Media Portrayals of Sex Workers: Protecting Us From Whom?

Media Portrayals of Sex Workers: Protecting Us From Whom?

What is a sex worker? $pread Magazine defines a sex worker as “someone who explicitly ex- changes their own erotic labor for money, services, or goods. Some examples of sex workers are strippers, burlesque dancers, escorts, hustlers, prostitutes, phone sex workers, porn performers, nude models, professional dominants, and many others. However not all workers in these professions define themselves as sex workers.” 

While the term “erotic labor” is intentionally vague, it does convey a basic concept. Sex workers engage in a wide variety of labors, for a variety of different forms of compensation. They are not exclusively one gender, race, economic background, or nationality. 

A journalist’s task is to seek information and perspectives from those most intimately related to a specific story. And yet this is certainly not what is done in all cases, particularly those that involve marginalized communities. This point is explicitly illustrated in stories that relate to sex workers or the sex industry. Media portrayals of sex workers vary dramatically from source to source, but sensationalism is the pervasive theme. News stories concerning the sex industry rarely examine it as a labor issue, but rather as a personal scandal or crime piece. 

On the rare occasion that anyone within the industry is included in a story, “power players” are favored over the actual workers. High-cost madams, porn producers, or pimps may have interesting contributions, yet they receive higher incomes and thereby automatically present privileged perspectives. Responsible journalism is dependent on the inclusion of all subjects. There is no accurate portrayal without this inclusion. If the voices 

of sex workers are not included, there will be no moving forward. Self-representation is one of the first steps towards liberation. 

In April 2009, a story shocked the nation, that of “The Craigslist Killer.” This killer was hunting sex workers across New England in order to rob and murder them. As a vulnerable and criminalized community, sex workers are often pushed to the margins. The community has historically been seen as an easy target to aim towards for any sort of “need.” Trisha Leffler was the first known sex worker to be robbed in this spree. The assailant pulled a gun on her and she quickly surrendered $800. After breaking free from her plastic cuffs, she called the police. Then, in an unconventional move, the police did not press charges against Leffler. Instead, surprisingly, they followed up on her report. (Generally, it is not considered safe for anyone who works in a criminalized sector of the sex industry to report violence to the police, due to the fact that they risk arrest for engaging in prostitution.) There was a man shown on the hotel’s security cameras. The police searched him, but they couldn’t match him to the criminal. There were no other leads. 

On April 14, Julissa Brisman was brutally beaten, shot, and murdered. Although the scope of her services is unclear, it is know that she had been advertising as a masseuse on Craigslist. 

Two days later, a dancer in Warwick, RI who advertised on the website was attacked, and a man attempted to rob her; yet, that incident was interrupted by her husband. In Boston, a friend of Julissa’s discovered e-mails 

that were written between her and a client she had scheduled for 10pm on the night of her murder. She quickly passed these on to police, with the crucial Internet Protocol(IP) address, which led them straight to Phil- 

ip Markoff, who was arrested in connection to the crimes. 

In the wake of Markoff’s arrest, a collective rage rang throughout the media as they focused on Craigslist. They claimed that it facilitated an “online brothel.” A nearly universal condemnation surfaced, apparently in order to protect women from online predators. Over time, the story has shifted to illuminate the character of Markoff rather than the violence he has been accused of committing. CBS news recently released a full-length story with a subtitle of “More Shocking Than the Crimes is the Person Accused.” 

In the following weeks, Craigslist responded to both the pressure from the media and the legislatures. They removed the “erotic services” section of their website and replaced it with an “adult services” section. This change may appear superficial, but in order to post in the adult services section an advertiser must provide their credit card information and pay a fee of ten dollars. 

This increased moderation of sex workers—who advertise on Craigslist—does nothing to prevent the violence. Eliminating a tool for marketing is not the solution. If the objective is to keep workers safe, wouldn’t it be more effective to have the purchaser under greater scrutiny? A sex worker who has the ability to screen clients online is going to have greater preliminary knowledge of their client and is going to have an IP address to identify them if later needed. While not all sex workers feel they need to use the internet to be safe, they should not be prevented from having the tools. 

Since “The Craigslist Killer” story, many discussions have focused on why these women were inviting the killer into their rooms to start. One of the most frequently asked questions of laborers in the sex industry is: “What happened to you that made you do this job?” 

There are many people in the industry. They are making money in a large assort- ment of ways. There is no universal reason for why someone enters the sex industry, just as there is no universal reason for why someone works in a textile factory. In the previous case, Julissa Brisman had been a bartender before becoming a sex worker. When she realized she had a drinking problem, she wisely quit her job. Her family even supported her in getting a tattoo to mark the date of her sobriety. What moralist could say she made an unwise decision? 

Poor assumptions and stereotypes often link a sex worker’s entire personal history with drug/alcohol use and physical/sexual abuse. While it is not uncommon for these issues to affect sex workers, these issues affect most workers. If it is deemed necessary to assume that all sex workers have a history of abuse, then why not assume the same for secretaries and librarians? Stories of sex workers who organize for union rights or circulate “bad date” directories may not be as gory and thrilling as serial killings of street workers, but they are equally newsworthy. 

The media garnered a great deal of mileage from “The Craigslist Killer” story. Yet, in the end they did little to educate people about sex work. Eventually the story morphed into scandalized headlines that dis- cussed “how illegal prostitution was threatening communities.” The opposite is what could have been learned from this tragedy, that workers pushed into dark and secretive labor are vulnerable to those who take advantage of that silence. In the US, many forms of sex work and erotic labor are criminalized, creating a population of workers that is isolated from the support network of recognized communities and legal protections. If prostitution were to be decriminalized, those selling sexual labor would have the freedom to create strong community organizations or even labor unions—in other words, we need to make sex workers visible members of the public. 

The rebuttal for decriminalization of prostitution usually revolves around a paternal need to control and guard sexuality.This is often done under the guise of “protecting women” from selling themselves to “disgusting men.” There appears to be a great fear around the idea of “selling ourselves,” which is argued to be intrinsically 

connected to our sexual selves. Without an analysis of capitalism, this is an easy conclusion to draw: that somehow sex workers are selling some sacred part of their being. However, all working-class people are selling themselves in capitalism. People who trade their time for an hourly wage are having their monetary worth extracted from their bodies. This is often referred to as alienated labor. Those that pay us accrue that labor and are then able to continually make profit. 

Within capitalism no worker is truly free to choose his or her labor, income, or work environment. Yet, most have at least the right and choice to openly organize for better conditions or higher pay. The labor force of the criminalized sex worker does not. 

In light of most news agencies being uninterested in talking to sex workers or examining their struggles, sex workers have created media projects all their own. Since the 1970s, sex workers have been meeting around the globe to organize, in large part to develop media literacy. One major publication is $pread Magazine, based out of New York, which features a staff of current and former sex workers. While the magazine does represent the voices of sex workers, they do not take a distinct stand on issues. Instead, they commit to print anything by current or former sex workers, regardless of political or opinion-based positions. Many sex worker organizations have committed to cultivating media production skills within the community, to promote self-representation and accurate reporting. Instead of postulating from on high, organizers are educating people to share their opinions and experiences within the sex industry from a first-hand perspective.