“When They’re Dead, They’re Hookers” — The Media Trope that is Literally Killing People
The Disposable Sex Worker Trope is one that should be familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of a crime drama or watched an adult comedy show. The Disposable Sex Worker is a throwaway character that moves the story forward. In crime television, she (the character is almost invariably a “she”) appears as a victim of a serial killer, or as a prop for other grotesque acts of violence, and she is often the first victim of a budding psychopath. In comedy, her death is a joke, usually one involving a cover up, such as in Archer and Rough Night, or one where her disposability is the joke, such as in Family Guy or in Anna Kendrick’s AMA speech. She rarely gets screen time. If her body is shown, it is dead and dismembered. Otherwise, she is just a nameless, faceless throwaway. If she is allowed any character, her backstory is always riddled with drugs and abuse. She does not get to advocate for herself, and anyone speaking for her sees her death as inevitable at best and deserved at worst.
Tropes are a phenomenon in fictional story telling that combine reality, consumer perception, and precedent. They can be value-neutral at times, but as they are immensely influenced by the values and perceptions of mainstream society — the culture — that creators and consumers live within, they tend to be as positive or negative as the cultural perception (specifically, that of the dominant culture) allows them to be. Tropes about groups of people start as merely a character device or theme designed by the perceptions a few creators have about a type of person they want to represent. If a theme survives in popular media, it gets adopted by other creators, becoming a trope. When a trope influences cultural perception of a group of people, it is worth analysis. When adherence to a particular trope is the predominant way in which a group of people gets represented in the media, it is critical to challenge it.
Though the origins are unclear, the Disposable Sex Worker trope is incredibly popular — in part because it is so easy and in part because it is expected. It is easy because the prevailing narrative about sex work suggests that it is inherently violent. This in turn suggests to us that participants in the sex industry either must not have chosen this line of work and are victims of violence, or that they deserve it because they should have known the consequences. Further, sex workers are presumed to always be working, to have come to this line of work either through trafficking or after a series of awful decisions (read: circumstances), and to be always engaging in other criminal activity. We expect them to die if they don’t “get out” of the trade. The trope allows the author to avoid effort in developing a character beyond the fact that she was a prostitute because we can fill in the rest. When we imagine sex workers, we do not imagine mothers, artists, activists, scholars, CEOs, students. We do not imagine people who are married, who live in the suburbs, who do it on the side, who have a favorite video game and a dog and hate ice cream; we only imagine a hapless victim or a drug addict with daddy issues. We imagine an underworld with abusive pimps, drugs everywhere, motels that are in shambles, and creepy men exerting power over women without any consent negotiation. We fill in the gap made by lazy writing.
Before breaking down the Disposable Sex Worker Trope, it is important to note the existence of another popular sex worker cliche, known as the Happy Hooker Trope. It focuses on escorts and call girls and suggests a life of perpetual glamour, limitless cash flow, and really hot sex. This trope seems to place workers in a more positive light. Instead, it creates a bizarre dichotomy, that of the happy hooker vs the dead hooker. In trying to dismantle the stereotype that their job is inherently dangerous or that they are victims of exploitation or violence, workers often feel they must say how wonderful their job is in order for the work to be seen as legitimate. This creates a barrier for workers who want to talk about the nuances of the work and the challenges workers face on the job. Workers are often left unable to advocate for themselves in any meaningful way.
The main problem with the Disposable Sex Worker Trope is that it is blatantly inaccurate. This is not to say sex workers don’t die on the job — they do, and at startling rates. However, portraying sex workers solely as victims of horrendous violence paints a pretty bleak picture for a job that, while not always glamorous, is not only or even mostly violent. Not only is it misleading, it is dangerous.
In real life, when violence against sex workers does occur, the perpetrator demographic is wildly different than what pop culture would suggest. The belief is that violence is predominantly at the hands of pimps and serial killers. However, recent data suggest that between 17 and 34% of workers have reported being harassed, threatened, or assaulted by police in the United States. Police violence disproportionately affects women of color, trans women, and immigrant women. Police threaten to arrest workers or have them deported if they refuse advances. Workers seeking help for crimes committed against them, (e.g. assault, or to report instances of trafficking) face fines and jail time because of the nature of their work, and further assault in prison because of the stigma surrounding their work. Having a record prevents them from leaving the industry if they ever wanted to, making them more reliant on sex work and, depending on their situation, more likely to take risky jobs. This leads to further arrest or harassment, and the cycle continues. The law is not on sex workers’ side. Beyond much of the work being criminalized, there are instances where workers are arrested for trafficking themselves or each other, which carries a higher penalty; workers who have tried to report actual victims of trafficking in their area have been arrested for prostitution; and some states legally do not acknowledge sex workers as a group of people who can be raped, meaning they cannot report their assault.
There is significant stigma surrounding sex work. It stems from a broader cultural whorephobia — a repulsion of expressions of sexuality (especially by women) that is seen as debaucherous. Whorephobia is the result of the virgin-whore dichotomy, in which women are either virtuous, virginal, and pure or disposable, dirty, and dangerous. Women must exude pure and innocent characteristics and actively reject those seen as whores in order to gain and/or maintain social status and protections. This dichotomy and its resulting societal expressions is how many people justify violence against those who engage in “immoral” expressions of sex and sexuality — especially when it is done as a willful act by the person in question. The only way workers get sympathy for the violence inflicted on them is by being victims of something more heinous. In some versions of the trope, this plays out with characters speaking of how awful the life of the worker in the story must have been to turn to this work as a last resort. By suggesting that being a prostitute is inherently dangerous or inevitably leads to violence/death, it puts the onus on workers for any violence that happens against them, absolving the perpetrators of violence or the society that presents them as disposable of any guilt. Paradoxically, it also makes workers perpetual sympathetic victims in need of salvation, as mainstream society cannot fathom why a person would willingly choose to work in this industry.
