Six Problems With Media Coverage on the Sex Trade

Look -- we get that you're under time pressure and for last minute news overviews, it's easier to just cut and paste from press releases. But if repeated research and in-depth features indicate that the press release is not a complete or accurate description of what happened, this becomes dishonest reporting.
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Co-Authored by Lindsay A. Roth, Project Safe Executive Director

While everyone is charged up by Mary Mitchell's exemplary example of "how not to write about people involved in the sex trade," Lindsay and I would like to offer a few tips to the media about how to ethically report on sex work:

1. Stop publishing the mugshots, full names and addresses of people arrested for prostitution. Stop publishing them for clients. While we're at it stop publishing identifying information for all non-public citizens arrested for crimes (unless that crime was, you know, a series of violent murders that the person confessed to).

Although the overwhelming majority of defendants plead guilty (check out Last Week Tonight if you have any questions about why), being arrested does not prove someone guilty -- any more than, say, a few emails forwarded to your paper by a male escort. The news world got cranky when a media executive who had arranged to do something illegal was outed for that... why is it so gung-ho about publishing mug-shots of disproportionately poor, largely black and latino men arrested for (and equally not yet proven guilty of) the same type of crime? We're all for puritanical shaming a la Salem 1692, but we have a sample bias here, and until we can shame equally across class and race lines, we just don't feel good about connecting people to crimes they may not have committed in a permanent public record.

We also get that this is institutionalized, but you can at least start the conversation with your publication. We also know that mug-shots make easy news photos... but so do all of the police-car or women-in-handcuff stock photos on Getty. Names humanize a story, but do you really need a last name?

2. Check your source's stats and research! The recently Melissa Farley study was widely featured by major publications until Hilary Hanson and Elizabeth Nolan-Brown picked it's methodology apart. Reliable data on trafficking is rare, but citing calls to a hotline is not a proxy for incidences of exploitation! We could go on. We know fact-checking is hard -- but if a quick google search fails, you can always use this an opportunity to reconnect with your Freshman BFF who majored in econ/sociology/public policy: "Hey gurl -- miss you like crazy, what's up? I got married and am pregnant -- time moves so fast! Hey, Btwz, any thoughts on the methodology of this study?"

3. Ask questions, especially about race, class and collateral damage. It makes for more accurate reporting and more interesting reporting. For example, Emi Koyama found that FBI operations to "rescue" trafficking victims involved arresting 10 adult female sex workers for every "rescue" and that "rescue" often meant arresting youth or forcing them back to systems that had failed them. Red Umbrella Project found that over 85% of defendants in Brooklyn and Queens prostitution courts were black, Latina or asian. Rachel Lovell learned that over 85% of Chicago police department john arrests involved black and latino men. The Chicago Reporter discovered that felony prostitution convictions made up 97% of all prostitution-related felonies in Cook County between '08 and '11.

Look -- we get that you're under time pressure and for last minute news overviews, it's easier to just cut and paste from press releases. But if repeated research and in-depth features indicate that the press release is not a complete or accurate description of what happened, this becomes dishonest reporting.

Sometimes, all it takes is a quick call to the media contact. Some questions to ask: "What do you mean by rescued?" "Did the operation include any prostitution arrests or municipal ordinance violations related to selling sex? If so, how many? "Do you have demographic information on the individuals arrested?" "What were the charges for those your press release call pimps?" And heck, even if you don't have time to call, if you know every prior operation has involved the arrest of hundreds of sex workers, the least you can do is add the sentence "previous Operation Rescue Sex Slaves stings involved the arrest of hundreds of sex workers." Or "However, some advocates argue that rather than sex slaves, children identified in such operations are really street-based youth in need housing and food working without a pimp." Or (an actual example) "The statement didn't indicate whether those arrested were prostitutes or clients, and police didn't immediately respond to requests for further information."

4. Use multiple sources, and don't omit relevant information and/or counterpoints. Even if it's technically true, if it's misleading, it isn't honest. For example, while "anti-trafficking advocates and sex workers are pitted against each other in a debate on decriminalization" is a phenomenally catchy phrase, it's also a misleading one given that some of the largest U.S., European, and global anti-trafficking networks support decriminalization. Copying and pasting unrelated statistics to make a case for something none of the organizations who produced those statistics support isn't honest, even if the numbers themselves are accurate. Sharing only one side of an argument when a basic news search for "prostitution" shows that that is not the only viewpoint isn't honest.

5. Quote people involved in the sex trade, and publish letters and op-eds by current and former sex workers. Sex workers are assumed to be an "invisible" population, or a population that is unable to speak for themselves. There is, in fact, much evidence to the contrary. The Sex Workers Outreach Project has over 27 chapters nationwide, and many include people with lived experience in the sex trade in their leadership who would love to speak to the media. And SWOP is just one of many organizations out there -- stateside and globally. Don't just rely on non-profits -- sex workers have a huge online community, especially on twitter and tumblr, and there are a number of sex work blogs (Some of the leaders are Tits & Sass and Eminism).

Needing a quote in the next two hours is a major barrier to the inclusion of sex worker voices, especially diverse sex worker voices. Publication policies that prohibit source anonymity, discourage citing already published writing or interviews, or don't allow for publishing letters and columns under a pseudonym are others. If requested, the identities of sex workers should be protected, They are a criminalized population, and often face extreme societal stigma. Sex workers take great risks talking to media -- but that doesn't mean they are unwilling to do it. Sex workers should have an opportunity to use pseudonyms, and their place of work or other identifying information should not be disclosed.

People who work in the sex trade by choice, circumstance or coercion, have a variety of experiences. There is no way one or even a few sex workers can speak for everyone, but it is crucial to include their voices. From policy to programming, the perspectives of sex workers are systematically excluded. Journalists should be aware of their historical role in perpetuating this... and work to change it.

6. STOP mis-gendering sex workers, and stop relying on racist and sexist stereotypes. We shouldn't have to tell you this...but apparently we do. Stop demonizing aspects of black culture and coopting the language of slavery and civil rights. Please be aware of the way you do write about sex workers -- especially transgender sex workers and sex workers of color: Are you honoring their names and gender identities? Have you belabored physical descriptions of their bodies to the exclusion of other facets of their life? Do you assume that all sex workers are cis-women? Do you make gendered or racial assumptions about agency and choice?

Straight up: do you rely on racist tropes or discuss the physical appearance of other workers in your journalism? If you do -- check yourself. That's rude, and that's racist and that's sexist. Just. Stop.

There's a ton more we could say. We'd love for folks to add things we've missed in the comments section. And disclaimer: this doesn't apply to all professional journalists -- some of y'all rock our socks!

There are also other resources on ethical media coverage of the sex trade. For further reading, check out:

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