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A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work

Journalists and researchers writing about sex workers do long-lasting damage to their sources when they treat sex work as an area of exception to their journalistic ethics. 

The South African press—like its international counterparts—are often guilty of misrepresenting sex workers and sex work.  The majority of articles on sex work are sensationalistic in nature and emphasise salaciousness and lewdness over the more mundane aspects of sex work.  Few journalists or writers go to the trouble of interviewing sex workers or asking for their input into articles or investigations, while generally privileging the voices of authorities, residents or the general public. Embarking on the often difficult task of locating sex workers, gaining their trust and interviewing them in a respectful manner do not characterise most popular writing on sex work.

The writers of this article work for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in South Africa that advocate for sex worker rights, and specifically the decriminalisation of sex work.  In our work, we have come across dangerous journalistic practices and unethical behaviour by journalists, writers, editors and researchers. We are part of a consortium of organisations that compiled a resource for journalists and writers entitled Sex Workers and Sex Work in South Africa – A Guide for Journalists and Writers. This article summarises some of the main issues that this guide contains. We furthermore illustrate some of the pitfalls of popular reporting on sex work with a case study of a tabloid newspaper article in South Africa:

Case Study: Everyday News on sex work and HIV

Authors’ note: The names of the tabloid and sex worker have been changed to avoid possible re-victimisation of the complainants.

In May 2014, three Everyday News journalists approached Angel, a sex worker in the informal settlement of Blikkiesdorp in Western Cape, South Africa, for interviews. Angel agreed to do the interviews on condition that her photograph would not be published and that a pseudonym would be used.  Her family did not know that she is a sex worker and that she is HIV positive. Angel also told the journalists that she did not want details of her gang rape revealed.

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A joint production of Sonke Gender Justice, Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, and Women’s Legal Centre, December 2014.

On 17 June 2014, the Everyday News published a two-page article titled, ‘AIDS in Blikkiesdorp’, with a sub-heading ‘Prostitutes living with HIV is on the rise’.  The article included a photo of Angel standing in the road, taken from the back, but not blurred as had been agreed before the interview. Angel could therefore be identified by community members, and thus linked to being a sex worker and having HIV.  The article also included the fact that Angel had been raped.

Angel approached the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) for assistance.  These organisations filed a complaint with the Press Ombudsman outlining the breached verbal contract, and the social implications of the newspaper’s actions. 

The South African Press Code states that the identity of rape victims shall not be disclosed without their consent, and neither shall a person’s HIV status. Since the publication of the article, Angel has been afraid to leave her home because of threats of violence from community members. This has put her health at risk, as she no longer collects her antiretroviral medications from the local clinic.

The Code is clear that “headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question”. The content of the article provided no evidence that sex workers with HIV were increasing, as the subheading suggested.  The press also has an obligation to protect sources and not to publish information that would constitute a breach of confidence, which was clearly violated in this case.

The Press Ombudsman agreed with the WLC’s analysis on this case, and instructed the Everyday News newspaper to publish an apology. On the 21 August the Everyday News published the following:

“On [the] June 17, the Everyday News published an article titled, ‘Sex and Aids in Blikkiesdorp’. The article included information, which indirectly made it possible to identify the complainants mentioned in the article. Furthermore, the co-operation of the complainants was contingent on their anonymity. Due to the abovementioned, the Everyday News would like to apologise to the individuals mentioned in the article and to the community of Blikkiesdorp in respect of the harm the article may have caused the complainants. The Everyday News takes this opportunity to assert its view that HIV/AIDS remains a very sensitive issue in the community and respect should be maintained for vulnerable persons such as women and children when reporting on this issue.”

Regrettably, this apology does not undo the damage to Angel’s dignity and well-being. The publication of her identity alongside sensitive information about her health will likely have long-term, negative consequences for Angel and her reputation. Such a result could have been avoided if the Everyday News journalists had adhered to the conditions agreed upon before the interviews.

Trust between sex workers and journalists is vital for ensuring respectful and fair reporting. This example of professional misconduct shows the opposite: how poor journalistic practice increases sex worker distrust and reluctance to engage with journalists.

Cliché visuals perpetuate stereotypes

When one conducts an internet image search with the keywords ‘sex worker’ or ‘prostitute’, the majority of images relate to selected body parts of women only—usually a woman’s exposed breasts, bums or legs—such as the images below. These images reduce sex workers to certain body parts only. They fail to portray the multiplicity and complexity of sex worker lives and reinforce negative stereotypes that sex workers are money-hungry alcoholics and drug addicts.  Responsible journalists would avoid the reproduction of such images as they encourage intolerance towards sex workers and stereotype them.

Examples of disrespectful or de-contextualised images of sex workers

Telegraph.co.uk (left); Mpumalanganews.co.za (right). Fair Use.

Protecting sex worker identities

Particularly in a context where sex work is criminalised, sex workers are often reluctant to have their faces photographed or filmed as it may expose them to a range of risks. There are a number of well-established journalist techniques that could disguise the identity of sex workers, such as blurring their faces or distorting their voices if they are being filmed.  These options should be discussed with the interviewee to establish what s/he would prefer.  Proper consent should then be obtained, preferably in the form of a written agreement, with signed copies to both the interviewer and the interviewee.

Examples of successful disguising of sex worker identities

Special Assignment producer Amos Phago interviewing sex workers for the episode, ‘Surviving the streets’, aired February 2013.

Conclusion

Much of the harm in sensationalist and impertinent reporting on sex work would be avoided if journalists challenged their own preconceived ideas about sex workers as undeserving of their humanity and dignity. Guiding principles common to journalistic ethics—accuracy, objectivity, freedom from bias, integrity, and respect—apply to writing on sex work.  In fact, in light of their marginalised position in society, sex workers deserve journalists’, writers’ and editors’ utmost consideration for their safety, well-being and reputation.

About the authors

Marlise Richter is a senior member of Sonke Gender Justice,  a South African-based NGO that works across Africa to support men and boys in taking action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.

Ntokozo Yingwana works at the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Lesego Tlhwale works at the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, a Capetown, South Africa-based organisation working on sex worker advocacy, human rights defence and mobilisation in Africa.

Ruvimbo Tenga works at Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement.


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