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.

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Acceptable Narratives of Prostitution

There’s been a blog post kicking about in my head for the last week or so.  It stems back to when I hadn’t been working for very long and I was talking about my work with one of my friends, who was trying and struggling to understand my career choice.  And she said, “Even if you quit tomorrow, you’ll always be an ex-hooker now.”

That thought really stuck with me over the years.  There’s almost as dense a mythology about ex-prostitutes as there is about prostitutes – whether as a tragic history or a triumph over adversity.  It’s rare for people to be so defined by what they’ve done in the past.  No one thinks of being an ex-nurse or an ex-labourer as a particularly defining characteristic.

I kinda wanted to ruminate on that – on being always an ex-hooker, on the feeling that what is my past could still be considered relevant if someone decided to make it so and that if I was to do anything in the public eye that it would be brought to light.  Because if there’s one thing the media loooooves, it’s a good sex-related scandal.

But then Maya Angelou died, and amongst the many tweeted tributes, this one from Annie Sprinkle stood out:

It put into sharp relief how not talked about Angelou’s experience as a prostitute is, and that kinda turned my ruminations on their head.  Here is a very public woman – poet laureate of the US, best buds with Oprah Winfrey and the Clintons – and the media at large do not talk about her sex work, or if they do, it’s the briefest side-note.

It’s not something she tried to hide at all, not something she was ashamed of – she wrote about it in her autobiographical novel and talked about it in interviews.  It was there, spoken for all the world to hear.  The media could have uniformly referred to her as “Maya Angelou – ex-prostitute and Poet Laureate”, they could have raised it every chance they had, as they do with some other former sex workers.

But it doesn’t fit in with one of the acceptable narratives of prostitution.  Ex-prostitutes are supposed to be ashamed of their past.  It should be hidden away and avoided, or renounced, overcome and put in a box.

There are a limited number of ways prostitution is discussed in our mainstream media.

A wretched end to a tragic life: Boy, does the media like to talk about prostitution when the prostitute in question is a murder victim – Mellory Manning, Jane Furlong, Arawa Bain.  Even when the victim’s sex work didn’t have a thing to do with their murder, somehow it’s still vital that the public know about it (see Carmen Thomas, and then the Herald’s creepy voyeuristic photo gallery).

Adversity overcome: Prostitutes are allowed to make good, as long as their sex work is denounced and configured as an impediment to be overcome – “[Georgina] Beyer knows about doing it tough. She’s been on the streets, been a sex worker…”

Being “forced into it”: literally or figuratively; traffickers or drugs or financial desperation.  Their stories are legion, apparently, but they are largely nameless – “She entered a string of violent relationships and resorted to prostitution”, “‘In Brazil, our greatest concern is linked to the increase in the exploitation of child prostitution,’ said Sister Gabriella Bottani, an Italian nun who is an organizer of the coalition involving 240 religious congregations from 79 countries.”

The high-class call girl – exposed!: Such as Heidi Fleiss and Dr Brooke Magnanti, whose stories are told breathlessly and with such colourful adjectives – “the scintillating memoirs of a prostitute commanding £300-an-hour prices”, “the high-octane glamour of Hollywood’s famous madam Heidi Fleiss…”

(I’m not minimising or negating any of the stories mainstream media tells.  Every story of prostitution is an important one to tell, good or bad. But I do think it should be the workers and ex-workers ourselves telling their own stories, not the mainstream media constructing a story around us. Would Jane Furlong or Mellory Manning want their sex work to be central to their story? They’re not here to answer that – but, while I love talking about sex work, I consider that there’s a hell of a lot more to my story than that and I imagine they would too.)

An unashamed, phenomenal woman like Maya Angelou does not fit into any of these categories – a woman who spoke freely of her own history, a woman whose complex, exquisite history so deeply informed the words she gifted the world.  And so her personal, self-defined story of prostitution is rarely spoken of, because it does not fit into an acceptable narrative of prostitution.

This brings home to me yet again how important it is to tell our own stories, to put our own narratives out there.