Why responsible reporting matters when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation

decorative graphic in Zero Tolerance branding. Text reads "Blog post. Why responsible reporting matters when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation by the Women's Support Project." text in quote box "Behind each story there is a larger context of inequality that should not be trivialised or dismissed."Guest blog: by the Women’s Support Project

The lives and experiences of women involved in commercial sexual exploitation are as diverse and complex as their individual circumstances. Yet, when it comes to the mainstream media, there is a lack of nuance in how this issue is presented.

Commercial sexual exploitation is a form of violence against women that covers a range of activities all of which involve the selling or exchanging of sex. It can include the more formal ‘sex industry’ - with stripping, prostitution in massage parlours/saunas, brothels, escorting, phone sex, webcamming and sex tourism. It also includes street prostitution and survival/transactional sex where women exchange sex for their basic needs. The term also covers women who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and can also be found in the more formal ‘sex industry.’

Headlines on this issue are often dominated by limited narratives: stories that oversexualise women and glamourise the selling of sex and those which see women as voiceless victims whose experience is presented as a small detail in a larger story of organised crime and global human trafficking.

Unsurprisingly, this type of reporting is problematic as it rarely reflects the realities of women and instead paints an inaccurate picture of their situation. Women who have entered the ‘sex industry’ have said that this representation can and does influence their decisions and so balanced, accurate and responsible reporting is essential for women to understand the full picture and make an informed choice.

Here we want to focus on some of the common problems in how the media reports on commercial sexual exploitation:


The language used can misrepresent the realities of women

Media articles often apply broad terms to describe the women involved, such as ‘prostitute’ or ‘sex worker,’ without an awareness that many women do not use or identify with this language.

Women become involved in selling or exchanging sex for a variety of reasons, such as poverty, lack of opportunities, to support a habit, because they are being forced by an abuser, for a place to live, and many other reasons, and they may understand their situation in different ways.

Journalists need to be mindful of the language used as women may consider that certain terms do not apply to their situation nor reflect their experiences. This applies to the reporting of women currently involved as well as to historical accounts of involvement.

Wendy was involved in the ‘sex industry’ in Scotland, and in our project Inside Outside she explains why she felt the term ‘sex worker’ did not describe her:

“I was never a sex worker, I wouldnae ever call myself that. It's no a job. It was just a way of making money but it wasne easy and it wasne a job. As soon as you get in that car it's hard.”

Applying a blanket term not only denies women the agency and power to tell their stories in their own terms, but it risks framing all woman’s involvement in selling sex as a choice even where they had none. Take this headline, for example:

Screenshot of a headline "Ex-prostitute sentenced to life in prison for killing pimp when she was 16 is pardoned"

Despite the fact that a 16 year-old girl was abused and sexually exploited by a man, the perpetrators’ responsibility is diminished by the use of a label which reduces her to an “ex-prostitute” and not a victim of crimes. When reporting on this issue, thus it is always necessary to consider whether mentioning a woman’s involvement is of any relevance to the story.

When interviewing an individual woman or covering her story, she should always be consulted on her preferred terminology or the reporting should reflect the language she already uses.

Women are always women first regardless of the activities they do or their context. So, where a woman cannot be consulted, rather than using a label, it is best to choose a term that describes the activity – eg “woman who sells sex” “women in prostitution” or “woman involved in the sex industry.”


It is not ‘just’ sex and money

Structural inequalities like poverty and homelessness, as well as situations like economic crises and war have been shown to be some of the factors that can push women into commercial sexual exploitation. This is why reporting on this issue cannot be reduced to ‘just’ the elements of sex and money. Such framing can feed into victim-blaming and perpetuate the idea that women are at fault for any harm they may face whilst being involved.

A clear example are media stories of women signing up as content creators on Only Fans. Since the pandemic, articles which foreground stories of women making ‘easy money’ and ‘lifting’ themselves out of poverty through Only Fans abound:

Screenshot of a headline "I'm one of OnlyFans' top earners - I grew up poor, now I make $350K a month"

What is missing from this headline and the reporting is the reality that the vast majority of content creators make less than $145 a month on this platform. Recent data analyses have found that only 10% of the 1.5 million creators on Only Fans are top earners. It also fails to mention the harms and risks that woman frequently face when selling sex and images online - such as the pressure to sustain an often unattainable body image; the amount of time and money they must invest to generate income; the abuse and negative comments they receive from men; the fact that men steal, share and publish women’s content elsewhere leaving women with little recourse to remove it from the internet; as well as the stigma and trauma attached to being ‘outed’.

Behind each story there is a larger context of inequality that should not be trivialised or dismissed. Tackling the stigma that surrounds prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation is also about being transparent about the situations that lead women to start selling sex and the realities of many whilst involved.


Images are the other half of the story…

More often than not, the media depicts women who sell or exchange sex using stereotypical stock images.

No matter the issue or story, the same stock images are used over and over again with little variation or alternatives – women portrayed standing in a dark street under a spotlight, leaning into cars or exchanging money with anonymous men. Frequently, women are shown just as body parts – legs uniformly dressed in fishnets and high heels, bodies wearing lingerie, the back of a head or just a dark shadow.

The media has the power to represent women involved in a fairer and more respectful way and accurate reporting should never reduce women to objects, bodies sexualised in their entirety or a sum of sexy parts.

Rather than reverting to the usual tropes of oversexualised women, media outlets need to portray the women involved as ordinary women who can be mothers, students, professionals; young and old; employed and unemployed; belonging to different faiths and backgrounds.

Likewise, images can be used which bring attention to the men who buy sex and who are seldom brought into the discussion in any critical way.


Women should be supported to tell their story

Coming forward about being involved in selling or exchanging sex can be a huge step for any woman. The stigma and discrimination that surround this experience, as well as the fear of being ‘outed,’ can influence the decision to speak to others about it, let alone to the media.

It is crucial that journalists act in an ethical way to ensure proper support for any survivor of abuse or violence, and particularly women who have been involved in the ‘sex industry.’

Building a safe space for the woman to talk is essential and it means avoiding a dynamic where the journalist reproduces the cycle of exploitation. This includes being very clear about the goal and angle of the story as well as what the benefits are for the woman. She should also be given sufficient opportunities to withdraw her consent.

Protective factors around proper anonymity and confidentiality need to be placed from the very beginning and she should be given the time, space and support to review the information she has shared before it goes public.

Although this might mean a longer process, journalists must consider that women are taking huge risk when speaking to the media, and failing to be careful can compromise the woman’s safety and disrupt her life in very negative ways.

In Inside Outside, Wendy described what happened after a news outlet filmed her and other women involved in street prostitution without consent and without properly considering the impacts:

“There was TV programme about prostitution. They had filmed the ‘Drag.’ My mum had been sitting watching the lunchtime news and there was me. There was her daughter. My face was blurred out but as a mother, she could just tell. She knew it was me. She said, ‘I know you've got that blue coat and I know the way you stand. I know that's you.’ I watched the night time edition later on and yep, sure as fate, there was me standing waiting on a client. I was like, ‘Well that's me on the news for prostitution.’ That was how my family found out.”

This is an example of just how essential it is for journalists to take anonymity and confidentiality seriously. Sharing a woman’s experience should never be taken lightly and neither should it be used just as way to generate clicks or for the sake of more readership.

When it comes to commercial sexual exploitation, we recognise the need to share the experiences of women involved, but responsible reporting must never be compromised. There is huge potential to see more reporting that challenges the stigma, shame, and misrepresentation that women have been faced with for so long; however, this requires a commitment to factual and accurate journalism.


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