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What ‘8 Minutes’ Got Wrong about Sex Workers (A Lot)

What ‘8 Minutes’ Got Wrong about Sex Workers (A Lot):

From the hero leaping in to cut the heroine from the tracks to Superman swooping down to catch a plummeting Lois Lane, saving damsels in distress has a long history of doing good box office. In that context, you can see why A&E green-lit 8 Minutes, a reality show in which a pastor and former cop, Kevin Brown schedules appointments with sex workers and then has eight minutes to save them from a life of degradation before their pimps, cackling evilly, appear to whisk them back to slavery.

Or that was the high concept, anyway. In reality, most of the women were approached beforehand, and the eight-minute encounter was staged. More importantly, rather than saving them, the show appears to have left many of the women it filmed worse off than they were before.

The site Sex Worker Solidarity!, organized by sex workers, includes stories from a number of women who were promised help and resources from 8 Minutes that they never received. The site also says the show promised to blur one woman’s face and then didn’t; as a result, police, landlords and clients could recognize her, putting her at serious risk.

If the show is Superman, it swooped down, caught Lois Lane—and then threw her harder at the ground. Thanks to activism by people like researcher Tara Burns, the show’s been cancelled, though folks victimized by the show still need aid.

The ugly revelations about 8 Minutes aren’t exactly a surprise; even before the show went up, Alana Massey at The New Republic and others warned that the concept was exploitive and dangerous. They knew it was exploitive and dangerous in part because there are precedents; high profile spectacular public rescue stories involving sex workers routinely turn out to be mendacious cash-grabs.

Last May Newsweek ran a lengthy expose of Somaly Mam, a world-famous Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, it appears, lied repeatedly about her own background and that of women she supposedly rescued. Mam was forced to resign from the foundation that bore her name.

Last December, Chong Kim, an anti-sex trafficking activist, was accused of lying about her past by an organization she had worked with. The charges undermined the accuracy of Eden, a 2012 film about sex-trafficking supposedly based on Kim’s life, but which now appears to be a work of lurid, sensational fiction.

Fighting trafficking, in each of these cases, seems less about helping women in need, and more about crafting exciting, consumable narratives. 8 Minutes makes that especially clear since it actually purports to show the women in the act of being degraded, terrified, and then saved.

Ariel Wolf, community organizer for the Red Umbrella Project, characterized 8 minutes as “trauma porn” that uses “someone’s pain as something to spectate.”

She added that the idea that there was an eight-minute time-limit seemed like “purely entertainment type tactics. They just need a gimmick….It seems,” she said, “like the entire production team values the end product of the television and making names for themselves more than they care about what actually happens to these women.”

The narrative of (timed) salvation and of pastor/cop Kevin Brown’s heroism are more important than helping the women involved. Sex workers are valuable as sexy, exciting stories, not as human beings.

And since sex workers are only their sexy stories, their real stories, and their real needs, can be ignored.

Kamylla, the woman who came forward and ultimately shut 8 Minutes down, wasn’t trafficked or kidnapped. Instead, she was poor and turned to sex work—specifically kink services where she did not have intercourse—as a way to feed her family.

“I was doing this like my last option just because things were so, so hard,” she told me by email. “When you have kids you forget about yourself, right? I lost my entire family years ago. Took me a while to rebuild so when we were starving I found SW an option.”

She agreed to appear on 8 Minutes because, she says, they claimed they could offer her resources so she could stop doing sex work. Essentially, they said they were going to pay her to fit into their narrative of salvation, in return for which they would offer her help. Only they didn’t actually give her any help and may have set her up.

After she didn’t get any of the aid she was promised, she had to put an ad in the paper again to try to generate income. The first person who responded was an undercover officer; her husband had to sell off their furniture to bail her out, putting her in even worse financial straits. She’s only been able to stay above water because of fundraising and advocacy by sex workers.

The truth is that helping people like Kamylla isn’t especially spectacular or filmable. Domina Elle, a board member of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project has done much of the organizing against 8 Minutes. Elle told me that she’s seen a huge increase in the number of women doing sex work not because of an increase in trafficking, but simply because of the lack of other kinds of work.

“I’ve been in the industry for 16 years. I have watched in the last few years especially a flooding of people into the market because people aren’t finding jobs,” she said. “(These) are single women in their 30s and 40s, divorcees, mostly who normally would be working in a business environment, they have put out all their resumes, they’re not getting any bites, they’re not finding jobs. Or they’re just not able to have the kind of living that they want. And so they are looking towards sex work.”

Many of these women, Elle says, like Kamylla, would rather do something else. They don’t need saviors and anti-trafficking programs; they need work—and short of that, they need to not be arrested for taking the work they are able to find.

Red Umbrella Project’s Wolf says that even for people who are being trafficked, or who are in coercive situations, the narrative of rescue and salvation from kidnappers or traffickers isn’t helpful.

“One of the biggest safety concerns of sex workers I interact to or talk to is interactions with the police,” Wolf said. “They’re very often abused by police. It could be violence. It could be rape. It could be undercover stings where someone will have sex with someone and then arrest them. There really is no trust in the police, and I’ve heard many sex workers say that they fear the cops more than they do their own clients.”

Even people in coercive situations can be reluctant to go to the police for help—and with good reason. Going to the police may result in further abuse or arrest.

“I’ve heard situations where someone was being arrested for prostitution, and they told the cops that they were being forced, and the cops didn’t believe them,” Wolf said.

Rather than daring pastors or policeman swooping to the rescue, Wolf told me, women in New York City who are coerced generally need a social service support structure—especially easily accessible safe housing. And they need a criminal structure that doesn’t by default make them targets for policing, so they can come forward when they’re in need of aid.

It’s promising that 8 Minutes was shuttered so quickly. That’s a tribute mostly to Kamylla, who was brave enough to come forward, and to people like Elle and other sex workers and advocates who worked to amplify her voice. But as long as we see sex workers as exciting, consumable narratives, there will always be another 8 Minutes, eager to capitalize on the supposed sexy degradation of those it claims to help. Not all sex workers need or want aid. But for those who do, Elle says, the best way to approach them is not by saying, “‘How can I rescue you?’ but 'You tell me what you need.’”


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian.

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