I am looking at a picture of a woman in pain, covered in blood. She is lying at the end of a bed, surrounded by strangers. The picture is below a headline. “Sex tourist’s Thai romp goes wrong after ‘dangerous doggy style’ glass tabletop manoeuvre leaves prostitute in agony.” The subhead refers to the “embarrassed punter”. An episode that ends with a woman in pain, bleeding and seriously vulnerable is not a “romp”. A man who is responsible for the injury, however accidental it may have been, should be much, much more than “embarrassed”. This really isn’t a story about an hilarious holiday accident. This is a story about many women are vulnerable and at risk because the media constantly belittles and devalues the lives of sex workers.
I hope the woman’s client is looking at that picture, and feeling angry with himself. I hope he’s realising that the risks of having sex on a glass table are obvious. That when you’re paying someone for sex, you have a lot of power. You’re in a position to get them to agree to stuff that doesn’t seem entirely safe, because they need to pay their bills, and because they don’t know how you’ll react if they say “no”. I hope this man is burning with shame.
However, the man who really should be on fire with guilt, contrition and self reproach is the Mirror reporter who saw fit to write about this woman’s injuries as though they were the plot to a late-period Carry On film. There is a deeply distressing tradition of dehumanising sex workers in the media. In Smith’s story, the bleeding woman becomes the punchline. There’s even a fury-inducing line at the end, explaining that the client “was quite embarrassed but had to stay until everything was sorted out. He had to send a few messages to explain why he was running late.” You can hear the chuckles in the newsroom, the “Ho ho ho, lads lads lads, what a silly bugger! Something similar happened to my mate in Latvia.”
The man responsible for the woman’s injuries is turned into the buffoonish, bumbling, Hugh Grant style hero of the story. (In a way, Hugh Grant is the perfect point of reference. If you revisit the reports of his encounter with sex worker Divine Brown in 1995, and her subsequent imprisonment, you get a thoroughly dispiriting context for the way sex workers are valued and treated by the press.)
Usually, when sex workers are in the news, they’re simply a politician’s downfall, or a name in the grizzly litany of a distressing serial killer story
We have no idea what happened to the woman, where she is or whether she’s OK. Did anyone cover her hospital bills? Does she have insurance? Was there any way for her to make up her lost earnings when her injuries prevented her from working? Did she have to do what we freelancers are familiar with, and work through it? Is the client currently recounting the story over beers, focusing on his cringes, without a thought of what happened to the woman he had been with?
If we want to know what many big media outlets really think of women, we need to start by considering the way they treat sex workers. Even when they can almost bear to talk about women as if we’re human beings with rights and feelings, as soon as we enter the sex trade, we become less than the sum of our parts. Occasionally there might be a hand-wringing opinion piece on the morals of sex work, but usually, when sex workers are in the news, they’re simply a politician’s downfall, or a name in the grizzly litany of a distressing serial killer story. Why do some serial killers murder sex workers? Because stories like the one in the Mirror tell the world that these women don’t matter, and won’t be missed. These stories normalise “sex tourism”, and seem to say it’s OK to treat women as sub-humans in certain circumstances, like a holiday or a stag do. Men like the Mirror reporter are telling other men that they are entitled to make women do what they like, and there won’t be any consequences.
Sex work is work. We would never, ever read a similar story about a factory worker who was injured by machinery, or an electrician who had an accident. It’s an industry where demand dictates supply. Some sex workers are in a position where they can do their jobs securely, safely and happily. A number are exploited, vulnerable and would rather be doing something else. Everyone deserves a safe working environment. There are no exceptions. But as long as stories like the one in the Mirror are being published, a worrying number of people who buy sex are going to think it’s OK to put their satisfaction ahead of the seller’s safety.