The headline about sex workers I’d like to see
OPINION: Our brain is sensitive to negative information, it is a psychological risk assessment tool that has evolved over eternity.
So when we scroll through the headlines that distinguish a stigmatized group, we pay more attention. We have already learned that these people are deviant and our confirmation bias comes into play.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s worth remembering every time we read a news headline.
Two women who crossed the lockdown Auckland border last week have been suggested as sex workers. No one knew for sure, but they were supposed to be “gang-affiliated sex workers”. This snort of the deviant, the salacious and the stigmatized was a primer for what followed.
* Sex workers destigmatize their profession through art
Because then they came to look for the wife of the “Wellington couple” (we still do not know the profession of the man). And then two Auckland women, discovered in Blenheim, were named sex workers and disclosed with their legal names. The worst possible outcome. We didn’t even know their Covid status yet, but we were well prepared to vilify them anyway – not just for the rules they broke (fair enough), but for their profession (not fair at all).
There have been numerous Section 70 violations since the start of the pandemic, but we only know of the occupations of a handful: a lawyer, a horse trainer and three sex workers.
The elite can bounce back, so …
Let me break down the stigma of sex work a bit and put it in the context of the pandemic.
Stigma prevents people from being housed, finding other jobs and participating in society like many others do.
Stigma marginalizes us. We protect our identity to avoid harassment. We never list sex work on our CV or departure card, and we are often reluctant to register our profession in an official capacity.
Sex work is considered legitimate work in Aotearoa due to decriminalization, but the stigma lingers like a bad smell that gets in the way.
This means that some of us are less likely to call the police, show up to the GP on time, inform our families, or trust the ACC to protect our industry code (BIC code ).
What is even more concerning is that stigma contributes to violence against sex workers. We are often presented as less worthy of rights and respect, and some people act violently towards us, sometimes tragically. Stigma causes hate crimes.
And when ethnicity, gender identity, gang affiliation, disability, or immigrant status intersect with sex work, things get complicated. For example, migrants who otherwise have the right to work in Aotearoa are still prohibited from prostituting themselves. This law itself stigmatizes many non-white sex workers or ESLs in their daily lives, whether resident or not.
How does it all translate into a pandemic?
It keeps people from feeling safe to look to the many systems in place to support us.
When we are singled out in the headlines, we don’t want to reach out for help. If we could be named in the newspaper, we will go to great lengths to stay off the radar. And that’s not good for us, or our team of five million.
In this climate of uncertainty everyone is looking for a scapegoat, but it’s not our sex work community, it’s the covid.
We need to consider why we need to be educated about sex trades but so few others. Does it change the outcome if the nation knows that a sex worker has crossed the border? This is the case for the sex worker, and the result for her will be permanent.
It also changes things for our community; it can increase hostility and violence and affect how we deal with the system. But everyone will continue with the next news cycle.
We must reverse the moral panic scenario and tackle the stigma of sex work. And if we are to distinguish sex workers in the headlines, I have a suggestion: sex workers have a high vaccination rate. It is in fact true.
Cherida Fraser is the community liaison with NZPC: Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective.