Contact: Katie Bloomquist, Vice President, SWOP USA– firstname.lastname@example.org
Another sex worker has been arrested and charged for selling sexual labor in Minnesota. Two years later, a writer at the Star Tribune published an article containing photos of her face, her legal name, and work name – with a salacious headline about a “high-end prostitute” AND the exact amount of cash police confiscated (blatantly stole) from her. If that weren’t enough to elevate your blood pressure, the author stated that the sex worker “begged” the arresting officer to let her keep the cash, as if it somehow were not hers to keep because of the way she earned it.
This article is blatantly shaming and attempting to humiliate the person who was arrested. Engaging in this tactic exploits the many valid, existing fears sex workers (or anyone engaging in the sale of sexual services) have of being outed. It acts as a warning to others who sell sex and is a means of social control: “if you sell sex, we will plaster your face and name everywhere and justify it by saying there was a conviction so it is a matter of public record”. This is a petty and thoughtless attempt to normalize violence against sex workers, and it must be called out in order for it to stop.
The Star Tribune frequently publishes articles comprised of rescue-industry nonsense and pseudoscience which assumes sex workers to be victims (and screams about punishing the “johns” and “ending demand”). They continue to propagate the myth that sex “trafficking” increases during major sporting events. They are constantly showing support of increased policing and surveillance of sex workers in the Twin Cities, yet when sex workers are arrested, this writer chose to shame her for violating an unjust law. This conflicting narrative is common – but I want clarity Star Tribune – do you view sex workers as victims to be saved or criminals to be shamed? Because surely you wouldn’t want to shame those who you inaccurately assume require rescue.
Sex workers use pseudonyms to keep themselves safe and to remain anonymous [when they work] because many workers experience discrimination, harassment, violence and rejection related to the stigma of sex work (Deering et al., 2014). Some reasons for this anonymity include:
- Selling sex is illegal in most states in the US, avoiding arrest is important especially if a sex worker has future plans to exit the industry and seek other employment. Having an arrest record makes finding another job incredibly difficult, and in some cases, impossible.
- Many sex workers are not “out” to their family and friends out of fear of rejection, judgement, physical and/or emotional violence, job loss, loss of custody of their children, etc.
- Sex work is highly stigmatized; publicly revealing sex work may make one vulnerable to exploitation (i.e. being blackmailed, being evicted, losing child custody, etc.).
Sex work, in most cases, is a concealable stigma, meaning it must be explicitly (or implicitly) disclosed in order to be recognized. Identity concealment involves “passing” as a non-sex worker and the following stress of concealing an often illegal and stigmatized job from friends and family out of fear of judgement. Anticipated stigma, cultural stigma, and the distress stemming from all of the above directly relate to illness – both mental and physical. In fact, sex workers identify the social consequences of stigma as one of the most serious harms of sex work (Ham & Gerard, 2013).
The author of the aforementioned article is using their position to morally shame a sex worker for engaging in sexual behavior that is not socially sanctioned (in this case, sex in exchange for money). The moral [and legal] condemnation of sexuality between consenting adults by a misinformed, sex-repressed culture is causing real harm to the sex work community and to individuals who sell sex.
People who transcend norms of socially expected sexual behavior have long attracted the attention of curious writers. However, writing articles on sex work in a way that is ethical and useful to the sex work community appears to be low on the Star Tribune’s priority list, as sex work is viewed through a lens of deviant behavior, instead of a workers-rights or harm-reduction approach. This anti-sex work, prohibitionist narrative has relied on circular logic in which involvement in sex work constitutes proof of deviance, victimization and/or supposed lack of agency (Ham & Gerard, 2013).
When outsiders write about sex work, it is necessary to consult those who are directly impacted to challenge the contradictory dichotomy of viewing sex workers as victims/criminals. Understanding that those who sell sexual services are workers who are sell their labor – and deserve protection from stigmatizing news articles, arrest, incarceration, and asset forfeiture – is the only responsible and ethical way to challenge the stigma of sex work and the harms that come from it.
Vice President, SWOP-USA