Cultural and media representations of sex work often purport to educate the public about a pressing social concern. And increasingly, such depictions are linked to non-profit fundraising, anti-trafficking and prostitution legislation and humanitarian intervention.
But the absence or exclusion of sex workers’ voices from the majority of these efforts has led to a misunderstanding of their needs and concerns, a perpetuation of stigma and a dangerous conflation between voluntary sex work and sex trafficking.
Peta Brady’s play, Ugly Mugs, for example, which ran in Sydney in 2014, drew on traumatic narratives shared on a closed resource for sex workers in order to stage sexual violence and give a voice to its victims.
Sex workers’ collectives in Victoria and New South Wales, however, immediately condemned the play: first, for making a closed resource public without the consent of its users, and second, for portraying sex workers as hapless victims rather than as a legitimate labour force fighting for recognition and safe working conditions.
In his writings on sex trafficking around the world, which have included New York Times op-ed pieces, the Half the Sky trans-media project, encompassing a book, film and website, and the live-tweeting of a 2011 brothel raid he observed in Cambodia, journalist Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly framed sex work as slavery, assuming every woman he meets is working against her will.
Kristof was also one of the most vocal supporters of Somaly Mam, who was accused in 2014 of falsifying her memoir about being sold into prostitution to generate funds for her rescue organisation. One of the most damning charges against Mam is that she coached young women, some of whom were not even sex workers, in recounting fabricated tales of horrific violence before international cameras. These narratives presented a skewed and at times inaccurate image of the reality of sex work in Cambodia.
It was this simplified image of a complex reality that motivated the 2008 Cambodian law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. This legislation, driven in part by narratives like Mam’s and Kristof’s and which affects both voluntary and involuntary sex workers, operates on the idea that all sex work is coerced.
This same conflation is at work in the 2017 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which have criminalised websites that host online classified ads for sex and which were recently signed into law in America.
Both the Cambodian and American legislation have been celebrated by politicians, abolitionists and anti-trafficking activists as victories in the international fight against sex trafficking. But both are detrimental to sex workers worldwide, negating their agency and the legitimacy of their work and exposing them to more danger, all in the name of rescue.
According to the 2010 Human Rights Watch report, the Cambodian law resulted in the arbitrary and at times unlawful incarceration of sex workers, who have been subjected to violence, abuse and even rape at the hands of the police.
In the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers’ websites are disappearing, their Twitter accounts are being shadow banned and now their bank accounts are under threat, Microsoft is prohibiting nudity and profanity over Skype, and sex education and sex worker outreach groups are curtailing operations to avoid prosecution.
Sex workers from Kansas to Canberra have found themselves pushed off the web — even though Australia has decriminalised sex work in some states — and back onto the streets.
The reality is that many sex workers have experienced sex work as coerced and consensual. But there is little room for such nuance in media and cultural representations of sex work that are not produced by sex workers themselves.
Journalists, artists, academics and legislators want to educate, respond to exploitation and eliminate suffering — but this is only possible when their representations do not themselves perpetuate ignorance, abuse and distress.
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