Blog Post Written By: GoAskAlex
My puppy is finally napping as I tip-toe to my laptop and take a seat within the fortress of pillows on my bed. I hold a cup of tea in one hand, and its tendrils of steam rise up to cloud my glasses. In such an exceptionally busy life, it has become a rarity to find these quiet moments of productivity; they are to be preserved at all costs.
A notification in the top right corner of my laptop screen reminds me again that it’s time to install an update. Ignoring it, I open my web browser and load several tabs at once. I have an hour at most, and plan to make the best of it.
Checking the first of three email accounts, I see an unread message sitting at the top of my inbox with the subject line “interview request”.
I quickly scan the email for details, looking for the information that will determine my response. As a long-time industry professional, I am accustomed to requests like this one. It’s not uncommon for performers to receive multiple messages every month from outsiders to the industry requesting a “media interview” or assistance with a “research project”.
These inquiries are more often than not submitted by students writing a paper, or journalists casting their net for a contemporary story. Intentional or not, their underlying purpose is the same: sourcing free labour for their project.
Despite the reservoir of free information available online, these writers will almost always contact sex workers without educating themselvesfirst. It then becomes our burden to educate them. As in most industries, a certain amount of free labour is necessary for exposure, but it shouldn’t be the norm.
I am lucky to have had many opportunities to share my story and perspectives with the world, and I do not intend to sound ungrateful for them. The catalogue of writing and speaking that I’ve done has helped me to arrive where I am today, and most of those projects were unpaid.
Unfortunately, many sex workers encounter these requests for their time and energy ‘off the clock’ not only from reporters, but also from clients and colleagues on a daily basis.
It’s no secret that the sex work industry is highly stigmatized. Our work is perceived as shameful, and as a result we are often condemned to secrecy or else alienated by those around us. The discomfort that civilians (non sex workers) feel in connection to our work is something I’ve come to know as ‘second-hand shame’. This shame creates an air of awkwardness for reporters, particularly when they lack previous experience on the topic. As a result of this dynamic I’ve been approached by many journalists who overcompensate for their discomfort by addressing sex workers with the overfamiliar attitude of an old friend.
A playful approach is seemingly more comfortable for them than the underlying feeling of shame, while in reality it is often perceived as inappropriately informal.
Journalists assure us that they have the best of intentions when approaching the topic of sex work. This is despite the fact that sex workers have a lengthy and complicated history of discriminatory experiences with the media. Sadly it is all too common for sex workers to be outed by journalists, which in turn puts us at risk in both our personal and professional lives.
We are frequently filmed and photographed by the media without consent. In interviews, we are repeatedly asked invasive personal questions that workers in other industries are not.
Sex workers have also been misrepresented or censored by the media. Since sex work is at the centre of political, religious, and moral debates, reporters will often have a personal agenda and may spin the story in a way that benefits them. After all, our society has a morbid fascination with our work. To the public, what we do is unorthodox - and our particular brand of risqué makes for a good read.
Since sex workers are already so underrepresented in media, we cannot afford for our stories to be inaccurate. These mistakes can have dangerous and lasting implications for us.
Subsequently, there is a perceived danger associated with speaking to industry outsiders.
Over the years I have had many good experiences with journalists, but I have also had negative ones. For now, I wonder if perhaps the bulk of writing about sex work should be provided by those who know the industry the best: sex workers themselves.
I find myself wondering, should civilians be permitted to speak for us? Is it even possible for journalists to ethically represent our work?
A great deal of writing published on the topic of sex work conflates sex work with abuse. Such publications reduce all sex workers to a single stereotype of a person in need of liberation from their captor. These publications boasting their anti-exploitation rhetoric miss the glaring hypocrisy of demanding free labour from the very group of people they think need to be rescued.
Something that reporters don’t always consider is that our schedules are already bursting with unpaid work. The vast majority of us barely have time to do the endless tasks required to run our businesses in the first place.
In one instance, I spent months corresponding with a journalist from a well known publication while working on a story together. The project was unpaid, but the notable opportunity was enough to entice me on its own. I spent two hours on video chat with the writer, answering questions while sharing my lengthy pages of notes. Months later when I inquired after the status of the piece, I was told that the editor was no longer interested in publishing. Just like that, all of my hard work and free labour was for naught. As someone with a permanent disability, I have limited energy each day. It was disheartening to learn that my work was in vain as I could have preserved that energy for something productive.
Moving forward, I hope to see more sex workers in positions of power, controlling their own narratives in the media. Though I am open to working with media outlets and writers of all backgrounds, I now see an intrinsic value to working in conjunction with journalists who have personal ties to sex work, or previous experience reporting on the topic.
Sex workers already live in the margins of society, and this is often compounded by gender, race, and disability. We are not paid for the hours that we spend on networking, marketing, promotion, and administration among other tasks. In the future, I hope media outlets across all platforms will reflect on these points before asking sex workers to volunteer their time.
To my fellow sex workers who find their inbox full of media inquiries, I advise you to listen to your instincts. When in doubt, ask for examples of the writer’s work and see for yourself how their subjects are represented. There are journalists out there who are guided by a sense of integrity, and a desire to accurately represent you. These journalists will approach you with a professional, informed, and educated introduction. They will understand that your time is valuable, and that it is limited.
You are not obligated to share your story with anyone.
However; If you do choose to share your story, remember that you are always entitled to an accurate representation, respect, and dignity.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.