I remember the first time I was asked to do a documentary about sex work. I let him into my house, dressed like I normally did, even introduced him to my cat Greebo, who kindly cough-snorted on his shoes within 5 minutes of meeting him. We spent about an hour together talking about the intricacies of phone sex work, including filming me getting a call from a client. I was pleased with the end result, which sadly vanished from the internet when Current TV, a sort of Youtube for news, went under.
I didn’t realize, then, how naive I was. I had come to the table as my fully authentic, non-scripted, casually dressed, “real” self. I was lucky that he was not interested in telling a story past what I offered to him.
I’d learn, later, that sex work documentaries were rarely so benign.
I was asked to be a part of an as-yet-unnamed documentary where a rosy-cheeked interviewer and a young, seemingly liberal crew would interview various sex workers about their experiences working in England. I looked at their other work briefly, thought back to my experience with the phone sex documentary, and said sure, why not? Again I invited them into my home, allowed them to film me with my lover at the time, trusted them enough to not have my guard up too high… though I did spend a week prior training my boyfriend how to speak in sound bytes, just in case. We filmed (for free) for a couple of hours, talking candidly about our relationship and how we navigated sex work as a couple. I patted myself on the back, thinking I was doing good work in challenging assumptions about sex work.
Figuring it was caught up in editing, I didn’t think anything of it when I didn’t hear from the crew again for months. Then a friend on Facebook let me know that they had seen me on television, in a documentary called “Britain’s Happy Hookers”. My heart sank. I rushed to Youtube to see it for myself, and was horrified at how naive they had made me seem, sandwiching me between a traumatised sex worker and a sex work exclusionary feminist. Even though our words were reasonably polished and careful, the editing made us seem foolish. I was furious at how they used me to illustrate a point about sex workers that wasn’t my lived experience, and how they lied that this was “authentic”.
Now I can only think of “8 Minutes” and the controversy around that show, where a cop-turned-pastor books sessions with sex workers (kind of our worst nightmare, TBH – male condescension and entitlement x2) and has 8 minutes to persuade them to leave the business. The show promises the women who go on it, who are now nationally recognizable and more at risk for violence or police attention, that the Lives Worth Saving team will help them leave the industry. But those tangible, needed resources never come, and the women who go on the show risk arrest when they go back to sex work. It’s an old story, the story of the rescue industry who is sympathetically portrayed in media again and again but so often turns out to be rotten to the core.
Frustrated at the experience, I wrote a blog explaining the reality of the filming versus the final product. I ended my post with a call out to future documentary filmmakers looking to portray sex workers. “Media people- when you do stuff like this, you are ADDING TO THE PROBLEM. You are actively engaging in the oppression of women.You are making the world more dangerous for sex workers. It’s dehumanizing, exploitative, and unethical.”
Imagine my surprise when because of my blog, I got an email from Candice. She was another sex worker they had interviewed, focusing mostly on her experience of being sexually assaulted while on the job despite that being a small percentage of what was filmed.
“I found them a total nightmare to work with – we filmed at least 5 hours of footage and all of the things that they said they wanted to portray they didn’t use. We filmed a few fairly in depth discussions about various escort related topics but they were axed and the way it was edited made me look stupid and naive,” Candice’s email read. “They were ridiculous, they massively edited the conversations – particularly the one in which we had the conversation about being assaulted. They really did portray me as some kind of victim, and that really annoyed me.”
Even the clients weren’t convinced. “The prostitutes interviewed were quite evidently extremely different to one another in terms of both their personalities and the sectors of the industry that they worked in,” noted one commentator on a punting blog (what they call seeing sex workers in the UK). “Yet this didn’t stop the presenter trying to draw out some generalisations from her meetings with them, generalisations based as much on her assumptions than upon the empirical evidence with which we were presented.”
It made me second guess the entire show. If Candice’s experience, and mine, could be so twisted to fit the sex worker docutragedy that Alex Bedford and crew wanted to portray, who’s to say what else got changed to fit that mold? They skipped over where I talked about privilege and power, because maybe that was too nuanced for them, choosing instead to joke with my then-lover as “getting it for free”. I realized that it was a good thing that we had rehearsed our “authenticity”, because if we hadn’t, who knows how we would have been portrayed?
It’s no wonder sex workers are suspicious of the media when they come to call, swearing up and down that they want to portray our “real” experiences. Whether those making a film want to show us as tragic figures or as happy hookers, our multifaceted lives are silenced and oversimplified, making it easier to dismiss our words as lacking critique or an understanding of agency. What are these “documentaries” actually documenting- the voices of sex workers (specifically which sex workers?) or the voices of producers/politicians/abolitionists?
I have had the luxury of better representation, experiences where I felt positively about the result. Oftentimes, these interviews are related to intersectionality, particularly around sex work and Silicon Valley economics, though I’ve also spoken out about “dead hooker jokes”, the fat porn industry, and the policing of sexuality. Part of this is due diligence around how the specific media outlets deal with subjects like sex, and part is an insistence of being an active participant in how I am portrayed. I have learned that my “authenticity” can only be as honest as my trust in the people involved, and it’s better to be wary than to be another example of a skewed sex worker portrayal.
What is particularly fucked up about this dynamic, of course, is that sex workers are under enormous stigma. We can lose our day jobs, our children, our homes, our bank accounts. Even while the mainstream media cajoles/begs/demands that we engage with them, they ignore our murders and our activism, choosing instead to profit from exploiting us. Rarely has a piece I’ve written about sex work had my face on it – all too often a stock photo of a woman’s silhouette leaning over a car, or a pair of slim legs in stiletto heels on the street, replace actual sex worker representation. I was once told that as a fat, tattooed queer woman, I wasn’t “believable” as a sex worker, despite the person they used instead being a paid model! Too often, the desire to talk to us doesn’t come from a desire to help us, or to raise awareness. It’s a method of using our sexual appeal and the taboo of prostitution to get people’s attention while also maintaining some sort of moralistic high ground.
I have learned to be particularly cautious around appearing in the media for free, and I recommend other sex workers do the same. We need to ask questions about where any funds raised will go- donated to sex worker run organizations, or to religious backed rescue industry scams? I’ve started reminding myself that the film crew and interviewer and editing team all get paid for their work, which they do at much less risk to themselves, so why shouldn’t I? After all, this is my job- if I’m going to be playing a role to titillate, I expect to be paid for my labour.
Kitty Stryker is a “geeky porn starlet, queer sex klown, and pervy My Little Pony, reinventing porn culture by exploding one tired trope at a time” and thats only at night! She is a prolific writer, publishing regularly on kittystryker.com, you can follow her on twitter @kittystryker or learn more about her here.
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