We need to talk about the media’s portrayal of sex work

Last week I caught up with the  movie Careless Love.  Written by John Duigan it’s about a Sydney university student called Linh played by Nammi Le who works at night as a sex worker to help her immigrant family with their mortgage. Basically it’s just a contemporary expose of a university student/prostitute’s life without any analysis of the institution that is prostitution.

John Duigan decided to write Careless Love after reading a series of reports on how university students were turning to prostitution to cope with the rising cost of living and university fees. Duigan  says that he didn’t set out to write a story about sexual slavery or drug abuse, or to depict sex work as glamorous. He was equally  determined that Linh wasn’t regarded as a victim. Careless Love presents prostitution as a choice for young women to make; delivering greater income than the usual part-time work available for university students such as waitressing.

Last week there was a plethora of stories in the media about sex work with workers and their supporters arguing for the practice’s legitimacy. The first of these articles concerned the Melbourne Festival of Sex Work.  To note the occasion, local sex workers intent on demystifying their profession appeared on a panel open to the public. The Age reports that at the Secret Society Bar in Bourke Street a porn star, an escort, a tantric practitioner, a dominatrix and a rent boy invited members of the public to ask any question about their sex work in exchange for a gold coin donation. Then there was an opinion piece written by Wendy Squires. In Selling your body, not your soul, Squires  defends her prostitute friend whom she says is ‘not manipulating affections or promising more than can be delivered.’ Rather she’s ‘a businesswoman exchanging sex for money in a legal and safe environment.’

In Careless Love, Linh is an intelligent and beautiful young woman who chooses to do escort work in an effort to pay for her family’s mortgage. Linh is portrayed as strong and in control of her life and her clients. For her, the process of moving into prostitution and exiting happens seamlessly. She is not a victim, for the idea of the prostituted woman as without ‘agency’ is no longer politically correct. According to Ekman, author of Prostitution, the abolition of the victim and post-modernism’s defence of the status-quo, to be a victim is now regarded as shameful. Referring to someone as a victim, according to the post-modernists, is to deny them their ‘agency’.

“To be able to defend that women sell their bodies (and that men buy them) one must first abolish the victim and instead redefine the prostitute as a sex worker, a strong woman who knows what she wants, a businesswoman. The sex worker becomes a sort of new version of the ‘happy hooker’.

But a ‘happy hooker’ is not the experience of prostitutes who don’t have this so-called choice. In reality, prostitution is a job where 71% of women have been subjected to physical violence; 63% have been raped while in prostitution and  89% want to leave and would do so if they could. Women in prostitution have a death rate 40 times higher than the average and are 16 times more likely to be murdered.

If the only information about sex work is obtained from our current media then the purchase of women’s bodies for sex will continue to be regarded as normal. But rather than prostitution being inevitable and unstoppable, it is  ‘socially constructed out of men’s dominance and women’s subordination’ (Jeffreys 1997, 3).

When Linh’s double life is finally revealed there is disapproval mostly from her family but also from her boyfriend. Her parents are ashamed that they have been rescued by prostitution money and her boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to forgive and forget. But why is it that the prostitute, and in this case Linh who is  condemned for her part in the prostitution contract? What about the men who use her and the millions of other women who are trafficked and prostituted.

These recent media depictions of sex work leave so much to be desired.

References: Jeffreys, S 1997, The Idea of Prostitution, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne.

Categories: history, Media and health, news, politics, womens rights

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Thanks for such a realistic discussion of this situation.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I get sickened by how the media, including the “left” media, makes prostitution out to be not only a job like any other, but a glamorous one. In reality, prostituted women often have PTSD rates the same of those as state torture survivors.

    I encourage readers to check out survivorsconnect.wordpress.com for more about the reality of prostitution.

  3. Oh FFS. If you can write an article about sex work in Australia and ONLY be able to reference Sheila Jeffreys then you’re really not trying and clearly just don’t really want to learn about the realities of the sex industry. Instead you choose to spout out unreferenced “statistics”. If you want to REALLY know what sex workers think, what sex workers’ realities are then perhaps you and the readers would like to look through the Scarlet Alliance website. http://www.scarletalliance.com.au

    They are the Australian Sex Workers’ Association – made up solely by former or current sex workers.

    Perhaps you’d also like to read through: http://www.touchingbase.org or http://www.scarletroad.com.au and read through the comments coming in from around the world.

    Yes we DO need to look at the media’s portrayal of sex workers. We are sick and tired of seeing these unresearched, discriminatory, inflammatory articles and this one descended right down to the gutter. Thanks for adding to the pile of bad media that encourages others to discriminate against us.

