Bullshit reporting on sex work

Sex work reporting in the US is broken.

Case in point: the headline for this USA Today article:

Largest human trafficking sting in Ohio history nets 161, including city councilman

Okay, that sounds pretty serious! Let’s take a look.

Most of those arrested were charged with engaging in prostitution, a first-degree misdemeanor.

“We want to send a message to everybody in the country: Don’t buy sex in Ohio,” [OH AG Dave Yost] said.

For every arrest made, officers contacted up to eight “johns” whose actions didn’t meet the elements of any crime

So, in other words, this was less of a “human trafficking sting” and more of a “dragnet that mostly caught people looking to engage with sex workers.”

Of course, that sounds a lot less heroic, so instead, law enforcement instead partnered with local reporter Dean Narciso who committed journalistic malpractice by running a story whose byline indicates it’s about human trafficking, but from its content was overwhelmingly about people seeking otherwise consensual sex work.

There were some welcome outcomes as part of this sting. The article indicated there were a couple people interested in paying for sex with minors, and there were some drug and firearm related charges. The article also indicated that ten missing minors were found as part of this operation as well. Those are good things, but that paints a dramatically different picture than finding “161, including city councilman” involved with sex trafficking. There is no detail about the minors or where they were from, and there is no indication that anybody at all was charged with any crime related to human trafficking (and I assume if there was, that would have been prominently featured). The entire article is very hand-wavy with the details and appears to use statistics cherry-picked by law enforcement.

The icanthascheezburger stance on sex work is simple, and the stance is backed by things I consistently hear from actual current and former sex workers:

  • Sex work is work. Sex workers sell their body in exchange for money and benefits, which describes literally every other job.
  • Doing sex work isn’t morally problematic (and being a sex worker doesn’t make you a “victim” any more than anyone else is a victim of economic inequality). Neither is being a customer of a sex worker. Consent (ideally enthusiastic consent) is key.
  • The reason prostitution is illegal in the US isn’t because it’s in the public interest for it to be; it’s because of religious zealots that pushed for it.
  • People are wising up to the fact that sex work should be legal, so law enforcement and others against sex work now lie about it and conflate it with human trafficking
  • Human trafficking of sex workers is largely only as big of an issue as it is because sex work is illegal; if it wasn’t super off the books, the very abuses anti-sex-work crusaders rant about are structurally a lot less likely to happen.
  • Human trafficking as a general issue is not accurately reported on, and facts get widely distorted. There’s an excellent You’re Wrong About podcast episode that goes into more detail about this.
  • Most of the issues that sex workers struggle with are a direct result of the fact that it’s illegal; it’s introducing sex workers to unnecessary risk
  • Journalists need to stop serving as a mouthpiece for law enforcement and actually start holding them up to scrutiny, instead of repeating their talking points. Law enforcement does not automatically have credibility.

Demand better news coverage of sex work and law enforcement.

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