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The Seven Deadly Sins of Sex Work Journalism, and How to Avoid Them.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Sex Work Journalism, and How to Avoid Them.

. 9 min read

Trigger warning: this article contains references to slurs and violence against sex workers.

As an escort of twelve years’ experience, I sure get tired of reading the paper.

Whenever my job is mentioned in newspapers, blogs, or magazines, the same tropes tend to pop up: moral panic, drug abuse, violence. Journalists quote us selectively, so that it sounds as if we’re living out the sex-negative, whorephobic stereotypes the public are used to consuming. On occasion, we’ve been outed by the publication of our legal names or the unauthorised use of our advertising photos.

Of course, not all media outlets treat us this way. But it happens often enough that I’m reluctant to speak to the press, for fear of contributing to sex work stigma.

A few years ago, I enrolled to study writing, editing and journalism at university. I’ve since worked with some big outlets, including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian. And I’ve realised that most writers simply aren’t taught how to get this right.

One lecturer told us, “Never show an interview subject the final article, or they might dispute what they said.” But how are sex workers supposed to make sure the facts are right, unless they can see how they’re being described and quoted? Another time, during a unit on ‘ethical journalism’, the article we studied concerned a murdered street-based worker - the words ‘prostitute’, ‘junkie’, and ‘selling sex’ appeared over and over until I felt sick.

My wonderful editors have given me room to set boundaries that ensure my work doesn’t harm sex workers. It is possible to write, and be published, while telling the best possible story. Here’s my required reading - the ‘seven deadly sins’ that all journos need to avoid when writing about the sex industry.

Although my criticism is direct, please don’t feel discouraged! As a writer, I know it’s possible to do better. Avoid these pitfalls, and you’ll add to the conversation around sex work, rather than detracting from it.

Using the wrong words

This is the twenty-first century, right? To look professional, you need to use the right terminology. Although ‘prostitute’, ‘call girl’ and ‘hooker’ were common parlance in the past, the sex worker movement has firmly established what’s right for us, and that’s ‘sex work’.

I sometimes see writers referring to ‘selling sex’. Honestly, that’s not what my job is about. My clients are paying for a well-negotiated sexual experience, not just getting access to my sexy bits. Likewise, the term ‘selling their bodies’ doesn’t make logical sense to me - how can I sell my body, when I’m physically attached to it? ‘Selling sexual services’ is a better choice.

If you’re worried about getting your language right, you can run your piece by a peer-run organisation, such as Scarlet Alliance in Australia or Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in the USA. They’ll be quick to set you straight, and often appreciate you making the effort.

Cliched stock photos

You know the ones: the stockinged, disembodied leg. The woman in the shadows with her back turned. The faceless worker in a dingy corridor. These overused images reinforce the notion that sex work is a seedy profession, and depersonalise workers by showing them as faceless and passive.

It’s not necessarily due to bias. Often, stock libraries prohibit showing a model’s face, if the use of the image will associate them with anything potentially defamatory. This means that an editor’s options are limited both by their own understanding of sex work, and by what’s available.

The key to finding a better image is to remember that sex workers are people. We’re not all women. We don’t all wear high heels and we don’t loiter in dingy corridors. We’re average citizens: young, old, queer, straight, classy, casual…you name it.

Here are some photos I’d love to see in print:

  • A group of stylish people drinking coffee and using their mobile phones (certainly a true scene from my life!)
  • A confident, well-dressed older woman walking through a hotel lobby.
  • A queer worker cleaning and organising their sex toy collection.
  • A client/worker couple on a first date, looking a little awkward but also a bit sweet (cute!)

Wholesome photos such as these may lack the ‘clickbait factor’, but they’re necessary. It’s not ok to depersonalise us and reinforce negative stereotypes just to get a few extra web hits. Don’t worry, as long as you have ‘sex worker’ in the article title, people will still happily click away!

Rehashing tired, old stereotypes

Despite decades of sex worker activism, plenty of negative stereotypes have persisted. Here are a few false narratives, and their accompanying truths.

Myth: Sex workers only do the job out of desperation, either for drugs or for money.

Truth: People choose this job for all sorts of reasons. And of course we’re doing it for the money…the same reason you’re writing an article for the paper, right? We all need to pay the rent, and sex work is how I choose to do that.

Myth: Sex work clients are creepy, bad men who abuse their power to get what they want.

Truth: People of all genders and backgrounds pay for sexual services. It’s a negotiated transaction, the same as any other service business. And, often, my clients are more nervous than I am!

Myth: Sex work is an unskilled profession that’s just about clients paying to access the bodies of workers.

Truth: Although it doesn’t fit the dictionary definition of ‘skilled profession’, sex work does require an impressive skill set. From admin and advertising to boundary-setting and safer sex, there’s a lot we need to know to get the job done.

Myth: Sex workers are ‘broken people’ who were abused as children or come from broken homes.

Truth: There’s nothing wrong with choosing to have a lot of sex, even if it’s for money. Like I said earlier, this is the twenty-first century - we don’t slut-shame any more. We also understand that sexual assault and abuse survivors can be found in all professions, and we don’t shame survivors by suggesting they’re ‘damaged’.

