Media Coverage Of Sex Workers Erases Our Voices
By Lily O’Delia
When I say I’m a sex worker, you probably picture one of the stock photos that accompany mainstream articles about sex work: a scantily clad woman with a tight miniskirt and high heels, leaning seductively into a car at nightfall, her face hidden by darkness or hair, her body open to interpretation.
Like most sex workers, I have a far more complex story. Yet the way it’s presented in the media is flat, one-sided, and lacking in nuance. And that’s not just annoying, or sad — it’s also dangerous.
I started sex work because I had to. I was a product of a poverty-stricken broken home, flawed foster care, and youth rehabilitation systems. I never graduated from high school; instead I got my GED when I was 15 and ran away as early as I could to make it on my own. I slept on park benches and in bus stations, camped in national forests, and squatted in abandoned buildings. A friend helped me get a job as a stripper when I was 17 years old to earn income on my own, and I eventually ended up buying a van with the money I earned from dancing. This van became my home so I could continue my nomadic journey, often working at different strip clubs across the country to make extra money.
I often did heroin to get me through the long nights that followed. It helped ease the initial nervousness of interacting with customers, and I always made quite a bit more money while I was working in an altered reality, euphoria rushing through my veins as I danced with wild abandon to rapturous applause.
What would this story look like in a feature article about sex work? A journalist might say I was trying to escape my harsh reality through drugs, or that I was stripping to feed my habit, or that sex work victimizes young girls with fewer advantages. Or they might minimize my story, focusing instead on the more sanitized narrative of the college student paying her way through school, or the hard-working mom stripping to feed her family. In the name of flattening and simplifying the representation of sex work, my story would be either exaggerated or ignored.
This isn’t just a guess; I’ve seen it happen again and again. Sex workers have a long history of having difficult and life-altering interactions with the media. In many cases sex workers have been have been outed by the media, while at other times they have been misquoted. The press has used salacious photos of sex workers while disregarding their words and stories, and journalists repeatedly ask stigmatizing questions in order to push an agenda. Sometimes, the misrepresentation is lurid, playing up our “exploitation” and “misery.” Other times, it comes in the form of erasing sex workers of color, trans sex workers, drug-using sex workers, or people who do sex work to survive.
Recently, New York magazine released a cover story that brought up many of these memories and thoughts for me. The reporter, Mac McClelland, has no direct experience in sex work, and at least two of her subjects have publicly stated that they felt misrepresented by the article. McClelland asks in her article, “Can we, should we, let sex workers speak for themselves?” (Imagine that being asked about any other marginalized population.) On the contrary, though, her article had me wondering: “Should non-sex-workers be allowed to speak for us?” Is there a way for journalists who haven’t worked in the sex industry to write about it responsibly?
McClelland starts her story with a young white privileged sex worker who is paying her way through private college, before going on to explore more diverse subjects who, like me, started sex work out of need. Her piece at least acknowledges some of the variety of the sex work experience, which can range from “spare money for Ivy Leaguers” to stories that, like mine, feature drugs and abuse. But her piece also quotes other sex workers making stigmatizing statements about drug-using and street-working sex workers, in an effort to detach themselves from those narratives. One worker was quoted in the article as saying, “I’m not some sad drug addict, I’m a person.” Silencing any population of sex workers, whether they’re drug users, street workers, transgender people, or people of color, creates an unfair and distorted image of sex work as a whole.
Letting sex workers control our own media representation wouldn’t necessarily solve this problem — after all, the people McClelland quotes as sneering at drug addicts are sex workers themselves. But consciously encouraging more representation and more control of our image from a wider range of sex workers would allow a more nuanced and complete picture of sex workers — and a less exploitative one.
The mainstream media is an institution and like all institutions, it is built on a hierarchy. When it comes to reporting on sex workers, this power structure almost always disproportionately excludes the voices of transgender sex workers, workers of color, street workers, and drug-using sex workers — even when writing about how sex workers are exploited “victims of trafficking.” Instead, it unfairly boosts the voices of privileged, educated, and mainly white sex workers.
“Trans women are only supposed to be visible when it is used as a form a entertainment,” performer and activist Shagasia Diamond said, when I asked her about the mainstream media representation of sex work and its lack of trans visibility.
“Cis folks don’t see us as real people, with real and valid issues,” she explained. “They only see entertainers . . . When you get the true story it isn’t so amusing so people don’t want to address it or make the information public because it shows how inhumane they are to trans folks, gender nonconforming [people], and women of trans experience.”
Melissa Gira Grant, a widely published ex-sex worker journalist and author of the seminal sex workers’ rights text Playing The Whore, recognizes the difficulties presented by editors requesting certain stories over others. She talked to me about lacking the freedom to be able to cover the issues that we, as sex worker writers, think need to be highlighted: “When editors have approached me to cover violence against sex workers, it’s been white, cis women’s stories. They were stories that already made headlines, too,” she recalled.
