December 30th, 2015
sex work dominated the news in 2015
By Mary Emily O'Hara
was not only the year that the media changed the way it covered sex
workers, but it was also the year sex workers changed the way they
read the news.
year, journalism about sex
generally respectful, even laudatory. Most major news reports
included the voices of sex workers—when they weren't written or
produced by current or former sex workers themselves. That inclusion
is an important shift from stereotyped reporting in the past where
stories about the sex industry typically consisted of superficial
digs at a "seedy underground" and sex workers usually made
the news only as victims of murder and other crimes (and then, with
intimations that they somehow deserved it).
2015, some of the more salacious terms that dominated headlines in
years past, like "hooker," were replaced with "sex
worker" almost universally. Additionally, coverage veered from
single-event reporting on murders and other scares to reporting on
sex workers as a community and a reader base. It's as if the media
discovered this year that sex workers will respond online to
inappropriate or disrespectful media portrayals of themselves. Sex
worker activists fought the power all year long, using social media
as a truth-telling tool that allowed them to respond as a community
to movies and TV shows that disparaged them—even successfully
getting one taken off the air due to nonstop protests.
year for sex workers had as many downs as it had ups. But the fact
that there were victories at all felt fresh, exciting, and new. 2015
was the year that sex workers gained a permanent seat at the table.
And there's no going back.
workers fight back
was dominated by sex worker voices. Whether it was via blogs
and Sass, movies
or through workers' associations like SWOP (Sex
Workers Outreach Project),
media production and interaction was at an all-time high.
On Twitter and
other social platforms, outspoken sex workers rallied their large
swaths of followers; these networks came in handy when A&E’s
savior-porn reality show 8
and offended the crap out of the community. 8
widely panned by reporters who actually knew sex workers personally;
journalist Melissa Gira Grant encouraged viewers of the show to "ask
whether these former police are not also acting as manipulators,
seeking women out for their own gain" in a piece for VICE.
Encouraged by community support, the escorts
who appeared on the show came
forward and asked the network to "stop this crazy show."
media portrayals of sex workers slipped by without the community's
critiques this year. When Rashida Jones's documentary Hot
Girls Wanted hit
Netflix in May, the response was mixed but leaning towards
opposition, with sex workers tweeting at Jones about the dangers of
portraying porn as inherently exploitative.
TV and film producers weren't being targeted by the sex worker wrath,
it was aimed at a Chicago-based sheriff named Tom Dart instead. Over
the past few years, Dart made it his seemingly singular mission to
shut down the Craigslist-like classifieds site Backpage.com and had a
string of successes this year when credit
card companies refused to process payments to Backpage for
ads and a campaign launched that aimed to have Backpage
blocked from office computers and
other workplaces. Sex workers responded with white-hot rage not only
in the U.S., but in countries like Australia where prostitution is
legal yet legally employed escorts suddenly found themselves unable
to buy their usual ads. Backpage responded bymaking
all adult services ads free and
continuing to battle Dart and its other enemies in court.
place in policy
the activist battle-cry of "nothing about us without us,"
sex workers took to the legislative process in 2015 as an unofficial,
but strong, lobby. Strippers in Portland, Oregon spent the fall and
winter of last year actually writing
legislation to regulate strip club working conditions,
which Oregon senators approved this
long fight over the federal Justice
for Victims of Trafficking Act came
to a head in the spring, with some advocates for trafficking
survivors and sex workers opposing the bill. It finally passed in
April after being raked over and revised with a fine-toothed comb.
most widespread news about sex work policy in 2015 was Amnesty
International's decision in
August to take a stance in support of the decriminalization of sex
work. In a statement, Secretary General Salil Shetty referred to
"consensual sex work," clearly acknowledging a difference
between sex work and exploitation, abuse, or trafficking. Advocates
roundly applauded Amnesty's decision, with Kate D'Adamo of the Sex
Workers Project telling
the Daily Dot she anticipated a trickle-down effect after the world's
biggest human rights group sided with sex workers' rights.
was also the year that a presidential candidate said something that
almost, almost publicly
recognized the existence of sex workers: Hillary
Clinton decried the murders of black transgender women in
a speech at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters. However, Clinton,
like the majority of news reports, failed to mention that many of
women murdered this year were
also sex workers.
win some, you lose some
wasn’t all victorious announcements in 2015—the sex industry saw
its fair share of problems, too. One of the biggest stories of the
year was the toppling
of porn star James Deen.