Staying true to the reality of sex work - and avoiding these tropes - means fighting off the creeping assumption that sex work is inherently bad, dangerous and destructive. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I genuinely see my interview subject (or the subject of my story) as a person?
  • Is my story giving off shamey vibes? Will a reader come away from this feeling grossed out or uncomfortable?
  • Am I focusing on the heart of the narrative, or on the ‘street cred’ of writing about something edgy?
  • Is this piece intended to attract outrage and discomfort, or normalise and explore an issue?

Steering your article in the right direction might mean fending off some editorial interference from a boss who wants a juicer angle. But at the end of the day, it’s your byline - and your reputation that will suffer, if you don’t do a fair job.

Forgetting to ask sex workers

Got all your experts lined up? Great! But are any of them actual sex workers? It’s easy to get carried away with health and sexuality experts, but when it comes to this subject, there’s no substitute for speaking to people who have lived experience.

As a first step, it’s worth contacting your local peer-run sex work organisation. They can direct you to interview subjects, give you the facts, and let you know if anything you’re planning is potentially problematic. Although some journos might feel apprehensive, our peer orgs really do appreciate getting a ‘heads up’ on a news story. It also means they’re much less likely to call you out publicly later - a situation we’d all like to avoid.

When you approach workers for comments, be transparent about your angle and who you’re writing for. They need to know you’re legit, not just trying to trick them into saying something incriminating to create clickbait for the tabloids.

When I record comments from other workers, I also keep in mind that everyone has their own opinion, experiences, and ways of working. Unless you’re taking a statement from a peer organisation, one worker simply can’t speak for everyone…and if you take one person’s comments and let readers assume that ‘all sex workers are like that’, you’re doing the truth a disservice.

Giving a platform to fringe lunatics

The concept of ‘journalistic balance’ is a noble one, intended to minimise bias and encourage thoughtful exploration of an issue. But, just as including climate change deniers is irresponsible when discussing global warming, including abolitionists and sex work exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) in a discussion about sex work is misleading and harmful.

SWERFs and ‘antis’ do a lot of harm in our communities by pushing negative stereotypes that increase discrimination against sex workers. They usually support criminalisation and other laws that force sex workers into unsafe working conditions. But because what they have to say is sensationalist, it often attracts a lot of attention and is included under the guise of having a ‘balanced view’.

It’s not respectful nor constructive to include these types of people in your work. Doing so will almost always alienate your sex worker interview subjects and leave you open to vocal criticism.

Here are a few questions to ask before you include someone’s views:

  • Do they have lived experience of sex work? (This is good!)
  • Do they advocate for decriminalisation and harm minimisation? (Also good.)
  • Do they repeat old stereotypes or use stigmatised terms such as ’selling their bodies’? (This is bad.)
  • Do they try to pass off their own negative experiences as every worker’s experience? (Also bad.)

Violating our privacy

Interviewing a sex worker comes with some particular demands. We’re a vulnerable, stigmatised population and you’ll need to handle us with extra care.

Stigma is real, and discrimination can endanger our livelihoods or even put us in physical danger. Outing a sex worker can cause them to lose their day job, become estranged from their partner or family, and increase their risk of assault and domestic violence. It’s not your fault that regular folks react so badly to sex workers…but it is your problem.

There are a number of ways the media can breach privacy:

  • Using photos of workers without permission. Even if a face isn’t isn’t visible, they may still be identifiable.
  • Publishing their legal name - yes, this happens! Ask, ‘What should we call you in the article?’ and remove all notes and references to any other names, so there’s no confusion.
  • Publicising where they live, their day job, or any other identifying details. Even an innocent detail, such as the colour of someone’s hair or their medical history, could be revealing. Always check with your worker as to how they’d like to be described.

Ensuring privacy may mean you need to change your interview technique, take more time to check in with your subject, offer additional assurances around confidentiality, and follow up with your editor or outlet. But it’s essential to get this right.

Skipping the fact check

As I’m sure you know by now, you’re not an expert in sex work. It’s really easy for the wrong information to slip through when handling a subject you’re not familiar with and battling an approaching deadline.

In class, I was taught that the golden rule of interviews is, ‘never let them read the piece before it goes to print!’ But if your article concerns sex work, you’ll need to do things differently. Allowing your subjects to check your work is an essential step to ensure you’ve got the facts right, represented your subject faithfully, and haven’t accidentally shared identifying details.

When I ask an interview subject to fact check, I’m specific about what they need to look for. I ask them to make sure that:

  • They’re comfortable with the angle of piece
  • They’re happy with how they’re represented and their quotes are accurate
  • They haven’t been identified in a way that makes them feel compromised

If you’ve referenced any facts and figures about sex work, you’ll also need to do a bit of legwork yourself. Has your data come from reputable sources? Some academics and self-declared ‘experts’ are biased and negative, so a qualification isn’t enough. Make sure your information is supported by reputable health and sex work organisations.

If you’re unsure about your facts and figures, reach out to your local peer organisation and ask their opinion. If something is iffy, it’s best to know now, rather than wait until publication and risk being called out.

Your work is your legacy - act wisely.

One of my lecturers once told me, ‘You’re only as good as your last piece of work.’

I think that’s unnecessarily harsh. But her words had some truth to them: what we do as writers matters, especially in this digital age where nothing ever really disappears. We have the power to help, or harm. And wherever we go, those we meet will be able to punch our names into Google and find out what kind of people we are.

If you’re tackling sex work in your next book, news piece, or essay, make sure you dodge the seven deadly sins! Let’s give this fascinating, diverse and totally legitimate industry the respect it deserves.