In August this year, I discovered that Salient magazine – Victoria university’s student magazine – has a five year history of promoting the sex trade to students. It was their publication of an article titled Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore that made me search their archives, since the article was promotional to a degree that even the local sex trade lobby – the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective – normally is not. Disturbed, I wrote a complaint to the Press Council outlining a host of articles I’d found in Salient’s archives and their sanitised and glorified content, also demonstrating how the one-sided depiction of prostitution was dangerously misleading and coercive. I followed this letter up with a link to yet another article, one I had missed that followed the very same pattern of promoting prostitution as lucrative, fun and empowering. I also sent the Press Council a link to the global sex trade lobby website, where vice-president Alejandra Gil – a convicted sex trafficker – entices women to “call ourselves whores”. I did this to demonstrate the clear bias involved with singularly promoting a narrative endorsed by the global sex trade lobby, whose vested interests are clear.
I consider Salient to be responsible for sex trafficking – facilitating the passage of women and girls in financial strife into the sex trade, through deceit and coercion. Since the Press Council have decided to dismiss my complaint, this makes its members complicit. The pro-prostitution stance taken by those who assessed my complaint – John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin – is perhaps unsurprising though, since the Press Council is industry funded, an apparent law unto itself, and New Zealand’s media promotes prostitution across the board. See this article here for more.
This was the letter I wrote to the Press Council about prostitution promotion at Victoria University, that the Council – appallingly – dismissed.
Dear Mary, and members of the Press Council,
I am writing with a complaint about a July 31 article published in Salient, called Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore. I believe that publishing this piece was irresponsible on Salient’s part, and that the piece represents an unacceptable editorial commitment to prostitution promotion.
I have complained to Salient‘s editors about the piece, in an e-mail I will forward to the Press Council. I asked the editors to publish a critical article on prostitution to address the problem of imbalance. I have rejected their suggestion that I consult the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) – whose work I requested that Salient address critically – and submit a 500-word piece that may or may not be published. I do not believe that Salient’s editorial mistakes will be redressed with such an offer. I believe the problem will require dedication on the part of both editors, to look critically at an industry that is dangerous and which they have been committed to promoting – and I believe this is now a matter for the Press Council to assess.Sex Work and Self Care presents itself as a personal account of the sex trade, but I believe it is promotional for three main reasons.
- Sex Work and Self Care discusses a dangerous industry in a misleadingly positive light, and without any editorial warnings or contextual information about the bigger picture of prostitution or the risks and dangers of prostitution. These dangers are well-documented, but not in the media, and include rape, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, exposure to harmful drugs and drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and lifelong post traumatic stress disorder.
- The article fits within and strongly resembles the same enthusiastic narrative presented in a series of articles published since 2012, including one by an escort agency owner with obvious vested interests in advertising.
- Salient has made no notable efforts to counterbalance its positive representation of prostitution through in-depth, investigative, critical and/or conscience-based feature articles.
In publishing Sex Work and Self Care, Salient’s editors have illustrated that they are willing to promote prostitution in spite of the health and safety risks that this subjects its female readership to, especially. As a magazine published by students at Victoria University, an institution with a statutory obligation to act as a social “critic and conscience”, readers likely put some trust in Salient. That trust has been thwarted, and I am concerned about how many female students may have entered prostitution as a result of Salient’s encouragement.To demonstrate Salient’s editorial commitment to prostitution promotion, I would like to outline the content of several articles published prior to Sex Work and Self Care.An early (May 8, 2012) “Agony Aunt” style column addresses a student who wrote to Salient asking for help, because her friend had just told her that she was in prostitution. Columnist “Roxy Heart” responds (in the third person), by reprimanding the student for her concern, calling it ‘outright dickish’:Roxy would like to start by asking you to take a deep breath and calm the fuck down. Admitting you work as a sex worker is not the same as admitting you have cancer… freaking out like you have is both unfair, and frankly, outright dickish.Sex work in New Zealand is a legal, and for many workers, an empowering exercise of their autonomy over their body. Sex work can be lucrative, safe, and help bring real happiness to other people.
On August 9, 2015, writer ‘Bridget Bones’ then claimed in The Working Girl’s Class that
Modern prostitutes are choosing to work in high-class establishments that promote a safe and secure work environment. While these women are selling their bodies, they are doing so in an environment that promotes personal wellbeing above all else. And they’re loving it!The writer, Bridget Bones, then poses a question.Why are intelligent, level-headed women to eager to sample the “forbidden fruit” of the sex trade?For some, the answer is simple. So simple in fact, that it is the first question asked when applying to many brothels. The question: Do you like sex? Nearly all of the women who choose to become escorts do so because they enjoy sex, and are not ashamed to admit it.
This is unfounded. The most common stated reason for entering the sex industry is financial, and surveys carried out in New Zealand suggest that 72% of those in the industry are stuck there due to circumstance. Bones does not divulge on what authority she has it that most “escorts” enter the trade because they “like sex”. NZPC’s New Worker Starter Kit, too, advises women that they should not expect to gain sexual pleasure from sex buyers. Bones’ piece was highly misleading.
