Sex Worker's Rights and Media Ethics:
Notes for Journalists
by Jo Weldon, Director
Sex Worker's International Media Watch
"Sex Workers' Rights and Media Ethics? What is this, another
crackpot special interest group blaming all their problems on the
No, our concerns are real. There are millions of people working in
the sex industry and their issues are not trivial. Besides, SWIMW
IS part of the media. And, I have read and fully understand the following
Examining Our Credibility (ASNE)
Media Ethics: Some Specific Problems. ERIC Digest.
SWIMW is not interested in dogging media representatives. We are interested
in making sure they can tell whether or not they are receiving factual
information about sex industry issues, helping them to recognize biases
and/or motives of activists, and creating better communication between
media representatives and sex workers.
As advocates of the position that sex workers are laborers whose lives
must be improved while the struggles to fight the conditions which
perpetuate gender inequality continue, we often find ourselves and
our associates implied to be corporate sex industry lackeys. I have
been refused participation on a panel at a symposium on trafficking
because I identify myself as a "sex worker" rather than
as a "survivor of prostitution." Media representatives who
attend such events are receiving manipulated information. The most
recent incident is reported here. How can journalists find out what
is really going on?
A few things for journalists to consider:
* In a recognized incident of media ethics violation, photos of supposed
"child prostitutes" were staged for an article in Time magazine.
This incident is described online at the Columbia Journalism Review.
Reporters should be particularly thorough when reporting on child
sexual exploitation. A report which states that "the average
age of entry into prostitution is 10 years old" is obviously
not possibly true. Such reports may dangerously divert resources and
attention from the real facts about and causes of child sexual exploitation.
These brutalized children are not helped by distortions and sensationalism.
* When a former prostitute reports that while working as a prostitute
she or he was beaten by a spouse, was addicted to drugs, and was defrauded
by employers, she or he is not describing prostitution. She or he
is describing domestic violence, drug addiction, and labor violations.
(Note: Prostitution is not illegal everywhere.)
* The assertion that pornography is, or contributes to, violence against
women, is often stated as fact. It is theory. Pornographers make pornography.
Rapists commit rape. It is currently extremely difficult to procure
rape convictions and to conflate rape with pornography does not make
it any easier.
* Implications have been made that sex workers' rights activists are
funded by the corporate sex industry. This is not true and this claim
is never investigated but is often relayed. The intention of this
claim is to damage the credibility of sex workers' rights advocates,
implying that they are self-interested industry representatives rather
than activists concerned about the human rights of sex workers. An
outright statement that we deliberately work to further the interests
of the corporate sex industry (which is WHAT, by the way?) would be
* Debates about prostitution are often discussed as purely feminist
issues with "survivors of prostitution" on one side and
"happy hookers" on the other, or as the concern of citizens
which want to clean up their communities from the "infection"
of criminal elements. Such issues can be far more complex than they
* A notable percentage of sex workers "rescued" from sex
work by prostitution-abolitionist organizations return to sex work
(as stated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women),
or end up working for the organizations which rescued them. This is
worthy of investigation.
* When strippers in New York organized protests against zoning regulations
which were designed to shut down adult businesses, the initial response
of the New York Times was to trivialize the protests on the basis
of low attendance, without examining the validity of the workers'
claims or the reasons that many workers in and supporters of the sex
industry might be hesitant to show their faces at a media event.
* There is a war of credibility going on between prostitution-abolitionist
activists who define prostitution itself as a form of violence against
women, and sex workers' rights groups and anti-trafficking activists
who wish to combat trafficking separately from prostitution. Abolitionists
are less likely to discuss women trafficked into the garment industry
or agricultural industry. If you are a journalist investigating trafficking
in women, do not forget the women and children working in slavery-like
conditions in sweatshops.
* The "war of credibility" described above is in itself
bizarre and worthy of investigation. What's really at stake? Why are
organizations formed for the purpose of combating violence against
and exploitation of women in conflict with each other?
* Interviewing a person who used to work in the sex industry is not
the same as interviewing a person who currently works in the sex industry.
Both may have complex motives. A former worker, for example, may be
trying to excuse or make up for having been in the industry; a current
worker may be trying to justify or glamorize being in the sex industry.
But it is not that difficult for a reporter to keep these possibilities
in mind, when one remembers the stigma which is often applied to them.
Both former and current workers are capable of simply telling the
truth, as well. And both can be critical of their jobs without making
claims about the industry in general.
* Prostitution-abolitionist activists, whether community-oriented
or feminist, almost always have more funding, media access, and popular-opinion
support than sex workers' rights activists have. Both sex workers'
rights advocates and prostitution abolitionists are against trafficking
in women, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation of children.
