Love & Sex Magazine

Case Study

By Maggiemcneill @Maggie_McNeill

This essay first appeared in Cliterati on December 8th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.

stack of newspapersIn the process of writing my blog, I read and scan a tremendous number of news stories every week, from websites based all over the world.  I get many of them from links on Twitter, and my readers send many others; some of them I stumble onto by chance while looking at other things.  The majority of sex work-related items end up in my weekly “That Was the Week That Was” news summary, which normally appears on Saturday; other interesting stories appear in my weekly “Links” column, which normally appears on Sunday.  Some are worth quoting in a longer discussion, and others aren’t noteworthy enough to get any coverage in my work at all.  But every once in awhile a story comes along which is so interesting, funny, horrible, odd or whatever, that I like to analyze it at length.  Today I present such a story; it appeared in the Edinburgh News on October 30th,  but the date hardly matters because it’s illustrative of so much of what’s wrong with the way the news media report on sex work.

Two prostitutes are plying their trade just yards from a bustling police station amid warnings that private flats are increasingly being used for business by sex workers.  The cheeky sex workers are operating from a plush £700-a-week mews house in Dewar Place Lane to the rear of the busy West End police base in Torphichen Place.  Their decision to “set up shop” in the shadow of the key station follows an unprecedented period of focus on the Capital’s sauna trade…

One distinguishing characteristic of the truly awful sex work story is its use of inane, annoying and dysphemistic language to pretend that sex work is “dirty”, “seedy”, titillating, lurid or otherwise fundamentally different from other kind of work.  The language in many such articles is positively Victorian, but even when it isn’t, it’s still of a type only found in reference to sex work.  It starts in the very first sentence: can you imagine caterers, carpenters, cartographers or cab drivers being described in an early-21st century article as “plying their trade”?  Or that a reporter would find it noteworthy that a pub, pawnbroker, photographer or piano-tuner had set up shop near a police station (or to enclose that phrase in scare quotes)?  The UK is not the US; prostitution is not illegal in Scotland, no matter how much the leadership of Police Scotland might wish otherwise.  While I agree that it is a bit “cheeky” to do business so close to the hideout of a gang with a long history of violence against sex workers, that’s not the “spin” this reporter appears to be trying to put on it.  Finally, there’s the mention of the rent…which would certainly not appear were the story about a medical practice or a law firm.

…one…Police Scotland insider said…“We’re going to see a lot more sex sold from private flats like this…with all the unique problems that can bring with it.”  Sex industry insiders say more prostitutes are now operating from flats.  And today Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald warned it would lead to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases and attacks on prostitutes…

Edinburgh saunaSex has been sold from private residences for as long as private residences have existed; this is neither new nor “uniquely problematic”.  Stories about sex work often present minor shifts in the number of women working in one type of venue or another as some sort of mass migration; in the US, it is commonly claimed that indoor sex work was practically nonexistent before the advent of the internet, when in reality the change was from about 15% of all sex workers on the street to perhaps 10% or a bit less…hardly a seismic shift.  The same can be said about brothel workers starting to go independent in Edinburgh.  And though I’m sure MSP MacDonald means well, if she’s concerned about STIs she should turn her attention to the amateurs; we professionals have far lower rates than they do, even without government nannies looking over our shoulders to be sure we wash properly.

…Our investigation was sparked by members of the public concerned at the comings and goings in the well-heeled cobbled street.  The attractive pair – who aren’t linked to the saunas – are only believed to have arrived in the city a week ago.  Their arrival, however, has merely swelled the ranks of a burgeoning scene which leaves prostitutes vulnerable to the whims of…violent pimps…

Can you imagine two new members of any other profession being described as “swelling the ranks” when there are already about 700?*  As for “public concern”, that’s utter nonsense; escorts know how not to attract attention, and in the next section the reporter admits to making an appointment through a website.  Without the directions provided by the sex workers, neither he nor the supposedly “concerned public” would have known where they were.  But the worst part of this short paragraph is the insulting pretense, so beloved by prohibitionists, that whores are largely at the mercy of “pimps”, when actually nothing could be farther from the truth.

…Incredibly, officers pass the flat, as they use the lane for access, unaware of the seedy activities inside…a girlish voice called out to come up the spiral staircase to…a large and immaculate living room with…two empty wine glasses…on a low table alongside untouched finger food…Wearing heavy eye make-up and scantily dressed in a see-through negligee, black underwear and red high heels, she welcomed our reporter…

Every sentence has words intended to evoke a lurid atmosphere.  A legal business is “seedy”, the sex worker is “girlish” (implying “underage”), the cleanliness of a business-place is somehow considered remarkable (would a hotel lobby be similarly described?), the empty glasses hint at a recently-departed client, and the descriptions of the sex worker’s makeup and attire would be more at home in a cheap novel than a serious news story.

…Asked whether she knew about the nearby police station she rolled her eyes, smiled and said: “I know, I know.  I don’t mind.  I’m doing nothing wrong.  I don’t sell drugs, I pay my taxes.  I’m quite happy about it”…She claimed to be working alone from the house, but the Evening News has learned that she is one of two prostitutes based there…The offense of brothel-keeping is only committed when two or more women work from the same home…Police officers have been informed by the News of [the] brothel…

In revealing that the women work from the same place, the reporter has guaranteed that the police will subject them to mindless violence in the name of upholding an asinine law, especially since he helpfully provided them the address in violation of every principle of journalistic ethics.  This wicked game of outing sex workers is woefully common in UK journalism of the sleazier sort…which is to say, most of it.

But the worst part about the entire article is that the reporter seems to imagine himself to be genuinely concerned about sex workers’ safety, or is at least trying to convince the reader that he is.  A reporter chooses whom to interview, which quotes to feature, how to parse them and how much weight to give each interviewee, so two different people with opposite agendas could produce two extremely different articles from the exact same set of interviews; this story comes back over and over again to the harm Police Scotland’s new harassment policy will inflict upon sex workers.  Yet at the same time, it wallows in the lurid, is peppered liberally with dysphemisms and tortured phrases, presents sex workers as weak, dirty victims and even goes so far as to directly betray two of them to the tender mercies of the police, hinting that they have a lot of money so as to make them a more attractive target for a profit-motivated raid.  If this is what passes for “sympathy” in British journalism, I’d hate to see what hostility looks like.

*This number comes from Scot-Pep, and though it seems a bit low to me we’ll go with it.


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