This article was followed upon September 6 the same year, with a response called Social stigma in the sex industry, written by Phiona Baskett, owner of two Wellington escort agencies: Paradise Retreat and Paradise Club. Baskett writes that if you are in the sex trade, “You’re not just hot—you’re so hot men will pay hundreds of dollars to sleep with you.” Her vested interests in advertising the trade need not be explained.
On April 17 last year, Salient ran an Interview with Scarlett*, stripper/dancer and cam girl by Faith Wilson. It opened with the line “The adult entertainment industry has a long history of stigmatisation and marginality”, echoing Baskett’s article. “At school,” writes Wilson, “we were never informed that this could be a potentially viable line of work, or even that people can choose this line of work.” It is by now clear that Wilson is conforming to an editorial programme to promote prostitution. The interviewee then advertises the flexible work hours, “agency” and “intimacy” involved with work in the sex trade:
I was interested in camming through the convenience of being able to work from home and choose my own hours, as well as having agency over how I engage with my clients. I enjoy the performance of talking to so many different men craving intimacy.
This piece also discourages readers from reflecting critically on the industry, with lines like, “People who haven’t worked in the sex industry are not qualified to comment on how the industry should or shouldn’t be regulated.” Presumably, Salient editors do not take this position on other industries, given that the university’s statutory role as “critic and conscience” has never required that students must participate in any industry they wish to critique. Yet editors seem keen to promote this view of the sex trade: either participate, or stay quiet.
On May 1 this year, Salient published a piece called Workers face hurdles to sell their services in Christchurch neighbourhood. It discussed complaints about prostitution from Christchurch residents, and rather than looking at how or why women are still stuck accepting money for “sexual services” from those residents, it laments that prostituted people in Christchurch have too few advertising opportunities.
On July 31, Sex Work and Self Care was published. It states that “Sex work has changed my life in so many ways, but mostly it has made me more confident, self-assured, and in charge of my sexuality. It gives me orgasms, money, and endless anecdotes — as of today, I am a terribly happy, healthy whore.” The article is clearly promotional, and in that context, its use of slurs like “whore” and rape jokes (““How do you make a hormone?”/ “Stick a rusty chainsaw in her.””) are deeply sexist.
The writer, ‘Min’, reveals that she was sexually abused multiple times before entering prostitution, and this should have been a red flag for the editors of Salient. The vast majority of women in prostitution were abused before entering, and this is a clear sign of predation. It is also irresponsible to take the words “I am a whore” at face value, coming from a woman who has suffered repeated assault. It is certainly irresponsible to advertise this outlook to young, female students, many of whom likely trust Salient to make reliable editorial decisions.
The line “Sex work allowed me to move past my trauma by experiencing consensual sex in a safe environment with men who value my time and body” is also an incredibly irresponsible line to print. Women in New Zealand’s sex trade experience routine harrassment, rape, abuse and trafficking. There have been five counts of murder since 2008, including one woman being run over with a car and thrown in the Avon river allegedly for wanting to use a condom. Post traumatic stress disorder is also very common – even NZPC, which is government funded to promote prostitution, euphemistically refers to PTSD as “sex worker burnout” in its New Worker Starter Kit.
‘Min’ continues to represent the sex trade as though it is not only a “job like any other”, which would already be sanitising – but favourable to all other occupations. “Since engaging in sex work,” she says, “I have begun to reclaim my sexuality and ownership of my body.” She says that prostitution is for “clever ” women who like sex (as many others have claimed in Salient), and want to be “more confident, self-assured, and in charge” as well as have more “orgasms, money, and endless anecdotes”.
In most commercial industries, the customer is always right, and the employer is in charge, and together consumers and business owners call the shots. It is actually pimps who tell women that prostitution offers more autonomy, confidence, money and sexual thrill than any other industry or way of life, and they do this to lure women in. If they were telling the truth, the industry in New Zealand would not be largely populated by poor women, with Maori women overrepresented (making up 15% of the total population and 33% of prostituted persons).
I am seriously concerned about Salient’s clear editorial commitment to sex trade promotion as exemplified by the article Sex Work and Self Care. I believe that my complaint makes this commitment clear. I trust that the Press Council is able to weigh Salient’s depiction of the sex trade against more objective, evidence-based depiction.I offer six testimonies here that I hope you will read for comparison. Incidentally, I shared this piece in a comment box on Salient’s Facebook page, when they posted the Sex Work article in question. The editors deleted my comment – it presents testimonies from survivors of prostitution in New Zealand who do not accept the “sex work” narratives that Salient favours. It was therefore censored.
I hope you will assess this case and make a decision in the best interests of female students at Victoria University, who increasingly face financial strife, and who can’t afford, in that context, to be (regularly) subjected to misleading and coercive material on the topic. This is predatory, and I hope that your response to my complaint will result in a change of tune at Salient, and a commitment to discuss the sex industry in an honest, in-depth, compassionate and critical light, as it should. The magazine is housed at an institution meant to act as “critic and conscience”, and those in charge of student media there certainly share that responsibility – and looking at the sex trade is no exception.
I look forward to your response and would be happy to provide any further information.