If you are a reporter and are covering issues such as sexual exploitation
of children, domestic violence, or trafficking in women, you can find
organizations which support a progressive view of sex work here.
Serious reporters may not want to focus on sex workers' concerns because
they may be considered "frivolous" or "sensationalistic"
for doing so. However, millions of people work in the sex industry
the world over, making coverage of their concerns a legitimate issue
which affects millions of laborers rather than a great opportunity
to increase ratings. When sex workers are in the news, they are often
portrayed as being a blight upon communities when they are in fact
members of those communities. Assumptions are made about the negative
secondary effects their businesses are said to have on their own communities,
effects which may be better addressed by direct intervention than
by closing sex businesses. The reasons for their being in the sex
industry are rarely questioned but often seem to be assumed to spring
from a combination of amorality and limited intellect, or from being
part of a mysterious, insensitive, and primitive third-world culture.
When they attempt to discuss their concerns with media representatives,
they may be mocked or portrayed in sensationalistic ways, or their
other concerns may be buried under a reporter's urge to portray them
poignantly. When hard news, such as legislative decisions, concern
sex work, the issues are often reported as human interest rather than
as news which involves the legitimate and immediate concerns of laborers
and tax-payers. The problems of adult sex workers are conflated with
those of abused and violated children who have been inducted into
the sex industry, which is not useful for combating violence against
either the children who are being exploited or the adult workers.
Limited community resources are inefficiently distributed.
Whether sex businesses are the causes or the symptoms of problems
in communities is rarely considered. The possibility that they are
a valid source of employment is even more rarely considered.
We can give examples of media which both violate and comply with media
ethics. In our research, we are attempting to incorporate the most
valuable insights of both the anti-pornography feminists, who have
made brilliant observations about the ways news media sometimes imply
that women who are beaten, raped or killed are somehow responsible
for their own victimization, and the anti-censorship feminists, who
have made equally insightful claims about the ways in which media
representatives sometimes trivialize sex workers' concerns and endanger
other women by extension. Although affiliated with the latter, we
believe that the factionalism among feminists has led to strictly
polarized interpretations of sexism in media, as well as to a fallacious
belief that sex work is a primarily feminist concern, affected only
by gender and class roles and not by corporate and global interests
in the sex industry (and the extent to which these affect gender,
race, and class representations).
One of our concerns is that the prostitution-abolitionist movements
(not only the radical feminist, but also the governmental and moralist
ones) may have a chilling effect on the testimonies of sex workers'
rights activists. It is difficult for those who wish to organize labor
unions and negotiate with management and owners of sex-oriented businesses
to do so, while outside forces wish to close down the sources of their
employment. The workers often end up siding with the management against
whom they have complaints, in order to counter unsubstantiated claims
of negative secondary effects and allegations about the behavior of
workers and clientele. News media may dismiss their statements as
being motivated only by self-interest and therefore not possibly true.
For instance, claims are made about the lowering of property values;
once the (usually privately-owned) sex industry establishments are
gone, businesses with excellent capital resources take their places.
Assumptions are often made that the sex industry employees will be
better off when these jobs are no longer available, as they will be
forced to improve their working conditions by getting diffferent jobs.
However, the large numbers of people dependent on such employment
indicate that, particularly in areas with high rates of unemployment,
it will be difficult for them to automatically "move along"
to a "better life." A sex worker can apply for, acquire,
and bring home income from a job within 24 hours, with no resume whatsoever;
there are few, if any, substitutes for this function of the sex industry,
even by criminal means.
Sex work establishments are also discriminated against, identified
as vectors of crime and health problems on the basis of inadequate
research. They are often relegated to the poorest and most dangerous
parts of a community; then, when corporate interests want those areas,
they are moved from there as well. Strip joints are blamed for noise
and traffic, but in fact they are often carefully regulated to avoid
noise and traffic. When a strip joint closes, the standing building
is still a bar and may be sold to bar owners who may or may not regulate
noise and traffic as well.
It is rare that sex workers or the owners of sex-oriented businesses
enter the business from a position of economic privilege. This, also,
is rarely discussed. The vast majority of research on sex work, from
all sides, is often biased and inadequate, and the competition for
funding for such research is fierce. If there was ever a place to
investigate the sources of statistics, this is it. When trafficking
in women is discussed, there is often much debate about philosophical
terms and definitions of violence, but there is little discussion
about the "money trail," that is, how the money made from
trafficking flows. Who makes money from the "multi-million dollar
industry" in trafficking in women? Wouldn't studying this be
a good way to learn who is responsible for forced labor?
Journalists who are concerned with media ethics will be assumed to
be capable of fact-checking all the claims I have made here. Feel
free to email me if you have questions about my sources.