Tips for reporting about sex work

by Iris Pase
Feb 19, 2021 in Specialized Topics
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Sex work, meaning the provision of sexual services for money or goods, is a global industry that employs millions people of all genders in a variety of roles, which include, but are not limited to, street workers, actors, performers, escorts, dancers and traveling entertainers. 

Despite the size of the sector, sex workers remain stigmatized. The community faces high levels of violence, discrimination, legal oppression and other human rights violations. This vulnerability to violence is increased for sex workers belonging to marginalized groups, such as transgender people, migrants and sex workers who use drugs.

Mainstream reporting bears the effects of centuries of stigmatization towards sex work. News coverage often falls into sensationalistic or judgemental narratives, which can cause harm and endanger people working in the industry.

Respectful reporting can significantly benefit sex workers’ lives, helping lift the stigma. We asked Dr. Anastacia Ryan, founder of Scottish sex worker charity Umbrella Lane, to share her advice for anyone writing on the subject. 

Umbrella Lane is an organization whose aim is to change the way sex work is viewed within Scottish society. It’s led by sex workers, some of whom have agreed, anonymously, to share their insight on how to respectfully report about their job.

Avoid describing sex work as “prostitution”

When referring to someone who engages in sex work, avoid terms like “victim” or “prostitute.” Despite its common use, the word “prostitution” is not neutral. It reinforces the centuries-old stigma that has been cast on sex workers and continues to other the community. 

“Most of the people I’ve worked and networked with globally who are involved in sex work call themselves ‘sex workers,” says Dr. Ryan. If you're unsure what a particular community prefers, you can shift the attention on to the person with expressions like “people who sell sexual services” or “people who engage in sex work.”

[Read more: What every journalist should know about anonymous sources]

Feature sex workers’ voices

Journalists are taught to regularly include quotes from interviewees in their reporting. However, when it comes to sex work, reporters tend to talk to authorities before reaching out to sex workers — if they reach out at all. This often results in people who sell sexual services being completely silenced in the news.

When reporting about the sex industry, don’t consider the story complete without an interview or comment by an actual worker.

When you reach out for an interview, do so responsibly. “Something that really gets to sex workers is when journalists mask as a sex worker on sex worker only spaces,” Dr. Ryan tells IJNet. “It happens an awful lot. They go into client reviews websites, they take quotes, and they just create an article without speaking to the person.”

You may also be tempted to contact sex workers directly via social media, as many people working in the industry have social accounts for personal or professional reasons. However, you should avoid this whenever possible.

“Platforms like Twitter are used for advertising. Therefore, by intruding in that space, you're also taking up time that should be spent, usually, with clients,” says Dr. Ryan. What you can do instead is reach out to sex worker projects and organizations, which usually have a team of ambassadors who are used to talking to the media. They know how to conceal their identity and take all the preventative measures to ensure their own safety.

Prioritize the safety of your interviewees

As mentioned above, people who engage in sex work regularly face discrimination and violence, not only from clients, but also from the police. For this reason, reporters need to protect the identity of their interviewees.

“We try to work with journalists to ensure confidentiality and anonymity,” says Dr. Ryan. “We also reiterate to the sex worker not to give any identifying details, such as their real name, address or anything like that.”

If filming interviewees, make sure to mask their identity by adding a shadow or zooming in on a particular part of their body, such as their hands. Keep identifying details such as rings, tattoos or special marks hidden. 

Be considerate of your interviewees’ fears and if they request, let them see or hear your final draft.

Give preference to balance over sensationalism and clickbait

Journalists should avoid polarizing reporting about sex workers. The media often depicts sex work either as a tragic reality made of victims or an empowering activity chosen by people who just enjoy sex. The reality, however, is much more nuanced. 

“Sex workers should be shown as highly intelligent, compassionate and tenacious individuals,” says a sex worker in Umbrella Lane’s community. “These are the only types of sex workers I have met in my years.”

Another worker adds: "I hate journalists talking about sex work as a ‘lucrative side hustle.’ Even when that's how we market ourselves to our clients, it's not always the reality. Assuming that's the case for most sex workers makes it look like we need a lot fewer rights, protections and services than we do."

[Read more: Tips for ethical trans representation in your reporting]

Represent everyone in the community

Most reporting on the topic tends to equate people who engage in sex work with women when, in reality, the industry is varied. ”I hate how journalists discuss sex work as female only. There is the complete erasure of male and trans sex workers,” says a member of Umbrella Lane’s community.

It’s also important to convey the diverse nature of jobs associated with sex work. Despite media’s preoccupation with women street workers, Dr. Ryan says that street workers amount to only 10% of sex workers, and they are of all genders. 

“People within the industry have a wealth of different experiences,” she says. “Make sure that those are covered, and don’t just use those stories that fit in line with your preconceived idea of what to report on.” 

Work with the picture desk

Pictures play an important role in shaping the public’s perception. Don’t choose pictures that objectify sex workers. Common choices such as images of somebody's legs in a pair of heels standing beside a car at night are lazy and make your readers equate the sex industry with female street workers only.

Ask organizations and interviewees for pictures or advice. If using a stock photo, be mindful of objectifying and polarizing images. Opt for neutral shots relevant to the subject. It could be a person of any gender getting dressed up, pictures of money or, as Dr. Ryan suggests, “pictures of the tools of the trade, like safe sex supplies.”

Interrogate the data

In many countries, sex work is illegal and stigmatized. For this reason, data collection proves to be quite difficult. In the past, both The Atlantic and The Washington post have demonstrated how some of the statistics and facts widely used by the media were, in fact, incorrect or biased.

It’s incredibly important to fact-check the data included in news packages, making sure that the cited reports, polls or surveys included the voices of sex workers. If in doubt, contact local charities and organizations supporting sex workers, which are likely to have their own experience-led reports.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition.

Iris Pase is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow.