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2016’s Best Investigative Reporting on Sex Work

Murder in the Bayou, by Ethan Brown
Eight murdered woman from Jefferson Davis parish in Louisiana had two things in common: a background in drugs and/or sex work. The police blamed a serial killer. But Brown discovered something else the victims had in common: they had all worked as informants for law enforcement of some kind. The rampant police misconduct Brown uncovers in his careful reporting illustrates that the people who should have protected those women are partially responsible for their deaths.

Badge of Dishonor: Top Oakland Police Officials Looked Away as East Bay Cops Sexually Exploited and Trafficked a Teenager, by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston
Two reporters expose one of the most extreme examples of law enforcement exploitation when their investigation reveals that an alarming number of police officers slept with the same sex working youth in Oakland, California.

“We Can Help One Another”: Drug Use, Survival Sex, And Hope Among Afghanistan’s Marginalized Women, by Michelle Tolson
Michelle Tolson manages to obtain raw, poignant interviews with a mostly invisible population, illustrating why gender-specific support is even more vital for sex working and/or drug using women in Afghanistan in light of problems like the strictures of short-term marriage contracts, the lack of legitimate income sources for women, and heightened stigma and victim-blaming.

The Truth About the Biggest Sex Trafficking Story of the Year, by Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Innocent men are criminalized while migrant workers are called victims. Spoiler: the police exaggerated—when they weren’t outright lying.

Daniel Holtzclaw: Lawsuit Claims Police “Covered Up” Sexual Assault Complaint, by Molly Redden [Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault]
The Guardian details how the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma cop rapist Holtzclaw’s victim Jamie Ligons maintains that the Oklahoma City Police Department was well aware of Holtzclaw’s assaults. They’d received complaints from many of his Black, low-income, sex-working and/or drug-using victims as early as 8 to 10 months before his suspension from the force. But it was only after Ligons, a woman with no record who had a “familial relationship” with the department, made her complaint that the department finally took decisive action.

The Throwaways: How Detroit is becoming a flashpoint for violence against transwomen, by Allie Gross
A spate of deadly violence in Detroit forces us to examine exactly how hard trans women of color have to work to survive.

The NYPD Arrests Women for Who They Are and Where They Go — Now They’re Fighting Back, by Melissa Gira Grant
New York’s Loitering for the Purpose of Engaging in Prostitution law gives the NYPD clearance to surveil, stereotype, target, and arrest women as possible sex workers—most of whom are low-income, black, and gender nonconforming.

The Audition, by Sydney Brownstone [Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault]
Brownstone painstakingly traces the roots of an elaborate and long-running faux porn recruitment scheme, in which a photographer invented a friendly adult film agent woman persona to scam vulnerable young women into sleeping with him. His rapes led one victim to attempt suicide.

Threadbareby Anne Elizabeth Moore
A vital condemnation of the global garment industry that illustrates (literally! it’s a comic!) its questionable relationship with anti-trafficking NGOs.

The Disturbing Trend of Vigilante Attacks On Sex Workers, by Frankie Mullin
All of Mullin’s sex work reporting in Vice this year, from her examination of an anti-sex work charity misrepresenting their research on a small sample group of survival workers to portray all sex workers as poorly paid and desperate to her piece on October’s Operation Lanhydrock and the history of raids on migrant massage parlor workers in London’s Soho and Chinatown over the past few years, has been uniformly excellent. But perhaps her best this year was this article on the under-reported phenomenon of vigilante attacks against sex workers cropping up throughout the UK and Ireland. To follow this story, Mullin spoke to outreach centers as well as individual sex workers and gathered the few statistics that were available. She even spoke to a man who started a Facebook thread online in support of a menacing brothel protest in Belfast’s Donegal Pass, in which people posted comments advocating “ethnic cleansing” and “a night of the long knives.” The author ties all this reportage together by considering the utility of extending the Merseyside Model, in which crimes against sex workers are counted as hate crimes, as well as pointing out the connection between the violent rhetoric of criminalization and these vigilantes acts.

How Canada’s Immigration Laws Make Migrant Sex Workers’ Jobs More Dangerous, by Brigitte Noel
Pulling together telling quotes from interviews with representatives of Immigration and Citizenship Canada and Canada’s Border Services Agency, as well as with Asian migrant sex worker advocacy organization Butterfly’s president Elene Lam, Brigitte Noel outlines how Bill C-36 and immigration policies combine to persecute and deport immigrant sex workers.

Pizzagate Rumors Falsely Link Death Of Sex-Worker Advocate To Nonexistent Clinton Probe, by Glenn Kessler
This Washington Post writer employs the paper’s penchant for rigorous fact-checking in service of sex worker rights advocate Monica Petersen’s memory. Petersen was a brilliant researcher who traveled to Haiti for her work critiquing the trafficking narrative. But after Pizzagate blew up, a fresh spate of fake news painted her suicide death there as retaliatory murder by the Clinton Foundation for an anti-trafficking investigation against them—an investigation Petersen never conducted.

Impunity Has Consequences: The Women Lost To Mexico’s Drug War, by Nina Lakhani
Lakhani’s reporting reveals that many sex workers contracted for political events and private parties with cartel members and government officials have gone missing along with thousands of other women in Mexico. The theory is that these drug war victims were disappeared because they knew too much about the connection between high-level drug dealers and corrupt politicians. These women are vulnerable to both abduction and femicide by the cartels and illegal imprisonment and torture by the security forces.

Why Are Strippers More Heavily Vetted Than Uber Drivers?, by Susan Elizabeth Shepard
Same labor model, vastly different regulations. An explanation.

