April 12, 2021 (Updated )

There are more sex workers around you than you may think. In 2017, a government report estimated that just under 73,000 people were involved in sex work in the UK. With the pandemic hitting women harder than men, and the recent popularity surge of sites such as OnlyFans, this number is now likely to be much higher.

Any journalist reporting on politics, health, society, and current affairs could come across a story involving sex workers. It is crucial that in these cases, reporting is done respectfully, ethically, and without causing harm to the sex work community.

Derogatory and disrespectful coverage of sex work issues in the press affects many, and this stigma can kill. Writers play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and knowledge, and harming sex workers can have damaging consequences for women, their human rights, and other marginalised communities.

What Is Sex Work?

It’s important to note what constitutes sex work so writers can tread carefully. A sex worker is someone who earns money by selling sexual services or performances. This can be in person or online. Sex work is not illegal in the UK, although it is not strictly legal either.

For example, while it is legal for one sex worker to receive clients at home, it is illegal for more than one sex worker to work together at the same residence. Laws such as this have lead to sex workers’ rights movements calling for full decriminalisation of sex work, also known as “decrim”, and opposing the Nordic Model of sex work, which criminalises the clients.

Black and white image of sex work activists
The English Collective of Prostitutes is a network of sex workers working on the streets and indoors campaigning for decriminalisation and safety (Picture: English Collective of Prostitutes)

What Guidance Is There For Journalists?

Firstly, editors wanting to publish stories involving sex work may want to seek out sex workers to write these pieces. This can be extremely valuable, but being too militant about this can prevent people coming forward, if it forces sex workers to ‘come out’. If non sex-working people are writing the piece, it’s important that the story does not cross any ethical or social boundaries.

“It’s important that journalists become aware of how badly stigma can affect sex workers; it’s not just that society doesn’t like us. When we say ‘stigma kills’ we mean it literally.”

Lucy, an escort

Unfortunately, there isn’t much guidance available for those reporting on sex work. The NUJ has, to date, not published any reporting guidance on sex work. McNae’s essential Law for Journalists seldom mentions sex work. While it is up to journalists to proceed with caution, it is also important to protect themselves and the publication by knowing the legal facts, and making contributors aware of these too. However, there are a lot of simple things you can do to make sure you’re reporting responsibly.

What Do Sex Workers Say?

Lucy, an escort, tells Journo Resources: “It’s important that journalists become aware of how badly stigma can affect sex workers; it’s not just that society doesn’t like us, stigma allows people to harm us without people caring enough for newspapers to report it or the police caring enough to do anything about it. When we say ‘stigma kills’ we mean it literally, and the people who report on sex workers need to be aware of their potential role in this.”

Notes page
Journalists should be careful when reporting on sex workers (Picture: Unsplash)

In these articles, sex workers should be fully briefed on the format of the piece, the angle, and where it will be published and/or distributed and reproduced. This should happen before the interview and after, giving sex workers the chance to ensure there isn’t any information that could lead to jigsaw identification, by checking the details in the piece. Consent must be fully informed, and can be withdrawn at any time.

Cari Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP)  advises that journalists always secure interviews and case studies with sex workers through organisations such as her own, SWARM, Basis Sex Work, Decrim Now or Umbrella Lane. These organisations are used to dealing with the press and will advocate for the safe treatment of their members and associates, making them fully aware of the scope and limitations of their rights when speaking to the press. 

She says: “We work very hard to make sure the truth comes out in the press. For a television interview we insist the press comes over to our women’s centre and interviews the woman there. We make sure that they are not recognisable, that they’re filmed from behind, that the woman changes her hair and removes her identifying jewellery”.

“People are incredibly surprised when they learn that sex workers operate inside most of the time and don’t necessarily need pimps to survive” 

Lucy, an escort

Cari is keen to state that it is important that certain stories are told by the press, albeit correctly, so the public can understand how criminalised ways of working make sex workers vulnerable to violence and mistreatment.

An installation by National Ugly Mugs dedicated to the 182 sex workers who have died since 1990. (Image Credit: National Ugly Mugs)

Lucy has had contrasting experiences with the press. One male journalist took her words completely out of context and the published article was not what she had expected, but she says that “[the other journalist] spoke to me like an equal and asked questions without making assumptions. I think the difference was that she was gathering information to allow her to accurately report on something, whereas [he] was making the quotes he had available fit into a narrative he had been hired to write.”

