For weeks, sex workers have been at the heart of two distinct, consequential stories.
In August 2017, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), which would ostensibly help women and girls who have been victims of sex trafficking, was introduced in the Senate. In February, the House passed their own version, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA), which the Senate then passed on March 21, voting 97-2.
The legislation had broad support, but sex workers and their advocates have energetically opposed them because, while the bills aim to curb sex trafficking, along the way they may also put sex workers at greater risk. SESTA sets out to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is “the law protecting online platforms from some types of liability for their users’ speech.…Without Section 230, most of the online platforms we use would never have been formed—the risk of liability for their users’ actions would have simply been too high.” (There also are First Amendment-related concerns.)
In practice, this means sex workers will lose platforms, such as Craigslist Personals, that allow them to work in relative safety. All that remains, at this point, is for President Trump to sign the bill.
The second story, which also involves Trump, is Stormy Daniels, a porn star, stripper, and movie director who is, to put it mildly, embroiled in a legal dispute with the president.
With the confluence of these stories, both of which remain in the headlines, I turned to Melissa Gira Grant, a senior reporter at In Justice Today. She’s covered criminal justice, sex workers’ rights, and human trafficking since 2005, for The Nation, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian, and is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. We talked about Stormy Daniels coverage, the prospect of covering sex work as a beat, and whether visible sex worker representation in media would be helpful. This story has been edited for length and clarity.
I reread much of the SESTA/FOSTA coverage going back to February. The large majority of stories were disproportionately slanted in favor of everyone but sex workers. For example, a story in The Washington Post in February accurately describes the bill, but omits objections to the law by sex workers.
Imagine a story about any number of states that have passed laws, or tried to pass laws, to make it harder for people to have an abortion by regulating clinics. Most coverage of those policy campaigns recognize that they aren’t just about making sure hallways are wide enough for hospital beds—that the aim of those laws is to make it harder for people to seek an abortion, by making it harder for clinics to operate. You will almost always see major national pro-choice organizations, if not abortion rights activists themselves, interviewed in those stories. Those groups may not necessarily get a hearing in legislatures, but then we’ll hear stories about that, too, about how they’re excluded from the process.
This is a pretty familiar narrative, right? Legislation designed to help people who weren’t involved in crafting it. Yet it’s not the approach taken on stories about sex work, where almost all legislation aimed at sex work ignores sex workers.
In the last two weeks, I’ve seen this story flip when it comes to SESTA and FOSTA, and it feels pretty dramatic: Now coverage acknowledges how sex workers would be affected by this legislation, advocacy organizations are getting quoted, and so are individual sex worker rights activists. Post-passage coverage, even local news stories, includes sex workers’ opposition.
What do you attribute this to?
In part, coverage migrated from news organizations that were already covering these bills, like In Justice Today, to those that may not otherwise have covered this legislation. My own coverage on this traveled to some surprising outlets—it had, up till that point, been considered a kind of wonky anti-trafficking vs. tech story. Seeing my reporting cited in Allure, for example, who treated it as a women’s issue. In general, women’s websites covering sex work haven’t typically started from a place of, what about sex workers themselves? Sex work ends up covered like it’s a problem. In this case, they gave platforms to sex workers. Then more outlets jumped in.
I don’t exactly know how it happened. But what was getting assigned, I think, was significantly driven along by sex workers hammering social media, organizing under various hashtags, like #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA and #letussurvive. They were easy to find and to quote, and they had a compelling story. And they were able to turn the conversation around, from bill designed to help trafficking survivors to controversial bill with unintended consequences.
Almost all legislation aimed at sex work ignores sex workers.
It’s remarkable that the shift in coverage occured absent institutionalization in media.
Right. You wouldn’t do a story about a transgender woman murdered in an act of anti-trans violence without reaching out to one of the national organizations that does work to end that violence. Or, I hope that you wouldn’t. Some reporters might even include perspectives from trans people in their community. We understand it’s our responsibility as journalists. But when it comes to sex workers, there isn’t that institutional knowledge or mandate, or even awareness. And there’s no GLAAD for sex workers, or an organization with similar resources that would function as an easily available source for reporters.
