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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.

2016’s Worst Sex Work Stories

The new normal: why television has chosen to humanize sex workers
The headline says it all, folks. And yet, when the author attempts to answer her own question, it gets worse: “Sex sells, and it always has. But now being woke sells, too. By humanizing these characters, by providing them with a rich inner life – and, therefore, a backstory to and a reason for all the fucking – we can justify watching them fuck.”

How Sex Workers Are Fighting Back Against Trump
Intrepid reporter digs deep to discover that, golly gee, sex workers are just like other normal people organizing against the President-elect.

I applied for a job at Nevada’s most famous brothel
This set up just won’t die, no matter how much we want it to—every six months or so, like clockwork, we’re treated to yet another undercover journalist’s shocking revelations on the scant time she did sex work in order to write an article. We have Gloria Steinem’s original 1963 Show Magazine sex work tourist account of being a Playboy Bunny for eleven days to blame for all the examples of this genre we’ve endured since. But even Steinem managed to make it through the application process…which this author failed to do. Oh, but she did inform the madam that she has a stripper friend! I don’t know if that counted for or against her.

Near impossible to stop cops bribing sex workers, Parliament told
In uniquely honest headlines. Read “rape and blackmail” for “bribe,” btw.

Judge orders client of teenage prostitute to buy her books on women’s dignity
The hapless client was required to buy the young woman works by Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Anne Frank. I read Mrs Dalloway as a teenager and still ended up becoming an escort, so maybe there’s something tragically wrong with my reading comprehension.

Webcamming: the sex work revolution that no one is willing to talk about
No one is willing to talk about it, except the authors of a gazillion salacious pieces on camming that preceded this one! Columbusing sex work seems alive and well as a source of countless pitches moving into 2017.

My roommate, the prostitute
This affectless recollection of what a huge inconvenience his Backpaging roommate’s overdose death was for the author might just be able to claim the title of the year’s most dehumanizing writing on sex workers. We don’t know—there’s a lot of competition there.

Sex robots could over-exert their human lovers, academics warn
The ubiquity of pieces hand-wringing over the ethics of sexbot lurv has become a problem over the past two years, but the trend may have reached its apotheosis in the charming image this article evokes of robots literally fucking us to death.

The porn star who went to Iran for a nose job
That’s it, guys, that’s the story.

Why is Pokémon Go like prostitution?
Pokémon Go as an analogy for sex trafficking? Nailed it.

Daniel Holtzclaw raped at least 13 women, many of whom were sex workers, as an Oklahoma city police officer. SB Nation’s profile of him was so horrendous that the website took the unorthodox measure of pulling it the same day.

The Peculiar Political Economics of Pro-Domming

lumpenproletariat meme 1“So, I figured out what happened to Jane,” the dungeon manager said.

“Oh?”

“My friend ran into her the other day. She’s a cop now.”

“I guess that makes some kind of sense ,” I said.

“Mmhhmm. She can beat-up people legally now.”

That’s the punchline. Do you get it? Let me take all the humor out of it by explaining: in most U.S. jurisdictions, professional dommes are criminalized under prostitution laws 1, and police can de facto brutalize whoever they want, especially if that person is Black like the dungeon manager is. Her joke isn’t funny-ha-ha; it’s ironic. It’s also funny-strange: why would a fascist like Jane spend years working as a petty criminal?

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that Jane bought the popular line about pro-dommes. It seems we’ve confused dressing up in Slutty Cop Halloween costumes and consensually slapping men’s scrotums with having real power. And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean Jane and other BDSM pros. I mean everyone. I mean, look at this recent example of how the media covers professional domination:

“The new group Dommes for Bernie placed an ad on Manhattan’s Backpage.com classifieds on Friday, calling for Wall Street workers to step up for punishment worthy of the Bernie Sanders presidential platform,” Mary Emily O’Hara writes at The Daily Dot. Both O’Hara and the DfB present ad copy as testament to a reality in which pro-dommes really do discipline our clients. “We think it’s poetic justice to dominate men who benefit from capitalism, and then donate their tributes to a candidate who stands up for those most harmed by it,” O’Hara quotes one of the dommes as saying. I fail to see the poetry or the justice of a man quite happily paying a woman for a highly gendered form of labor, and the woman taking her money and doing with it as she sees fit—in this case, donating to a center-left candidate for the presidency of a neocolonial empire that stands on stolen land.

But then, I also don’t see how a half dozen or so fin-dommes have transformed “fuck you, pay me” dirty talk into a semi-coherent rhetoric of wealth redistribution on certain strains of social justice Twitter. It seems obvious to me that gamely paying $20 in Amazon gift cards for a carefully calibrated performance of sexualized bitchiness is not full communism. Where did everyone else get it twisted?

Sex Trafficking: A Media Guide

This isn't sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualflipflop)
This isn’t sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualdflipflop)

Sex trafficking is when evil men steal little girls from the mall and keep them chained to beds where they are forced to service 100 men a day. Sex trafficking is when you ask your husband to sit in the next room while you see a new client, just in case. Sex trafficking is when a child molester agrees to pay for sex with a hypothetical, nonexistent eight-year-old and then shows up to meet them with duct tape and handcuffs. Sex trafficking is when a client asks for a duo and you book an appointment for yourself and a friend. Sex trafficking is when you “conspire” with your rapist and kidnapper to torture yourself. Sex trafficking is when you place an escort ad online for yourself.

Words mean things. Sex trafficking is a legal term with many different definitions in different states and countries. The legal term has become confused with the common mainstream usage—which tends to involve people being forced into prostitution—and this has led to a lot of confusion all around. As journalists, our job is to be precise with language and provide accurate information to the public. When reporting on sex trafficking, or sex trafficking cases, consider describing what has been alleged or what the statute the person is being charged with actually says—because it rarely refers to people being forced into prostitution.

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.