This trope both literally and figuratively dehumanizes sex workers. It represents fictional characters in a manner that robs real-life workers of their voices in a number of ways: killing them off; not giving them names, faces, or personalities; showing them as dismembered remains; or not showing them at all and instead talking of them in passing. This character trope objectifies workers when they do have screen time by having other characters refer to them with derogatory terminology; using camera angles that either hypersexulize them or show them as a helpless victim in a disempowered position; or showing them as rundown, disheveled, troubled, or otherwise lacking control of their lives. Workers’ voices are also ignored in the writing room. More authentic stories could be written if workers were asked about their lived experiences or if avenues were provided for workers to tell their own stories. Instead, writers either write a two-dimensional character to avoid effort (sex workers and the homeless are often interchangeable throwaway characters when violence is considered necessary to further the plot), or they rely on previous iterations of the trope for ideas.
There is a specific version of this trope that involves an added element to further the story. In this version, the story places a pure woman in opposition to the prostitute. This is most often seen in stories where a string of dead prostitutes elicits no response, but then a more “virtuous” woman (usually young, white, and thin) is attacked which triggers the protagonists into action. By framing the story in this way, sex workers’ lives are deemed completely without value and are not worthy of attention, respect, or justice. However, it also implies that women deemed as virtuous must be protected at all costs; that these women cannot defend themselves and instead are in need of male heroes; and that violence against them is especially evil. There is a racialized component to this, one in which lighter skinned women are considered more virtuous. This idea is an aspect of colorism, a topic that has been written about at length elsewhere. The virgin-whore dichotomy is reinforced in by the Disposable Sex Worker Trope — something that is harmful to all women, no matter where they fall on the moral spectrum.
The Disposable Sex Worker Trope only reflects reality because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pop culture instructs the public to believe sex work to be inherently violent and that people can do whatever they want to workers without consequence. This empowers people to enact violence on workers. The violence enacted reinforces the idea that the job is dangerous. The job being dangerous is what new authors presume and use for their work. The work influences the public, and on and on. Workers report instances where they cannot establish boundaries with clients because clients believe that workers will do literally anything if given enough money, or that people who do sex work are always ready and willing to have sex. The lack of leads and protection available to sex workers is also dangerous. Clients who do not get their way threaten to call the police to have workers arrested. The Green River Killer famously confessed that, aside from his distaste at their mere existence, “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” He was not wrong. It took two decades for the investigation to go anywhere, with 48 confirmed murders under his belt and rumored 40+ more bodies still left to be found.
At the intersection of whorephobia and transmisogyny, sex workers who are trans women are at an increased risk of death. They are more likely to work on the street because of lack of access to safer channels to find work; they are more likely to be engaging in survival sex work (meaning esx work is their sole source of income, which does not afford them the privilege of denying clients); and they are more likely to be stopped by police on the street (in fact, a report by the DC Trans Coalition found that 23% of Black trans people were approached by police and arrested for prostitution even if they actually were not sex workers) and put in men’s prisons which increase risk of violence. The justice system sees their deaths as even less worthy of justice than other sex workers. In 48 states, trans panic — learning that a woman is trans and having an excessively violent reaction in response — is a valid defense for murder. This further perpetuates the false notion that trans women are men in dresses intentionally deceiving other men into sleeping with them. Trans women, and especially those who are selling sex, are seen as disposable not just on TV but in our courtrooms.
Denying workers a voice to advocate for themselves in the media has the dangerous effect of encouraging people to not listen to workers in the real world. Legislators believe that sex work is inherently violent and exploitative, and they have no narrative that tells them otherwise. Legislators do not consult workers when proposing legislation that will directly impact them and they do not listen to the workers who come forward to tell their stories because they do not value sex workers or see them as real people. Lawmakers continue to pass bills that increase the risk of violence against workers. A recent example of this can be found with the passing of SESTA/FOSTA, two bills that purported to protect trafficking victims by holding hosting sites and servers accountable for trafficking activity, but in practice led to mass internet censorship and shut down many resources that workers used to screen clients, advertise safely without needing to be on the street, and share harm reduction tactics with each other. Years of work to limit violence against workers was compromised overnight even though workers, advocates, and survivors of trafficking alike were organizing and engaging with legislators in full force. It was only when these censorship consequences started affecting non-workers that the general populace started paying attention.
Intersectional feminist analysis of media acknowledges that nuanced and diverse representation of disenfranchised and marginalized groups is imperative to shifting cultural perceptions of these groups and to challenging stereotypes. The prominent sex worker narrative is one in which horrific death is inevitable, justice is unlikely, and workers are not even worthy of telling or having a story before they die. We can change this by writing characters that are sex workers but are also so much more; by centering narratives written by sex workers, especially trans workers, workers of color, and street workers, who all are at greatest threat of violence; and by advocating for workers to our community and our legislators. We can help end the stigma around sex work and sex workers by changing cultural perceptions of sex work to something more less negative and more realistic. In doing so, we can help restore the humanity of workers, preventing violence against them in the first place, increasing concern and empathy by the public when violence does occur, and providing channels for seeking justice.