There are organizations worldwide working for the rights of sex workers, but this is a very deinstitutionalized movement in the United States. Part of that is because sex work is criminalized and part of that is because it’s so deeply stigmatized. As few resources as there are for women’s rights organizations or LGBT rights organizations, there’s even less for sex workers. As a result, most of these organizations, those run by sex workers, don’t have someone consistently at a phone waiting for reporters’ calls, let alone sending out press releases. The same constraints under which the movement and individual sex workers operate, those also necessitate building personal relationships with trusted reporters.
What news organizations or reporters have been particularly interested in sex work-related stories before, say, two weeks ago?
I’ve admired the coverage by Michelle Chen, who generally writes about labor and includes sex workers and sex worker organizing as part of those stories. And Anne Elizabeth Moore, who did several series at Truthout comparing trafficking in the garment industry and the ways we talk about trafficking in the sex industry, and the various NGO interests in both of those arenas. Emma Whitford, who covered sex work back at Gothamist as part of her city beat, and has recently been a reporting partner with me at In Justice Today.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard and Charlotte Shane, two of the original editors at Tits and Sass, went on to cover sex work in an incredibly nuanced way. They’ve been doing this since feminist blogs produced a new cohort of feminist commentators in legacy media, yet even that new cohort still failed to cover sex work.
To have Susan at the Missoula Independent right now, not just writing anti-trafficking stories but also just doing local news, that’s new. I haven’t seen journalists who cover sex work generally get to cover other things.
Do sex workers or former sex workers who write about it get pigeonholed into covering only those stories?
Particularly if you’ve ever had a public identity as a sex worker. When my book came out—which was not a memoir, nor was it about my personal experience; it was a work of reportage and criticism—I was asked to essentially perform my memoir on-demand. I told reporters, persistently and probably annoyingly, why that was not relevant to the book they were ostensibly there to interview me about. You know, if somebody reports on the military, and before that they were in the military themselves, we wouldn’t expect what they write to be confined to their personal experience, right? That wouldn’t be good reporting. Reporters have other lives, other jobs, and those jobs give them an additional lens with which to approach their reporting. But it’s not the sum of it.
Also: What is writing about sex work? What I write about now is the police, about prosecutors, about our court systems, about immigration. But that’s not generally what people think of when they think about someone “writing about sex work.”
Should sex work be covered as a beat by major news organizations? Years ago there was an estimate that, in eight cities alone, the “underground commercial sex economy” was worth as much as $300 million. That’s not nothing.
Maybe this is arguing against my own work, but I don’t necessarily think it should be a beat. Like I said, I’ve covered sex work as part of a larger criminal justice beat, and before that, as part of covering technology. Michelle Chen covers sex work as part of a larger labor beat. There’s room to cover sex work as part of a women’s rights beat. And we don’t need more of the sort of coverage where a reporter decides, I’m going to tell the real-life stories of sex workers, as if sex workers are voiceless. That’s been done, if not overdone. And that’s not what’s most critically needed if you want to think about public interest journalism, and particularly in a moment when sex workers have such access to media and social media themselves. It’s not necessary for non-sex workers to write those stories.
It’s also a waste of resources. Is there any major news organization that considers covering sex work as more than a problem to be solved—anything other than running mugshots, or covering sex workers when they’ve been murdered, or covering a politician who has a scandal involving sex work? Those are historically the three kinds of assignments. But that’s shifting, and editors could shift it more purposefully.
Is visible representation—journalists readers can identify as former sex workers—necessary?
Not necessarily. It mostly comes down to who you think is credible. I think sex workers themselves are still not broadly seen as credible in speaking about their own lives, and even more so, about the impact of policies that affect their lives. That, I think, is the biggest shift that needs to happen.