Burn The Narrative

nytimes

Somewhere underground, in a cave filled with rats, three witches are convening. The witchesRachel Moran, Meghan Murphy, and Lena Dunhamare frantic, distressed. They sense trouble. They’re panicking.

Murphy stirs the bubbling witches’ cauldron dutifully. Moran attempts to remain poised and she recites a dark incantation. Dunham merely observes, eager to absorb the methods of her seasoned sisters.

Murphy nods towards Moran, who unfurls an entire Sunday New York Times and angrily thrusts the paper into the cauldron.

“I have called this conclave because a serious problem is developing,” Murphy snarls. “Something has happened.” She glowers. “The narrative is…shifting.” 

Gia Paige After Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On

Netflix didn’t give us permission to use this picture but we think it’s fair use.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On producer Rashida Jones reflected on the mistakes that were made with the original documentary: “I think that many people within the industry felt like the movie marginalized and further stigmatized sex work, which was not our intention at all.” It’s perplexing to reckon her revelation with the litany of pushback the current iteration of Hot Girls Wanted has received.

Released not even two weeks ago, the latest installment of the Hot Girls Wanted brand is already suffering some harsh criticism and accusations from within the sex industry. Some sex workers have alleged that their content was used without their consent and that they weren’t fully informed of Rashida Jones’ involvement. The Free Speech Coalition even issued a formal denouncement. I reached out to the producers, the film’s media contact, and Herzog & Company for clarification and (by the time of this post, 10AM EST) I still have not heard back.

But they weren’t afraid to talk to Variety! In an interview yesterday, it seems the other two producers may have dialed back their sympathy for marginalized sex workers. “Criticism of the series, she [producer Ronna Gradus] said, is likely fueled by sensitivity over how the industry is often portrayed in mainstream media—and that performers who have spoken out against the show may be doing so because they feel they have to. ‘The industry is very defensive about people coming in and shining a light on the industry and doing stories about it,’ she said, adding, ‘The allegations that have come out are probably the result of pressure they are feeling to stand in solidarity with the industry.’”

Gia Paige is one of the performers featured in the series. Her legal identity was exposed in the series and she alleges that the producers used her footage without her permission after she backed out. She was kind enough to respond to my queries via email.

Queer Muslim Sex Worker (2017)

(Photo courtesy of Amy Ashenden)

Queer Muslim Sex Worker: These are labels that aren’t supposed to go together, but in the life of Maryam, a genderfluid Pakistani Muslim person living in London, they do. A newly released, independently-funded podcast with this title by journalist Amy Ashenden aims to shed light on how Maryam’s different identities are sexualized, vilified, and ostracized in their own ways.

As she navigates her various forms of closetedness “like a maze,” Maryam’s candor lets the listener in on how stressful this life is. In fact, it is so stressful that she’s often had suicidal thoughts because of it. At the end of the podcast, Maryam relates how since finally being disowned by her family after hiding her sexuality and her experience in the sex industry from them, she’s been unable to focus on her responsibilities, dealing with the trauma of abandonment by numbing out with alcohol and partying at strip clubs. I feel for her because I can relate to that sense of hopelessness.

In a culture with highly communal values, your life is not your own. Your life actually belongs to your family, and anything you do or say can either bring honor or shame to them. For this reason, it’s extremely rare for Muslims to talk openly about gender and sexuality.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Muslims who are LGBTQ, it just means they’re not welcome in the Muslim community. As Maryam observes, “I’ve never seen a queer Muslim person who came out to the community and was welcomed with open arms.”

If being gay is bad news to the community, being a sex worker is even worse. However, the Muslim community itself creates the necessity for survival sex work by rejecting members of the community who are queer. As Maryam explains that she is saving the money she earns from webcam work to support herself in case she is rejected or disowned by her family for being gay, she illustrates how Muslim youth are not exempt from one of the most typical ways young people first become involved in sex work: by being disowned by their parents for being gay. The ability to take ownership of our bodies and sexuality is even something that draws people like us to do sex work.

My recommendation to Muslim youth who ask me about coming out is always to wait until they’re financially self-sufficient. We already know what happens to people like us. “I think I’d be sort of exiled from the community until I changed my ways,” Maryam says sarcastically when asked what would happen if she came out.

When traditional Muslim family values clash with the individualism that is the hallmark of Western culture, we take up a new fight beyond oppressive regimes and occupation back home and racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment here. Now we’re fighting for the freedom to be ourselves, beyond those labels and intersecting identities.

So Long, Gawker, Thanks For the Coverage and the Bylines

Visual approximation of what Hulk Hogan probably feels like. This is purely satire, please do not sue us Mr. Hogan.
Visual approximation of what Hulk Hogan probably feels like. This is purely satire. Please do not sue us, Mr. Hogan.

In the early 00s when I was in journalism school, my professors were feebly trying to bestow me and my fellow students with the skills required to work in print media. Sure, they said, the future of journalism is online. But none of them could quantify what that meant or how to teach it.  The school’s curriculum was a great foundation, I guess, but by the time I was done, my skill set was already outdated. I was a media dinosaur.

So I studied Gawker Media. Gawker, and Gawker’s sister sites, presented the framework for what writing online could look like—objective and sarcastic.  I suspect anyone who has ever dabbled in independent publishing online is feeling a bit sentimental this week. Almost every writer has a favorite Gawker story. They certainly remember the Gawker story they were most scandalized by.

One thing I think Gawker and its sister sites deserve credit for is consistently covering sex work and giving sex workers bylines.