about Heather, the US sex worker who killed a man who might have been a serial killer. The piece was widely praised for its analysis, in particular of the ways in which stories about sex — and sex workers in particular — tend to the salacious. It described a woman who, with few resources and less experience of what to ask for and what to expect from media exposure, found herself taken advantage of by journalists and do-gooders alike.
These are points that probably anyone who follows sex workers’ rights has thought about. A lot. When does reporting become rubbernecking? When does wanting to help someone become wanting to control them? Such topics need exploring, both in public and in our own hearts and minds. Especially for people who, like me and like the piece’s author Melissa Gira Grant, are former sex workers-turned-full time writers.
One of the biggest problems when after moving from sex work to writing is what to write about. It is easy to get sucked into the pink ghetto of sex toy reviews and swingers’ club invites, or end up giving a halfhearted performance as an agony aunt for a newspaper or magazine. When sex was your entree into journalism, it can be difficult to draw a line between your past and your present. This is less a function of the writer’s desire to move on than a reflection of society’s prurient attitudes about sex.
Some former sex workers elect to not discuss their personal experiences, and I respect that. Goodness knows I get tired of questions from people who think somehow, more than 10 years after I retired from sex work, there is some fascinating aspect of my time in it that has gone unexamined. (Top tip, future interviewers: if it was at all interesting, I already wrote about it.)
If you don’t write about yourself who do you write about? And what, really, is your relationship to others’ experiences, to their story? I’m weighing this up a lot, especially after this thought-provoking takedown of the Gira Grant piece appeared. Melissa is a widely read freelancer who draws on her experience of sex work, volunteering and blogging to reveal a little-understood world to the American public. This gives her unusual insight, perhaps.
But it is also true that the world of Heather and the world of Melissa are poles apart. An affluent New York writer pops down to West Virginia to interview a crime victim at a time when she says she was in shock and sick with addiction issues: does this not have the potential to also be exploitative? It does have more than a slight whiff of carpetbagging about it. What do we take away from the Buzzfeed piece apart from the feeling that everyone who got involved in Heather’s cause had bad intentions apart from (miraculously) Gira Grant herself? The subject of the story does not support its publication, and the piece gives a national platform to people who have abused Heather. Journalists sometimes view caring for the subject as publicity, not news —and thus eschew any kind of responsibility for what becomes of their interviewees afterwards. Is what we have read in Buzzfeed where the ally ends, and the hard-headed writer chasing after a byline begins?
If an ex-sex worker chooses not to talk about their own past, is it OK for them to exploit someone else’s for clicks?
Being an ex-sex worker is an odd position to occupy. You are more free to be open about your past. While the stigma never entirely disappears, it is certainly reduced. Especially if, like both me and Gira Grant, you are a white, cis, middle class professional. Platforms are available that would not be offered to others. With that comes responsibility: ex sex workers should not be granted a bigger seat at the table than current ones. When combined with a writing career? It’s a hell of a balancing act. We are peripheral to the community, but with more power — doing a job in which we are expected to draw maximum attention to our work. That can be dangerous. It can lead to an inflated sense of entitlement to the tell stories of people less privileged than ourselves. It can end up perpetuating the same abuses we seek to end.
As Arundhati Roy said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
What is an appropriate response when called out on issues by the people you are writing about? Every writer, regardless of their history and experience of a topic, always has more to learn. As Gira Grant spent the days after the Buzzfeed piece ignoring requests to clarify what happened, it started to seem like she could downplay criticism precisely because those criticising her were current sex workers. I’m sure that wasn’t true, but as we all know: intent isn’t magic.
Nor is journalism. No one is immune to writing their preconceptions into their work, and failure to acknowledge this is poor practice. Presenting yourself as the one and only objective reporter is dishonest. It is also unnecessary; consider two excellent longreads also from the last week that touch on the observer’s role in the story. One addresses the ambiguity of victimhood, the other the transient role of the journalist in making a snapshot of someone’s life’s work. Neither does so in a way that feels intrusive, or false, because no claim to objectivity is made. That is what respect for a subject looks like. The Heather piece? Not so much.
Maybe part of being an ally is recognising that some stories are best left unwritten.
Reasonable criticism of ex-sex working writers is not “fracturing the movement.” It makes it stronger. My input as an ex-sex worker and possible ally is restricted by my relatively short experience, high level of privilege, and the sheer amount of time I’ve been retired; these are things never to forget. The further I get from my time in sex work, the less of a say I (and people like me) should have in the discussion. Also expertise in any subject requires continual learning. I am grateful for for criticism I’ve received over the years and expect more in future. Growth is a good thing.
Let us not forget there is still a vulnerable person whose life was changed forever. That doesn’t stop after the journalists have gone home, penned their longreads, and moved on to the next hot topic. You can, and should, donate to Heather’s fundraiser if you can.
I am not casting myself as the kind of ‘prestige’ journalist Gira Grant so obviously wants to be. Perhaps my input on the ethics around the publication of Heather’s story is unwarranted, my moral compass somewhat differently aligned. I write books: memoir and fiction. I don’t write about other people — that’s not my beat. But for anyone who considers themselves to be both a supporter of sex workers’ rights and an effective writer, here is a lesson we should all take to heart. That sometimes, in the desire to do good art, we make bad allies.