“When you want us, we come, but when we want you, you don’t.”
The man at the front table, translating for the woman to his left, looked us right in the eye when he said it. He was addressing the panel of five journalist, of which I was a part.
This stinging comment came at the end of a two-hour long interaction between media persons and sex workers. Organised by the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) in Chanakyapuri, the panel happened in the midst of a large hall covered with several banners bearing the names of sex worker groups from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and more.
As a young, enthusiastic writer, I went to speak about how citizen journalism and new media is changing the way we engage with marginalised communities. But almost instantly, I knew this would be more about the valuable lessons us media persons could learn from those who do sex work. Here is what I took away:
As journalists, we often think what we’re doing is unbiased reporting. But the truth is we decide which instances and perspectives get highlighted, and which become invisibilised.
An alarming study by the World Health Organisation revealed that “70% of sex workers in a survey reported being beaten by the police and more than 80% had been arrested without evidence.”
In fact, there are various blatant human rights violations against sex workers, such as extorting money from them, denying them food, housing and health services, force feeding individuals alcohol, and much more.
When the media doesn’t see a marginalised group as a priority, the stories don’t come out, and the invisibilisation only makes it that much harder to fight injustice.
When these stories remain hidden, we cheat people out of an opportunity to build empathy towards an affected community. In addition to that, we strengthen pre-existing attitudes.
At some point in their careers, all journalists have charged after that “human interest” story. The risk with this, though, we tend to turn the humans we’re interested in into hapless victims, rather than people with agency. Pushing the victimhood narrative on sex workers does a disservice not just to them, but to the transformational and empowering potential of our writing.
Additionally, there is an assumption that sex workers aren’t informed enough to share important opinions. Rather than sitting down with sex workers and getting their comments, we might give weightage to the words of by authority figures. This only reinforces the very social hierarchies that disadvantage sex workers.
When I was researching for a story about sex workers’ access to menstrual hygiene products, I ran into a dead end. It appeared that no leading paper or publication had information about this. While it helped me reach out to the sex workers community directly, it speaks volumes about the kind of stories writers do about sex work. No points for guessing that they’re largely victim narratives.
If we never see marginalised people as anything more than victims, it denies us the opportunity to build empathy. As journalists, we must push the envelope. We must write about sex worker-led projects that make a positive impact on the community. We should have written about how demonetisation hit the community. We should destabilise the idea that sex workers can’t be mothers and caregivers. And, as feminist journalist Sujata Madhok did during the panel, we should ask why there are so few men in sex work. But most importantly, we should ask why sex workers are not consulted or involved in decision making processes, even pertaining to their own rights.
According to a survey in Andhra Pradesh, illiteracy was reported by 74.7% female sex workers. This is a major barrier, considering our reliance on modes of communication that are largely English. Coupled with journalists’ personal prejudices, this prevents non-English speaking sex workers from having their voices represented.
Further still, our reliance on digital and other non-traditional media as well causes difficulties in reaching sex workers. While many sex worker organisations are building their presence online, it’s unfair to expect communities with limited resources to make themselves available to us on our terms.
In order to represent these voices, journalists should invest in translating for persons from non-English speaking background.
“How do we tell our own stories? The media changes and publishes our quotes to fulfill their needs, not ours.”
This was yet another concern raised during the panel discussion by sex worker groups. Does this against the very ethics of journalism? Author and businesswoman Penelope Trunk says it doesn’t matter, because in the end, the story belongs to the writer, not the interviewee. And that is a fundamental problem. This is an example of the power dynamics in writing that disempower marginalised people. We must recognise that we are accountable to the people we put in our stories. Anyone who lends us their words has charges us with the duty of telling their stories, and we should respect that.
And finally, coming back to the comment I began this piece with, we have to make sure we are available as journalists for sex workers, just as much as they are available as interviewees and sources for us.
The NNSW panel and interaction opened up a great space for learning. And I hope it’s the first of many discussions between all parties chasing a common goal – respect, dignity, and equal opportunities for all people of all backgrounds.