On the importance of the wording and imagery, Lucy says, “I think all sex workers would agree that pictures of a pair of legs in heels sticking out of a car, or a woman looking cold and miserable in the street are not helpful or even accurate in most cases. A lot of people are incredibly surprised when they learn that sex workers operate inside most of the time and don’t necessarily need pimps to survive but these images just keep feeding into that idea.

“It’s not that I mind being associated with street sex workers, because I don’t at all, it’s just such lazy imagery which feeds into people believing we’re somehow different from the rest of society. Stigma won’t go anywhere if we’re not represented as real people rather than sexy caricatures”.

Other feedback from sex workers to reporters:

• Question why the article is being published. Is it in the best interest of sex workers?
• Sex workers should remain involved in the editing process to ensure that your sources are not being misrepresented
• Always get permission before using any photos/tweets found on a sex worker’s social media
• Be meticulous with language and never use slurs
• Avoid gendered pronouns where possible and appropriate.

The Resources Available To Help Journalists

The Sex Work Research Hub (SWRH) connects researchers and academics across a range of universities and disciplines working on sex work, sex working and sexual exploitation.

Dr Kate Lister from the SWRH tells Journo Resources: “A lot of sex workers are very distrustful of journalists, and maybe rightly so. if you’re the journalist, you’re the one with the pen, you’re the one with the power.” 

Interview with man and woman
Sex workers’ identities should be protected, unless they waive their anonymity (Picture: Unsplash)

Kate says that the major concern is that journalists who approach sex workers are going to misrepresent them and only want a story that sensationalises them. She suggests that journalists wanting to report on sex work should be able to demonstrate a back-catalogue of responsible reporting on similar issues and communities.

She also says that paying sex workers for their time does not have to jeopardise journalistic integrity, and writers shouldn’t instigate an article between contributors (for example pitting sex workers against anti-sex work campaigners).

“You don’t have to produce somebody who absolutely thinks that sex work should be abolished and hates it, in order to make the article credible”, she says, since arguments like this can only serve to undermine the lived experience of sex workers who want to share their stories, causing harm to the community and traumatising its members. 

“You don’t have to produce somebody who absolutely things that sex work should be abolished and hates it, in order to make the article credible.”

Dr Kate Lister, The Sex Work Research Hub

Above all, Kate says that reporting around sex work needs to be more humanising instead of fitting salacious narratives.

Dr Raven Bowen, CEO of National Ugly Mugs (NUM), an organisation which aims to protect sex workers from violence, and a member of the SWRH, agrees with this, and speaks about the limitations of journalism she has experienced.

Raven tells Journo Resources: “We get journalism that is very sensationalised. So sometimes we opt out of participating. We want to be a voice on the issue, but not in the context of how things are framed. And sometimes we speak to very compassionate journalists. But then it hits the editors. And the story is very different, there isn’t space to provide context. And to talk about nuance.”

As a researcher, Raven works to strict ethical frameworks, but acknowledges that these are not as rigid in journalism. She says that taking other communities’ issues into account is also important when writing about sex work.

“How [some journalists] talk about race and sex work is really repulsive at times, particularly with xenophobia and migrant workers, and how that’s framed,” she explains. “In this framing of sex workers as disruptive criminal populations, or at least part of the criminal element or public nuisance, all of that stuff is quite damaging.”

Raven says there must also be a commitment not to “out” sex workers; if the real names of sex workers are published instead of using pseudonyms, this can have profound implications on things like child apprehension, renting, banking, and employability.

There are issues which underpin the stories of sex workers, such as poverty and inequality. Raven adds: “It is a matter of whether the publication wants to share a full nuanced truth, or whether they want to share some sound bites and a sexy headline, and at the expense of the people who trusted them”.

With so many sex workers around us, it’s imperative we represent the issues, voices, and concerns affecting this community, lest we further ostracise and harm them.

Five Key Points To Remember When Covering A Story About Sex Work

• Do your research – look to sex-worker led organisations, such as the ones mentioned in this article, for context and case studies.
• Steer firmly away from sensationalism and stereotypes. Always double check your language and keep clear of pictures that reinforces inaccurate tropes.
• Make sure you’re writing a story in the best interest of the community you’re covering, and don’t have a pre-formed view in your mind of what you’re looking for.
• Allow workers to remain anonymous. Be meticulous to avoid jigsaw accommodation, and allow them to make the necessary checks to ensure their identity is not revealed.
• Keep sex workers informed with the process – brief them on who the story is for, the angle, and when it’s likely to be published.