Previously lauded as a feminist nice guy in the industry, Deen's
reputation crumbled after his ex-girlfriend Stoya accused him of rape
in a tweet—which was soon followed by numerous similar accounts
from a variety of women in the industry.
Stoya found widespread support from the public: from the
#StandWithStoya hashtag to many of Deen's contracts and writing gigs
being canceled within weeks, the alleged victim was treated with more
respect than past sex workers who reported sexual assault.
most outright shocking event in 2015 sex industry news was the
massive, multi-agency federal
raid on Rentboy.com's
New York City headquarters. The website, which warehoused listings
for male and transgender escorts, had been operating openly since
1997. When a law enforcement coalition comprised of the Department of
Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney's office, the Drug Enforcement
Administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the
New York City Police Department raided the Rentboy offices, dragging
computer servers and other equipment into the streets, it sent
and terrifying message to the gay community.
workers also watched ugliness unfold late in the year when actor
Charlie Sheen came out as HIV-positive. During the Today interview
and written statement in which Sheen revealed he’d been diagnosed
several years prior, he threw sex workers under the bus repeatedly.
He referred to them as "unsavory
and insipid types" and
sent his ex-girlfriend, the porn star Bree
into a public panic during which she insisted that Sheen had never
disclosed his status to her.
worker heroines rise to the top
a year this was for sex worker super-sheroes. It all began when a
young West Virginia woman working as an escort named Heather fought
off and shot a would-be attacker who was later discovered to
serial killer Neal
Falls, who was wanted in connection with murders all over the nation.
Heather became a heroine to sex workers everywhere as well as a rare
success story applauded in media coverage of the incident.
locals and nationwide sex worker networks rallied
to raise money for Heather so
she could move out of the apartment where Falls attempted to kill
one could have gotten through the year without reading the famous
a modern-day epic told via Twitter about two young strippers who
travel to Florida and get into all kinds of trouble. According to the
author, a Hooters waitress and ex-stripper named Aziah
Zola was "based on a true story." Nevertheless, King’s
tale captivated the Internet and nearly shut it down for a week while
everyone scrambled to read the 150 tweets in a row. Her story was
hilarious, sad, scary, exciting, sexy, and relatable. For most of the
world, the Zola story was purely entertaining "trap poetry,"
but to sex workers it was a relief to see something so real that
reflected the myriad and complex elements of "the life"
without flattening or reverting to cliches.
sex workers got to see themselves on the big screen in yet another
movie about "the life"—except this one actually starred a
former sex worker, Mya Taylor. Tangerine is
currently campaigning hard for an Oscar, with Caitlyn Jenner and
other stars throwing their weight behind the film in support. When
interviewed by ThinkProgress about the film, Taylor said, "The
film is not about people in sex work. The film is about friendship.
The people just happen to be sex workers. It’s just like a real
life story, you know?" The film treated its trans stars the same
way it treated the subject of sex work: as if it were perfectly
normal, which is all anyone who has lived through those identities
has ever really wanted.
workers got a very public boost of support and sisterhood this year
when comedienne Margaret Cho spoke publicly for the first time about
her past sex work. Cho had never actually hidden her past jobs as a
phone sex operator and dominatrix, but when she stated in a fall
tweet, "I was a sex worker when I was young. It was hard but
well paid. There’s no shame in it," she surprised a large part
of the public with the news.
was immediately embraced by sex workers, and she embraced back,
offering exclusive interviews to sex worker writers like Lily
Burana and Tara
discuss her identity as a sex worker.
beginning to end, the year 2015 represented a paradigm shift: Sex
honored, acclaimed, supported, not just by clients and each other,
but by the world at large. Sex work was uncovered as an integral part
of many people’s lives, from gay men to transgender women to
celebrities and people who have moved on into other careers. It was a
source of comedy, of tragedy, the inspiration for films and books
and, yes, hoetry.
As a cultural delegation, sex workers have grasped the ears and eyes
of a curious public. In the years to come, we'll be watching as more
celebrities inevitably come out of the closet about having worked in
the sex industry, as sex worker advocates are consulted more
frequently on policy and legislation, and as the voices of sex
workers continue to regale us all with torrid, transformative,
downright normal tales.
note: This story has been updated to address privacy concerns.
via Max Fleishman