A profound shift on the level of representation has actually happened. Think of Janet Mock and the way she has written about her experiences in sex work, and how that connects to other facets of her life and work, including supporting her in college on her path into journalism. The fact that she’s able to bring that story into so many different communities and audiences is a powerful testament to her skill, and to what representation can do.
But I don’t think it’s about waiting for people to out themselves as a sex worker. To be honest, it’s hard enough for many women and trans people and people of color to get into the industry, so now you’re going to ask those journalists to put that out front as well? No. Particularly when that’s asking those journalists to out themselves to disclose work experience that, in the United States, remains criminalized.
What’s required is for news organizations to understand that all of the biggest issues right now that we’re reckoning with—economic inequality, the expansion of the criminal justice system, attacks on immigrants—also touch on sex workers’ lives. Those are all entry points into covering sex work that aren’t about identity per se, but about power, influence, and money. That’s covering the basics.
Sex workers themselves are still not broadly seen as credible in speaking about their own lives, and even more so, about the impact of policies that affect their lives
Aren’t newsrooms improved by diversity and the presence of underrepresented groups? Aren’t stories covered that might otherwise be missed?
That’s true, to a point. But which people from that underrepresented group and what diversity? Imagine an alternate ’90s culture war where the person hired to edit The New Republic was Sarah Schulman instead of Andrew Sullivan. In other words, which gay people? And which sex workers? This is a critical question.
Identity isn’t everything. And sex work isn’t really about identity. The tools and knowledge I actually need to cover sex work had very little to do with my sex work. What I learned on the job as a journalist is what allows me to cover this industry. Yes, it’s very different to cover law enforcement if you’ve ever been criminalized. But what I’ve learned about how to uncover what goes on inside the criminal justice system comes from my reporting.
Look: I’d requested an interview with the head of an organization that was supposedly helping sex workers, an organization that I knew worked with police, but I didn’t know the details of that relationship. I had some very basic questions: How many people have you served? What’s your budget? What if your budget was bigger, what else might you be able to do? The kinds of questions any executive director of a nonprofit can answer, and generally wants to answer. Anyway, they weren’t able to answer those questions, which raised a red flag. They considered it a hostile interview and shared their account of the interview with the city police, who then suggested ways they could undermine my story.
When I uncovered their email to the police in a public records request, it was a bit of a shock. It’s not the first time I’ve had people send my reporting to members of law enforcement—sometimes they even cc me, to let me know. But to learn that the people we report on might enlist law enforcement to respond? My shock, honestly, was that they considered what I was doing important enough to apparently try to undermine. But that, in and of itself, is worth having uncovered.
All of this to say: There are a lot of reasons I consider it critical to cover sex work. But I didn’t learn to file FOIA requests as a sex worker.
What does success, not just with reporting on sex work, but also representation, look like?
I aim for being non-exceptional. I think the marker of things having shifted, both in the news economy and the larger world, is that sex work is covered alongside other stories about work, alongside other criminal justice issues. And that being a journalist who once was a sex worker is absolutely unexceptional, as unexceptional as any other job one may have had. No one finds it compelling that I once worked in a rape crisis center or with a union. No one has asked, even if those work experiences have shaped my journalism as much as any other job.
We don’t treat it as exceptional that journalists have worked in the service industry. As she’s said herself, no one finds it that exceptional that my friend and colleague Sarah Jaffe, a labor journalist, also used to work as a waitress. And certainly no one ever tried to save her from that job, and no one ever suggested that journalism was some wonderful path out of that job.
Which it may no longer be.
We are all becoming part of a very unstable gig economy. In the news industry, most of us are certainly in that boat. We have more in common with people who are working gig-to-gig than we do with our counterparts who had these jobs 20 years ago, when this was a magazine and newspaper-driven industry.
Younger writers, who never had exposure to that kind of work environment as journalists, are keenly aware that the way that you get work these days, particularly as a freelancer, is to show off on the internet, to build your brand. Those working conditions are not all that different than the conditions that sex workers who work online are working in.
