The Media’s Gross Treatment Of Sex Workers Is Putting Our Lives At Risk

60 Minutes pinned a scarlet letter on Cassie Sainsbury last night. But what was the point?

sex work

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This post discusses sexual assault.

I’d love to be able to start this by telling you that I don’t inwardly cringe or take five seconds to mentally prepare before I read or watch anything to do with my industry in the media. I want to tell you that because there has been progress made — to some degree — and I want more than anything to be optimistic. I’d like to offer some level of reassurance; to focus on the positives.

That’s the way forward right? We won’t get anywhere if we focus on the negatives. If we adopt an ‘us vs them’ mentality towards the mainstream media — well, they won’t be inclined to do us any favours in the future, will they?

I’d love to do that, but I can’t. Last night 60 Minutes ran a much-hyped report about accused drug smuggler Cassie Sainsbury that revealed her “double life” as a former sex worker. It splashed all the negative perceptions of my industry to its 2.7 million viewers, and right now it’s hard to focus on much else.

You Don’t Have To Put On That Red Light

I’m a sex worker — or, more specifically, an ‘out’ sex worker. I was out to my family very early on and then I was out to everyone else the first time I appeared on TV talking openly and earnestly about my life and my work. That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but I don’t regret it.

Being ‘out’ has come with both positives and negatives, but most importantly it’s given me further opportunities to talk about the issues facing the industry I work in and my amazing peers. In some small way, I can start to break down the stigma we live under — a stigma that obscures us from the minute we first start working.

My observations regarding the media’s treatment of sex workers started long before I was engaging with the media myself; back before I even started working. I knew, or knew of, women who worked in many roles in the industry, so I had some notion of how the reality of their lives was different from what I was seeing in the news.

There is an assumption that ‘the job’ is inherently dangerous, when in fact it’s the stigma that makes it so.

Stories about the sex industry were always accompanied by the same tired old stock photos: a patent leather stiletto, a fishnet clad pair of legs descending from a shady looking vehicle, usually in a deserted street somewhere. I saw out-of-focus images of a woman’s silhouette in the doorway of a red-lit room clad in black or red lace. There were cigarettes, handcuffs, and a fresh coat of fire engine red lipstick — you can practically hear ‘Roxanne’ playing in the background right now, can’t you?

These images of the industry — long overused by the media and pop culture — are what people come to expect when confronted with the idea of sex work. They’re coupled with words like ‘lurid’ and ‘sordid’ and, as a result, imply that the sex industry – and thus sex workers — are heavily involved with some sort of criminal underbelly. These descriptions then colour the way the general public views us and, within the general public, our clients.

When I started tweeting last night about 60 Minutes‘ “big exclusive”, I was angry. The show’s promo material — which advertised Cassie’s “double life” as a “prostitute” — was dehumanising and tasteless, teased with a headless blonde in lingerie. The episode itself featured a reporter discussing the drug trade in Columbia while walking through Kings Cross. Throughout this report, you’re bombarded with tenuous statements attempting to implicitly connect the Australian sex industry with the drug trade. It’s almost laughable. Unless you’re me.

What follows is the same story you’ve come to expect here about the “good girl” lost in a world of vice and sin. Images of Cassie, blonde and blue-eyed, are interspersed with the kind of soundtrack you expect from true crime documentaries. A voiceover tells us not to be fooled. What’s worse is that it’s a fellow sex worker saying these things. They’re no doubt aiming to cash in, but not realising they are  contributing to the very stigma that makes all our lives difficult.

I don’t have the fortune of being able to just roll over and let stuff like this lie. I don’t have the fortune of doing that because this kind of reporting reinforces a stigma that could get me killed.

The Consequences

You may well think that I’m being overdramatic. A lot of people do. This is not uncommon when discussing an issue that people don’t fully understand, nor is it uncommon when a woman is angry. As sex workers we’re used to living in a world that reinforces a stigma painting us as ‘less than’. This stigma leaves us open as fodder for people’s anger and hatred, for criticism and slander — often, for violence.

There is an assumption that ‘the job’ is inherently dangerous, when in fact it’s the stigma that makes it so. That stigma lets the world — and in turn, our clients — assume that they can do whatever they like to us and get away with it. These constant negative portrayals paint us as less than human — as though we’re only worth the sum of our parts, or whatever the going rate is for a ‘bombshell’ exclusive.

The Project recently faced similar scrutiny after covering a story about an Uber driver who accidentally picked up a sex worker. In discussing the story, co-host Carrie Bickmore said she understood the driver’s confusion as the woman he collected “didn’t look like a sex worker”. This upset me — especially given that my first interaction with the media was on The Project and I felt, at the time, that it was a good one.

This notion of what we look like and who we are is the result of years of inaccurate and biased reporting. We are trying, as a community, to get our stories out there and have our voices heard, but how is this possible if mainstream media continues to stick to the same tired old negative stereotypes?

The notion of sex workers as ‘other’, as different or less than any other human, is what’s let men like Adrian Bayley off with weaker sentences for assaulting women. Cassie’s story is one piece of a much bigger whole. Stigma permeates through society, the media, even law enforcement and for every example of good reporting, every moment of action — there are countless stories that show otherwise.

I want to focus on the positives; I want to be able to rave about progress, but it’s impossible not to feel disheartened when stories like Cassie’s are everywhere all the time. The networks are hungry beasts and it seems as though, in their efforts to out-do one another, the potential harm of their actions are the last thing on their minds. Especially when it comes to the titillation that the sex industry provides.

Regardless of whether you think Cassie Sainsbury is guilty or not: this was wrong. Cassie may have been out to her friends, her family — she wasn’t out to the rest of Australia.

I came out about my work by choice. It was hard. It never gets easier. The assumptions people make about my life, about my family, and about me as a person are heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure. Guilty or not, Cassie now has to deal with this new stigma, unprepared, without friends or peers to support her. This doesn’t disappear. Once you’re out, you’re out. The bars of a Columbian jail cell can’t protect Cassie from the scarlet letter Channel 9 chose to pin on her for the world to see.

Lucie Bee is a sex worker, adult entertainer and activist. She was most recently featured on season one of ABC’s You Can’t Ask That and has been a guest on Hack Live: Australian’s on Porn, ‘The Hook Up’, ‘The Project and more.

Lucie was also a delegate of Junket 2016. Read more thoughts and features from some of our other 200 delegates here.