Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.
By now, most reading this are probably familiar with Mary Mitchell’s Chicago Sun-Times column in which she editorializes that sex workers are responsible if they are raped, for they willingly put themselves “at risk for harm”—as if the rape of a sex worker is an occupational hazard much the way a lifeguard should expect to get wet. I would expect this type of pettiness in an anonymous online comment, not from a seasoned and respected columnist on the payroll of a major newspaper. While the views in Mitchell’s column are not rare, it is troubling to see them endorsed by the Sun-Times, suggesting the paper is more concerned with publishing a sensational, illogical, and callous opinion than it is with the harm done by reinforcing such stigma.
Mary Mitchell grew up in Chicago housing projects, and she is considered by many as an authority on race relations in Chicago. One would think Mitchell would be sympathetic to the marginalized depictions sex workers face in the media. It’s disappointing that a prominent journalist who has worked hard to call attention to inequity in her city would so eagerly discount the violent rape of a sex worker as a mere “theft of services.”
I suppose her daftness on the subject of sex work shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a column earlier this summer, Mitchell gushed over anti-Backpage lobbyist and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s letter to Visa and MasterCard asking the credit card companies to block payments to the sex work advertising website. Mitchell also repeatedly mentions Backpage in her recent column. Her use of a quote from Dart is disconcerting: “They go on the Website and meet at a hotel or people’s houses. Things can get very volatile,” he tells her, keeping in line with a victim-blaming narrative framing assaults against sex workers all too often. One has to wonder if Mitchell would have found it worthwhile to write on this crime at all if shutting down Backpage wasn’t such an important crusade for Tom Dart. Is the rape victim sex worker somehow more blameworthy in Mitchell’s eyes because she advertised on a website that has come under so much scrutiny? Hardly a week goes by in which the Sun-Times doesn’t give coverage to Dart and his war on sex work, never failing to mention Backpage. In contrast, commentators elsewhere, including editorialists at the city’s other daily paper, the Chicago Tribune, criticize the sheriff for far exceeding his authority.
I’m not squeamish when it comes to free speech, but there are real consequences for sex workers when we face this kind of derision by mainstream journalists. The “unidentified prostitute” Mitchell disparaged should be lauded for her bravery in going to the police. Countless women who aren’t sex workers fear adverse reactions from reporting their rapes, and the risk of being discredited by the cops grows exponentially for those of us who are. When Mitchell writes,“It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she is perpetuating what all predators already assume to be true. When I was raped by a client, I was struck by how powerless I felt, how easily he could take from me, secure in knowing I had no recourse to hold him accountable.
What inspired many sex workers to speak out against Lena Dunham and other celebrities over CATW’s open letter to Amnesty International a couple months ago was how damaging inaccurate, secondhand depictions of who we are, how we feel about our work, and what we believe we need to stay safe can be. Because people in Mitchell’s position have an opportunity to challenge damaging views of rape victims and sex workers, it is always disheartening to watch them prop up the status quo. There was a time when the Sun-Times was considered a progressive paper that backed away from sensationalism in favor of hard-hitting investigative journalism. More recently, the newspaper’s website is murky with ads and protected by an aggressive paywall. The paper has become no stranger to controversy surrounding the often reactionary pieces it publishes. As S.E. Smith notes, The Sun-Times was compelled to issue an apology last year after it sparked outrage with an opinion piece denying Laverne Cox’s womanhood.
I am comforted by the outspoken reaction from sex workers, as well as activists and concerned allies, to Mary Mitchell’s piece. Thankfully, there are journalists and publications that take the depiction of sex workers seriously. It still boggles my mind that no one at the Sun-Times took a step back and questioned the publication of Mary Mitchell’s hurtful column. I guess when your readership dwindles and you have to lay off your entire photography staff to survive, you’ll publish any old garbage to sell papers or garner clicks.