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…