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Friday, 22 March 2019 05:48 am

Stereotypes rule – how media misses the real news in sex work

THE media could be missing the real stories in the sex work industry because they are unable to get over the stereotypes. TESSA JOHNSTONE talks to sex workers and an academic about some of the myths:

CHEAP SHOT: A cartoon published by The Press in January upset those at the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective

AUDREY has been a sex worker for almost two years, choosing it because she was “curious and broke”.

As a full-time honours student, she had little energy left at the end of a day for a job and admits to being attracted to the glamour and secrecy around sex work.

“It gave me a way to – in theory – earn $300 in two hours, which is enough. It’s often all I do in a week.”

Audrey said she has tried a few jobs, but this one works for her.

“I feel like sex work works better for me. I’ve evaluated my options, tried a few different things and this works for me. If it wasn’t, I would stop.”

Audrey is often frustrated by the way the media covers stories involving sex workers, because everyone she knows in sex work has made a choice, and if they are unhappy in it, they are not that different from other friends “stuck” in unsatisfactory jobs.

“I know a lot of people who fell into their jobs and would probably leave them if they won Lotto, or if their partner agreed to support them for six months so they could write their book.

“A lot of my friends are musicians and artists, and God knows they don’t want to be doing their shitty hospitality job. But they do them because they don’t have a choice.”

She says people often jump on the “sex” part of the job title, and treat it as though it’s a unique working situation. But to her, it’s like any other job.

“I don’t think it’s any worse to feel like you have to do your job – which happens to be having sex with someone – than it is, for example, to feel like you have to go and look after someone else’s children.”

Rosemary McLeod wrote in The Dominion Post in January that the first “hookers” she saw were in Australia.

“At a second glance you saw the needle marks in their arms, and their dirty feet with broken toenails. Yet they were busy plying their trade, and the men who used them didn’t give a damn about their dead eyes.”

She went on to say there is a reason sex work has a stigma attached to it.

“When people talk about feeling prostituted in their line of work they tend to mean they have to repress the better hopes they have for themselves, and any real talent, to earn a buck at something they rather hate.

“To be blunt, surely nothing could be quite as soul-destroying as performing fellatio for a living.”

Audrey describes the column – which attracted 100 comments online from readers both agreeing and disagreeing with her sentiments – as “just hateful”.

While it’s an extreme example, and an opinion piece, there is no shortage of news stories which perpetuate myths about sex workers.

A 2010 Otago University study, Taking the crime out of sex work, analysed more than 200 news articles and editorials about sex work and found that while a good number were neutral or focused simply on compliance with the new prostitution reform laws, others were negative.

Fifty of the articles had a theme researchers described as “threat to dominant morality”, 24 showed sex workers as a public nuisance, 20 focused on sex workers as a public nuisance in regard to local bylaws, and 16 showed sex workers as victims.

Audrey says she has noticed the language used in reports about sex work has reverted back to what was being reported before the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003.

A One News story, Christchurch Police crackdown on prostitution, broadcast in January highlights the issue of street workers shifting from the CBD – which is now the red zone – into the suburbs.

Reporter Joy Reid, on a ride along with Police, explains: “…the unsavoury behaviour associated with it is upsetting residents.”  Said residents though, according to Ms Reid, are “too afraid to speak about it publicly”.

There are two glimpses of sex workers in the report. One is snapped with a client in a car, face blurred and clothing half off. Police ask the sex worker if her client knows she is hep C positive, to which she starts to reply that she has had a negative test, but is cut off by the reporter’s voiceover.

The reporter’s only interview with a sex worker in the story consists of this exchange:

Reporter: “Did you consider going to a motel or somewhere else to do your business?”
Sex worker: “Well yeah, that’s fine to do that sort of thing if you can afford it.”
Reporter: “But can you afford it?”
Sex worker: “No.”

To Audrey, this report is a concise and classic example of the way media portrays sex work.

“There were a lot of things in that video that weren’t about sex work, that were about this wider rhetoric of the important rights of white middle-class home owners.

“[Media] is often the platform people have to talk about sex work publicly or hear about sex work, and the way it’s often framed in New Zealand media, especially recently, is this classic ‘Not in my backyard’ thing.”

Stories like the One News report are especially damaging at the moment, says Audrey, because of the Manukau City Council (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill going through Parliament.

If the law is passed, it sets a precedent for local councils to be able to dictate where and when sex work happens.

Dr Gillian Abel. IMAGE: Otago University

Academic Gillian Abel, one of the authors of Taking the crime out of sex work, said there is obvious friction in both Manukau and Christchurch between sex workers and homeowners, but that it is not being managed in the right way.

“There needs to be some sort of negotiation between the residents and the sex workers. They need to deal with the public nuisance at that level. There are already laws to manage it, around noise levels and things like that.”

She said the proposal to zone sex work essentially recriminalises it, and would be a dangerous step backward for the industry.

Dr Abel said the area proposed in Manuaku is a badly-lit, semi-industrial area and the move would lead to more violence, coercion and exploitation of sex workers, as well as less access to vital health services and Police.