The two industries are on a similar track, and their fortunes intertwined.
They’re connected, and they have been for a long time. The dawn of muckraking journalism was uncovering and exposing the conditions of the sex industry, over a century ago. The American obsession at the time with “white slavery”? That was a moral panic driven by and benefiting an emerging news economy, and it resulted in dangerous laws and policies.
We are still living in that environment. That is the news economy of sex work, and that certainly describes the relationship of most media about sex work and its relationship to policy, and the impact it can make in the lives of sex workers.
On balance, what do you think about the Stormy Daniels coverage?
Well, I was late to it because the story was happening at the same time as SESTA and FOSTA. My ears perked up with the story that she had been threatened. That’s really shaped my idea of what this story was; not the presence or absence of receipts in the form of dick pics or whatever.
I think the efforts to profile her got a little bit beyond, “Isn’t it funny that I’m talking to a porn star?” Rolling Stone‘s coverage—Stormy Daniels as the hero we need—that gets to the heart of something sex workers on Twitter have been saying, too. But then media Twitter is peppered too much with, “lol reporters get to go to stripclubs now.” And of course I had a knee-jerk response: What, you don’t understand how many reporters probably spend time in stripclubs anyway?
What did you think of Anderson Cooper?
I was grateful that it was Anderson Cooper who got that interview. This is a massive overgeneralization, but I’ll say it is sometimes true: There’s a great history of community and understanding between sex workers and LGBT folks, mainly because so many sex workers are LGBT, but also in terms of stigma around sexuality, right? There were parts of that interview where I was just delighted by the ways Anderson helped Stormy break down, for the American people, the alleged peculiarities of Trump’s weird rich-dude sexuality.
It’s hard enough for many women and trans people and people of color to get into the industry, so now you’re going to ask those journalists to put that out front as well? No.
With SESTA and FOSTA being in the news at the same time as Stormy Daniels, sex work is having a moment, I guess.
I would say sex workers themselves are having a moment. I’ve lived through and reported through so many of these moments: Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the DC madam; Eliot Spitzer; the Secret Service and Cartagena sex workers. What makes this moment unique is that driving the narrative are sex workers’ own demands.
Do you remember the rush to get Ashley Alexandra Dupré on the record? The one escort whose name we had in the Spitzer moment. Even then, a decade ago, it was a very different kind of story because Ashley had a social media imprint, and so photos from her MySpace are what ended up on CNN. Much of the viewing public haven’t seen something like that before: The idea that she had a private life outside of her work, all of a sudden that’s something people had to contend with. I remember talking to sex workers at the time who were like, “If I ever became a scandal, what are they going to pull off my social media and put next to me on TV?”
That was the first time I was exposed to the idea that this extreme attention could protect someone. One sex worker and activist told me, “If that ever happened to me, I hope they pull all my activist stuff off so they can’t just marginalize me and say that’s not part of who I am.”
Now here we are with the simultaneous Stormy and SESTA moments, and what binds them together is they’re both about silencing and delegitimizing. The impact of SESTA, whether or not this is explicitly how it was framed by its supporters, has been to shut down spaces online that sex workers use, not just for work, but for community and for organizing.
I don’t know nor do I expect Stormy Daniels to ever acknowledge the SESTA bill. I think she has enough other things going on in her life. But we might also see what sex workers see—the connection between Stormy and SESTA, and how we have to recognize that sex workers are part of our civic life.
When this current moment passes, how does one maintain the momentum?
I don’t think any of this is a moment. What is needed, if it’s going to shift how sex work is covered, is for more people to have the experience of covering the trajectory of those political interests, philanthropic interests, the interests of those in law enforcement, all those who wield control over the lives of sex workers with little to no public accountability. That’s the thread that I see in the reporting that I do.
My hope is that people invest in this as a long-game, to look at what’s going on now and to keep on it and to trust that, actually, this isn’t just a moment.