Last month the A&E Channel tested the limits of its viewing audience with a new show. From the producer of Catfish, a reality TV show about online dating, A&E’s 8 Minutes showed a former vice-cop-turned-pastor, Kevin Brown, as he scanned adult advertisements, set up appointments, and then surprised the women who arrived with a camera crew and an offer of redemption if they leave “the life.” (The show was pulled before A&E aired its remaining three episodes, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month.)
But this show acts as proof that “anti-trafficking work” such as this is more often than not a public shaming and exploitation of those in the sex trade for the benefit of producers, television ratings, and those doing the “rescuing.”
As it turns out, the only piece of “reality” that the show featured was the economic need that each of the women were forced to put on display through probing, intimate interviews. Now several women have come forward after being on the show saying that they were never connected to the resources promised, were pressured into signing contracts, and were misled about their level of anonymity on the show. Despite veiling their work as anti-trafficking rescues, the show and its collaborators sought to put people in desperate economic situations in even more harm, and left them with nothing. As one staffer from the production company put it, “In my opinion, that’s the definition of exploitation … You’re taking advantage of somebody who you know doesn’t really understand everything that’s going on.” And we do already have a name for those who use coercion and false promises to exploit the lives, images, and bodies of those in the sex trade.
If only this felt like an anomaly that viewers could write off as a single misstep, but sadly it is just the latest in a pattern of on-camera shaming of sex workers. In 2013, MSNBC tried to create a similar show of televised “interventions,” coercing individuals through fake appointments and other tactics designed to shame them, but pulled the show after pushback. A few years before that, though, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia for the world to watch and take part in via re-tweet. And a few months ago a raid in Bogota garnered a great deal of attention, which centered mostly on how a group of mostly volunteers, including actress Laurie Holden of the Walking Dead, headed south to “save children.” None of the news articles discuss local efforts already working with at-risk populations to reduce trafficking in rights-based and culturally competent models. Nor do they explore the disruption to outreach with communities or service provision to victims of trafficking raids like this have. None even address what happened to those who were “rescued,” even months later.
It is becoming increasingly commonplace for people in the sex industry to be targets of this kind of media spectacle and public shaming, and not simply at the hands of reality TV. All of this is only part of the larger public shaming of the sex industry, often through the display of mugshots by police departments and district attorneys, and the availability of arrest records as well. This is despite a litany of harms this causes to individuals often trying to repair their lives, with no proof that these shaming tactics deter people from the sex industry. Wichita, Kansas stopped its policy of posting mugshots of people arrested for prostitution when someone anonymously commented on the website that he had followed a woman seen on the site to a local Walmart and propositioned her. (Within the post he also thanked the local police department for their service, of course.) An entire industry has popped up around downloading, and then exploiting, mugshots posted online by contacting the individual and demanding payment to take down the posting from a third-party site. None of this even begins to address the problems these “doxxings” cause with job-hunting (or job loss), custody and divorce battles, or relationships among family and friends.
Human trafficking, with its easily dramatized stories of illicit sex and youth and seemingly universal praise of the savior narrative, has become a cause célèbre. Increasingly the resulting raids end up serving the needs of the media personalities, journalists, and producers instead of those they seek to help. Interventions and rescues are lauded in their media coverage, and organizations involved in these public stunts often are proactively seeking out the media as a part of their work. While some are religiously based and some are secular, all of these groups are operating under a misguided sense of what social justice is and what anti-trafficking work looks like. As we watch passionate but untrained volunteers rush in to “save” victims, we also see that no one stops to ask if this is effective at stemming trafficking. No one stops to ask if this is even humane. It is our responsibility, as the intended audiences for these shows, to demand that such programming is rooted in a respect for human dignity, and not further exploitation.
The fallout from 8 Minutes is showing us what we already know about the ineffectiveness of this kind of practice. When someone makes the decision to leave a trafficking situation or simply exit the sex trade, they frequently face multiple barriers, both personal and institutional. Even after the decision is made, efforts to find shelter and a stable form of income are challenging and often take reliance on service providers and community, requiring time and energy that does not fit into eight minutes. As a community organizer for people in the sex trade, I have seen the myriad needs that people identified as preventing them from leaving the sex trade began, not ended, with the decision to leave. (In this study of youth who trade sex, the young people listed needs for housing, living-wage jobs, and education among the top things keeping them in the sex trade.)
And taking a step back to look at the larger impact, anyone can see it is not just the time and effort of those directly on the show that is wasted here. Advocacy to stop this show and mitigate its damaging impact began months ago, with service providers, advocates, and religious leaders writing letters, articles, and petitions. Even in the initial article about the work of Rev. Kevin Brown, law enforcement had expressed concerns about the group’s tactics. Behind the scenes, anti-trafficking advocates and staffers were pointing out numerous ethical issues.
Despite all of the pushback from people most intimately connected to the issue, A&E and producer Tom Forman moved forward with the show, and advocacy was forced to continue. Every petition, sign-on, phone call to A&E was all time spent trying to mitigate the very clear harm that these shows perpetuate, time advocates spent away from clients and the communities that we are trying to directly serve; the same communities who will bear the brunt of the damage done by shows and efforts like this. Even as reports have come out that these women were defrauded, media coverage is still relying on retelling stories of trauma, this time caused by the production. Few note that the initial woman who came forward is now hosting a CrowdRise campaign to try and address the same needs she went on the show to solve. No one mentions whether the other women seeking support have found jobs, or addressed any of the issues they were hoping to solve.
The desire to stem trafficking is one we should all take on. There are ways in which we can support survivors of trafficking and address the systemic challenges that those vulnerable to it face. None of those tactics require a camera crew and a viewing audience. This show and its counterparts exposed our baser demons, not our better angels. Exposing a person’s struggles on camera in an effort to reduce their lives and experience to fit a narrative of shame and empty promises of redemption is about exploitation, not support. Escaping from a trafficking situation is often a difficult and harrowing, and mostly, deeply personal and complex process that takes much longer than eight minutes, and is not mediated by a television crew.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this commentary didn’t explicitly state the show had been pulled. We regret any confusion this may have caused.