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.