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A&E Completely Misunderstands the Reality of Sex Workers

Courtesy of A&E Networks

In the new A&E program 8 Minutes, premiering April 2, sex workers are lured to a location under false pretenses by an unscrupulous man with an agenda. Instead of finding a client, though, the women find Kevin Brown, a cop/pastor who is enjoying a second career in “rescuing” sex workers after spending 20 years in law enforcement. When Brown confronts them, a hidden camera crew flanks him, along with former sex workers whom he has “rescued,” and law enforcement officers, who are standing by in case things escalate.

The show’s title refers to the eight minutes that Brown claims it takes him to talk a woman out of doing sex work. It is an ambush that eerily mirrors the vulgar fantasies that play out in so many hypothetical scenarios that anti-trafficking advocates recount as if they were fact. “He doesn’t pull any punches in his shock therapy,” producer Tom Forman told Entertainment Weekly, apparently unaware of the irony of subjecting sex workers to rhetorical shock therapy when purporting to remove them from coercive situations. 

The belief that a strange man in a hotel room can make a more convincing case for quitting sex work than the endless social messages and legal statutes condemning workers is the height of arrogance. The mistake that so many people make—and, in turn, the mistake that 8 Minutes makes—when they implore sex workers to quit: they emphasize leaving sex work while ignoring the very real economic consequences. In the face of limited options, the financial incentive is at the heart of nearly every sex worker’s professional choices. 8 Minutes might be a jobs program for its star and crew; it doesn’t, however, do anything but shame its Houston-based guest stars. Any attempt to coerce them out of sex work in the absence of viable work alternatives is an invitation to starve.

Eight Minutes is predicated on the absurd notions that sex workers have never considered leaving the industry and that none of them are there by choice. If some benevolent force—a cop/pastor, for example—were to simply come in and talk some sense to them with a touch of tough love, surely they would leave their lives of depravity behind. Clean, easy, moral.

In the public imagination, sex workers exist in a vacuum devoid of family, romantic relationships, neighbors, and colleagues. They are headless bodies in high heels, leaning into car windows on street corners in perpetuity. They are never off duty. They have never encountered someone who might answer their prayers to help them leave the sex trades. The reality, of course, is different.

Sex workers are often surrounded by people with intimate knowledge of their interior and financial lives, people who have already made the case for them leaving sex work. They encounter condescending and violent law enforcement officials who reinforce the idea that their bodies don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution. They know that the world hates them and would rather they simply disappear.  

Focusing on the salacious elements of sexual labor turns a sex worker’s financial decision into a moral choice. Just as sex workers do not exist in vacuums free from external relationships, the decision to do sex work hinges on a confluence of factors: gender, class, income, race, sexuality, immigration status, physical health, and mental health. “People who are engaged in these situations are often there because of a lack of resources,” says Kate D’Adamo, National Policy Advocate at the Sex Worker’s Project. “[U]nless this organization is offering jobs and not simply a referral to an organization who has already denied them services, they're just exploiting people's hope.” Without addressing the ways that people are systematically locked out of formal economies, there can be no meaningful conversation about the choices of sex workers.

Those who claim that most forms of sex work are so coercive as to be indistinguishable from sex trafficking will argue that the real value of 8 Minutes is its removing workers from trafficking situations. But scores of reputable anti-trafficking organizations have condemned the show’s tactics, and even law enforcement has stated that it does not support the effort. In these circles, it is well known that identifying trafficking victims is nearly impossible without highly specialized training—and even that is not foolproof, as many victims do not personally identify as having been trafficked. They’re often coerced into performing sexual labor by financial necessity, institutional and familial rejection, and domestic abuse, not by shadowy mob villains.

But these nuances are not the sexy stuff of reality television, where good guys and bad guys and their helpless female charges must be neatly organized into morally respectable, one-dimensional roles. A&E knows that humiliation brings in a bigger audience than hope. They know that it takes a far smaller budget to coerce women into hotels rooms and remind them of the shame associated with their profession than it does to fund programs offering long-term solutions to those who actually want to transition out of sex work. This, in turn, is less work than supporting the institutional reforms that would prevent people from being coerced into sex work. But of course, as an entertainment network, A&E is not actually in the business of offering meaningful institutional change.

Morality tales travel further in primetime than economics lessons. And so, instead of fighting the systems that necessitate sex work for so many women in the first place, A&E has found a cop-cum-pastor who embodies the same institutional power and moral authority that hurt the very women he purports to help.