“From my experience, black and trans sex workers’ stories won’t make headlines without a lot of effort,” Grant elaborated. “Usually, all reporters have to go on — unless they are local or have sources already — is a few local news stories, often from the perspective of police, and these stories often misgender, and can be transphobic.”
Mainstream media distortion poses such a significant problem for us that it’s galvanized us to create our own sex-worker specific media in response. Examples of this pushback include $pread magazine, a magazine started by and for sex workers. Titsandsass.com, a sex worker run blog, has also emerged to make room for sex workers to speak for themselves. This D.I.Y. media takes our narratives back from the mainstream media. These venues have exploded in popularity amongst sex workers who often feel isolated in their work and frustrated by the lack of accurate media representation of us. Sex workers’ rights organizations like The Red Umbrella Project, a project that was started to amplify voices in the sex industry, have also instituted media trainings specifically for sex workers to help them field questions from the press.
But it’s not enough to say that sex workers should be empowered to tell our own stories. Media also has to grant us enough dignity and consideration that we’re comfortable being involved. Right now, having witnessed so much misrepresentation by the media, I don’t especially want to speak publicly to journalists regarding my experiences. I know they’ll grant me little to no control over my own narrative.
I don’t think we need to say that only sex workers can write about sex work. But I will say that when you have absolutely no personal experience regarding your story, you must work hard to manifest empathy toward your subjects and highlight their voices, or you must seriously consider the possibility that you are exploiting marginalized populations for your career advancement.
Last month, I and some other sex workers were approached by the New York Times to do a photoshoot which was sold to us as an “activist opportunity.” Many of us were immediately and rightfully skeptical. The Times told us that this would be a story about sex work activism. In reality, the reporter, Emily Bazelon, had been originally recruited by Mistress Matisse, a privileged white cisgendered sex worker. Matisse wanted Bazelon to tell a self-congratulatory story about how she helped a (white cisgendered) woman named Heather, who shot an escorting client in self defense in West Virginia last year.
Heather’s story had already seen a massive amount of media coverage, and she’s been given over $23,000 from crowdfunding campaigns to date. Contrast this with the case of Alisha Walker, a 23-year-old multiracial woman who killed a client in self defense after he lunged at her with a knife. Alisha got very little media coverage, and her fundraiser hasn’t yet reached $2,000. Heather’s situation was cinematic — the client she killed had tools in his car that suggested he had been serially murdering sex workers — but that alone doesn’t account for the stark difference in attention. “The white victim is always the victim people feel sorry for,” Black sex worker activist Akynos Shekara told me, with palpable solemnity in her usually vivacious voice. Other sex workers who didn’t fit the media-palatable white cis mold agreed. “I feel like it’s harmful to put Heather on a pedestal for being able to save her own life when our black, brown, and trans sisters are being murdered and incarcerated all the time,” said Lola, a multiracial street worker. “They aren’t any less valuable just because they lost their lives at the end of their battles.”
Many sex workers found it exploitative that the Times wanted to use our photographs but disregard our words. And we knew that it was seeking our photos specifically to counteract the lack of representation in the article itself. The Times had told us it wanted to shoot in New York City to show how diverse sex workers are — in other words, because it needed to recruit more black/brown/trans/drug-using sex workers.
To Shekara, who was featured in a 2009 Narratively article to which many sex workers objected, the Times’ approach was nothing new. Shekara was barely introduced in the Narratively article and not quoted at all, in stark contrast to her white peers. But Narratively still used her photograph. “It speaks so much about using black female bodies in this objectified and sexualized state,” Shekara reflected. She felt it was another example of the media “wanting to use my body without caring to hear about the person behind it.” The Times, Shekara told me, also squandered that opportunity to be truly progressive, and instead followed Narratively’s lead, using sex workers of color as decorative touches without allowing them to speak for themselves.
Indeed, once the story was published, many sex workers found it lacking. Although Bazelon eventually broadened the focus of the story beyond Matisse and Heather at the urging of sex worker activists, she disregarded the hard activist work of many of the sex workers featured in the piece, omitting the names of most of the organizations they collaborated in. Meanwhile, abolitionist anti-sex workers like CATW (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) were given detailed organizational histories. The piece was titled “Should prostitution be a crime?” — a headline suggesting that our rights are a question worth considering.
Although the Times has since publicly acknowledged that its approach to the photo shoot was troubling, this pattern demonstrates just how insensitive media can be to marginalized populations like sex workers.
We have to care about every narrative to bring this movement forward — from the sex workers working their way through college, to the survival sex workers, to the trans sex workers who face much worse discrimination and violence than cisgendered sex workers, to the drug-using sex workers who feel isolated from their peers by stigmatizing statements, to the people who do this work who may not identify as sex workers at all. This is part of the path to humanizing all sex workers and unifying them. We all have vastly different stories, but what connects us is stigma and prejudice. It’s time to let the press know we are listening and to hold them accountable when they get it wrong.