    Let sex workers have our own voices heard. We are sick of people trying to talk on our behalf. Congratulations to the organisers of the Festival of Sex Work – it was a fantastic week!

  4. I have to remind you that the stats that you referenced are unfounded and have no basis in any real study however abolitionists like Sheila Jeffreys have been more than happy to use them.

    I am a Sex Worker. I am not a victim. I made the choice to work in the industry. I am not more exploited than anybody else who exists in the system of wage slavery. I acknowledge that in a capitalist system, all work is exploitative however I don’t pit one job against another due to some socio-cultural pseudo-moralism about what one does freely with one’s body. The rights of Sex Workers are inextricably linked to the rights of all other workers and I believe that all workers must stand together to forge a better future for us and dump the employing class and ruling class off our backs.

    If you cared to go to the public forum on policy and law reform for Sex Workers during the Festival of Sex Work (of which I was involved with), you would have been able to hear the reports of the problematic anti-trafficking taskforce lead by the AFP and the coercion of IMF dependent nations by the US to adopt abolitionist anti-worker legislation. There was also talk of issues that some migrant Sex Workers face and the reality that the media has a terrible habit of not wanting to cover because heaven forbid that there is ever such thing as balanced reporting and analysis of issues in our media.

    I am also incredibly upset with yet another blogger who has invalidated an entire section of the Sex Worker community; male and Transgender Sex Workers. Of course we do not exist in the small minds of the abolitionists because dealing with realities and being inclusive goes against the narrow minded anti-worker arguments of the abolitionists.

    We don’t need rescuing, we don’t need our lives put under a microscope, we don’t need to have our line of work questioned by neo-puritan moralists, we don’t need to be prayed for (the Salvos seem to think otherwise).

    We need official representation, we need solidarity from the general workers’ movement, we need to have our voices heard, we need to be involved in the decision making that directly affects OUR industry, we need to be able to work in safe environments free from harassment from the various arms of the state (ie Police, Consumer Affairs, Business Licensing Authority, Municipal Associations…etc etc etc). More to the point we need R-E-S-P-E-C-T (not the type that Project [Dis]Respect claims to show either)

  5. I worked in the sex industry holding near every position a woman could do traveled doing so, managed myself, even got women into and out of the industry in the 12 years I did it. I have friends (not associates) who not only hook but work in porn and do online work (phone work too) – of all different nationalities and races as well. I will say one thing and won’t go on & on, some soap box because prostitution is NOT a very pretty reality for many, many, many, women. None of the lower income women of color including myself got into this out of “choice,” and yes you do get victimized in a number of ways. There are “moments,” when you hold the power but working at this to make your bills, eat, feed children was not empowering for me or any of the people I know or met and got to know. Most of us don’t even know about al these political fights going on in the name of sex workers, I’m just learning from running into this stuff on Youtube (love videos). Though, I haven’t researched statistics myself, I believe them because the only women I ever met who were doing some claim-back-the-profession number on what we were doing, were white, in college, in relationships (another income present) women. And they were/are always treated better, get into the higher paying places blah, blah, blah just like in society. Lots of racism and classism in that industry too. Now let em’ come on here and say that’s not true. It’s ridiculously pretentious to me to say every effin body is enjoying themselves doing this. WFE. So what, they think the women in Italy trafficked from Nigeria and the Ghanian female prostitutes are empowered? MOST black and Latin women right here aren’t, and if they could find a way out of it, making decent money would. As I said I met, traveled, booked and worked with teams of women even got friends in and out of that industry from every perspective, it can eat a person up and it is very difficult to get out of when you’re taking care of you and don’t have alot of other skills under your belt. That even ends up determining what you do in it. I’m telling you, it is not an easy industry and alot of the men try to get over on the women. But there is a difference with alot of the white girls, just like….in society. That’s the reality.

  6. I have paid for sex with escorts over a number of years. While I would agree that sex work is rarely (if ever) their first choice of employment, in my experience most of those engaged in prostitution do so of their own free will. By all means offer assistance to those who wish to exit sex work but do not fall into the trap of believing that all prostitutes are victims who where coerced into the industry.

    • I’m sorry, but concepts of ‘free will’ and ‘choice’ are very nuanced and can mean very little for women who grow up, develop and live in a patriarchal, misogynistic society where men are the dominant class and women are the subordinate class. Free will does not even enter the equation. And if you think it does, ask yourself why it seems to be almost solely women who exercise their so called ‘free will’ to dance/strip/sex for men, but few men who exercise their ‘free will’ to do the same for women in exchange for money?

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