The Assumptions We Make and the People We Protect

This weekend, Stuff published an article entitled Bodies for Profit.  It might have about models, professional sports players, labourers or any one of the hundreds of other ways people use their bodies to make a profit, but of course it was about the only way that the general public routinely has a case of the vapours about: sex work.  Specifically, it was about rescuing trafficked sex workers in Thailand.  More specifically, it was about one man’s quest to rescue trafficked sex workers in Thailand.

There is a lot written about the problems with the rescue industry, most of it by people who know a hell of a lot more about it than I do.  I’m not going to write about that here.  Besides, this article seems to be far more about this one man who is involved in the rescue industry than it is about either the rescue industry or the sex industry.

What I want to talk about is the photos which accompany this article.  It is a lavish long-form piece, with eye-catching web coding and a lot of accompanying images of sex workers.  How can we tell they’re sex workers?  Well, they’re photos of women accompanying a story about sex work.  They’re photos of Asian women accompanying a story about sex work.  Some of these pictures, fair cop, do clearly illustrate an aspect of the sex industry: a woman in a bikini beneath a sign saying “Sexy Night”; a woman in underwear, labelled with a number for easy reference when booking.  Others – in fact most of the accompanying photos – require many more assumptions to connect them with sex work.  An Asian woman in a short blue dress being looked at by a white man.  A couple photographed from behind walking down the street holding hands: him white, her with long straight dark hair.  Two young Asian women walking down a flight of stairs looking at their cellphones.  We only “know” they’re sex workers because their pictures are alongside a story about sex work.  Our assumptions about Asian women fill in the blanks.  And, conversely, the pictures reinforce our assumptions about Asian women.  And that is highly problematic.

While the article mentions that Caucasian and South American women are also trafficked into the sex industry in Thailand, all the dozens of women shown in the photos are Asian.  Because we don’t automatically read white and Hispanic women as sex workers.  A photo of two young white women walking down a flight of stairs looking their cellphones would be confusing to us in this context.

Due to the nature of the photos, I am highly doubtful that the photographer paused to ask each women if they were indeed sex workers and do they mind if he takes their picture and publishes it on the internet to illustrate a story about Thailand’s sex industry.  Which is problematic for another reason.

The second standout feature of the images took a while to click for me: the white men in these photos uniformly have their faces blurred.  The only white man whose face is revealed is the sex worker rescuer who is the subject of this artible, Our Intrepid Hero Daniel Walker (for a man who takes pains to mention that his name is a pseudonym which he feels is necessary for the protection of himself and his family, he sure seems to like having his photo taken a lot).

Every single other person in the photos has their face visible and recognisable to the world.  All the Asian men (we are supposed to read these men as the traffickers, I guess.  Because Asian men are never clients and white men are never traffickers?)  The dozens of presumed sex workers who Daniel Walker’s organisation claims to be interested in protecting.

You could argue that the white men are more likely to be recognised from an article published in New Zealand than the Asian women are.  But men travel from all parts of the world (including other parts of Asia) to visit Thailand’s sex districts.  There is no presumption or likelihood that the men are New Zealanders.  And this is published on the internet, accessible by the whole world – a white client’s wife in Britain just as easily as an Asian sex worker’s mother in Thailand.

We are terribly concerned about women being sold by sex traffickers, but perfectly happy to publish photos of them in their underwear alongside an article outing them as sex workers without their consent, while protecting the identity of the men who would utilise their services.  We might want to think deeper about that.

This is Why I [used to] Post Anonymously

I haven’t discussed my history as a sex worker so far on this blog, but it’s only five entries old – give me time and believe me I will!  But today I stumbled this timely reminder of why I must be careful to ensure my anonymity on my blog.  I’m not a teacher and don’t plan on ever being a teacher (but, hey, lots of things have happened in my life that I never planned on), but I do have a professional career these days and I hope to be employed by other companies in the future.  Already I half-worry sometimes that the truth about my previous employment will somehow become public and create scandals.  I am really not that important in my industry – I’m not in the public eye and I don’t work with children – but the media does like to run a nice “Journalist’s shameful past as a stripper!” or “Policewoman moonlighted as hooker!” story.  I don’t want to be one of them.

Sadly, I think Petro was either hopelessly naive or intentionally provocative when she says, “I continued to write and began publishing stories and articles about my former occupation. I wrote without pseudonym or apology, feeling it my Constitutional as well as human right to not have to hide my identity or suppress my opinion.”  It’s one of those things that ought to be true but just plain isn’t.  Because, as she also says in her article, “Once a sex worker, always a whore.”

It seems to me to be one of those things that society deems to be unforgiveable (I say “unforgiveable” although I don’t believe that sex work is something which needs to be “forgiven”).  You can be a recovering alcoholic, a rehabilitated drug addict, a former kleptomaniac, an ex-con or an ex evangelic pastor and expect society to give you a fair go.  I’m not saying these people shouldn’t be given a fair go – of course they should.  But, unlike petty crime or drug addiction, sex work stains you forever.  The only societally accepted picture of a redeemed prostitute is a woman who was somehow manipulated into sex work who bravely fought to escape.  A woman who chose to enter the industry of her own volition and chose to leave of her own volition?  Impossible.  She made bad choices, was a nympho, stupid, insane, self-destructive, possibly feeding a drug habit…

A few weeks after I started working at a brothel, one of my friends said to me, “You know, even if you quit working tomorrow, you’re always going to be an ex-prostitute now.”  This is true, and you know what?  I’m pretty proud of that fact.  But I don’t need it destroying my future employment options.