She said no law has ever stopped sex work – often referred to as the oldest profession – so it is more useful to write laws and policies which look at sex work from a human rights and health and safety perspective, and look at how to make it safer.

The media, as well, has a part in this. Dr Abel says the language used in stories perpetuates the stigma of sex work, and the focus is always on the sex bit – because sex sells.

“They’re selling a story, it sells newspapers, people want to read about this sort of stuff.’’

She says often stories incite moral panic and perpetuate myths, which has a negative impact on sex workers. “They feel stigmatised, it impacts on them mentally, having to hide what you’re doing and try and defend yourself.’’

Audrey says columns like Rosemary McLeod’s make her feel like shit. “Simultaneously, it makes you feel like your job has no skill and that any skill you do have is bad and depressing.”

But the worst part about the stigma is that she has to pretend there is nothing wrong with her job or work conditions.

“With all of the negative stereotyping and all the stigma, my biggest issue is that sex workers are actually quite aware of problems in their workplaces and often interested in organising to change them.

“As soon as I say I had a really bad day last week they say, ‘See? Do you want a ride to Rape Crisis?’

“Whereas often what I mean is the client cancelled and I didn’t make any money, or the guy was kind of a douche, or had bad breath, or had really obnoxious politics that he talked at me, or I had an argument with a co-worker.

“Things that happen to people every day who do any kind of work. It makes it difficult to talk about work conditions.”

Among some sex workers, she says, there is a desire to unionise to get better working conditions across the board.

Some sex workers still pay shift fees, transgender sex workers are excluded from parlours and brothels, street workers are often put in unsafe situations and, like in any industry, some bosses don’t treat their employees fairly.

They’re good stories for someone who can write about them with what Audrey calls an equal measure of compassion and critique, and can include the voices of the people the stories are about.

“If you’re talking about someone whose life you haven’t lived, it would be nice to, you know, give them some respect. I’m really just asking that people think about sex workers as humans.”

Catherine Healy. IMAGE: Stuff

New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective national coordinator Catherine Healy said while the portrayal of sex work in the media is not something they dwell on, it does have an impact.

“Sex workers come in here and we laugh. It’s not all chin on the ground, weighed down by life at all, but it’s something that is quite tricky.”

Ms Healy talks about a cartoon which came out The Press in January, highlighting the issue of sex work in the suburbs.

It depicts sex workers in “Whore Square” as local and imported meat for sale.

“For The Press to do that in Christchurch,  for instance, create a cartoon that was so demeaning, a cartoon depicting sex workers not even as humans, as pieces of meat…

“And knowing the history of Christchurch, knowing that we’ve had three sex workers murdered there, knowing that kind of image feeds into that it’s okay, they’re open game, we’re not really harming someone that doesn’t really matter’.

“It feeds into that culture of violence. That’s a really powerful thing that can come out of the media – who cares, nobody cares about you guys.’’

Ms Healy said the sex work industry has had a varied relationship with the media.

“Over time, we’ve had different relationships with journalists and media. I always get the sense that they’re quite liberal until I read the headlines. It’s not the journalist necessarily, but maybe it’s the editor that needs a good bollocking.’’

So are journalists still asking silly questions, or are we getting more educated?

“You often hear people make statements like ‘I’d really like to talk to a normal sex worker’. There’s a request that’s come in from National Geographic of all places and they want to speak to a ‘normal’ sex worker and show the good side of sex work.

“They’ve defined this normality as someone who perhaps has a PhD, who likes cooking, has a nice ‘normal’ partner. That is just so upsetting.”

She makes the argument there’s no typical sex worker, and that even if they do have a PhD and come from a privileged background, they could be on a methadone programme, too.

“It’s about as bizarre as lining up any other occupational group and trying to box them into a certain kind of upbringing.

“Brothel madams will say things like ‘all our women are educated and rah rah rah’, like they’re super hookers and them lot over there are filthy hoes. That really irritates me.”

Ms Healy does not think it’s helpful to try and put people into little boxes like that – good sex worker and bad sex worker. Street workers in Manukau and Christchurch are clearly the bad sex workers at the moment, judging by the language used.

“When they’re being sensible and bureaucratic they talk about sex workers. When we’re in trouble we’re prostitutes again.

“We’re quite relaxed about being sex workers or whores or prostitutes in terms of a political take on all that language, but it’s interesting to see [prostitute] come back.”

Audrey refers to herself as a hooker, but wouldn’t want anyone to call her that. She prefers “sex worker”, as there is neutrality to it, and “prostitute” is often used in a negative context.

“The word ‘prostitution’ bothers me because it’s very passive sounding. It implies you’re having something taken from you.  It’s sometimes used as a metaphor for people having a shitty time or selling themselves out, so I feel it’s not a great word.

“And the reason they use the word ‘prostitution’ rather than sex work in a story like that is that it’s about the social ill of prostitution.”

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is a Whitireia journalism student.
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  1. An excellent and thorough piece. Great analysis of the media’s approach with a good variety of sources providing depth. It would be interesting to see more stories like this.

  2. Real news would involve the cover up of 9/11 WTC7 collapse in particular. Not to mention the BS plane hitting the pentagon

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