Tips for reporting about sex work

sex work
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by Iris Pase, International Journalists’ Network

Sex work, meaning the provision of sexual services for money or goods, is a global industry that employs millions people of all genders in a variety of roles, which include, but are not limited to, street workers, actors, performers, escorts, dancers and traveling entertainers. 

Despite the size of the sector, sex workers remain stigmatized. The community faces high levels of violence, discrimination, legal oppression and other human rights violations. This vulnerability to violence is increased for sex workers belonging to marginalized groups, such as transgender people, migrants and sex workers who use drugs.

Mainstream reporting bears the effects of centuries of stigmatization towards sex work. News coverage often falls into sensationalistic or judgemental narratives, which can cause harm and endanger people working in the industry.

Respectful reporting can significantly benefit sex workers’ lives, helping lift the stigma. We asked Dr. Anastacia Ryan, founder of Scottish sex worker charity Umbrella Lane, to share her advice for anyone writing on the subject. 

Umbrella Lane is an organization whose aim is to change the way sex work is viewed within Scottish society. It’s led by sex workers, some of whom have agreed, anonymously, to share their insight on how to respectfully report about their job.

Avoid describing sex work as “prostitution”

When referring to someone who engages in sex work, avoid terms like “victim” or “prostitute.” Despite its common use, the word “prostitution” is not neutral. It reinforces the centuries-old stigma that has been cast on sex workers and continues to other the community. 

“Most of the people I’ve worked and networked with globally who are involved in sex work call themselves ‘sex workers,” says Dr. Ryan. If you’re unsure what a particular community prefers, you can shift the attention on to the person with expressions like “people who sell sexual services” or “people who engage in sex work.”

Feature sex workers’ voices

Journalists are taught to regularly include quotes from interviewees in their reporting. However, when it comes to sex work, reporters tend to talk to authorities before reaching out to sex workers — if they reach out at all. This often results in people who sell sexual services being completely silenced in the news.

When reporting about the sex industry, don’t consider the story complete without an interview or comment by an actual worker.

When you reach out for an interview, do so responsibly. “Something that really gets to sex workers is when journalists mask as a sex worker on sex worker only spaces,” Dr. Ryan tells IJNet. “It happens an awful lot. They go into client reviews websites, they take quotes, and they just create an article without speaking to the person.”

You may also be tempted to contact sex workers directly via social media, as many people working in the industry have social accounts for personal or professional reasons. However, you should avoid this whenever possible.

“Platforms like Twitter are used for advertising. Therefore, by intruding in that space, you’re also taking up time that should be spent, usually, with clients,” says Dr. Ryan. What you can do instead is reach out to sex worker projects and organizations, which usually have a team of ambassadors who are used to talking to the media. They know how to conceal their identity and take all the preventative measures to ensure their own safety.

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Photo by Kate Oseen on Unsplash

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