We've seen the headlines before:
"Toronto man posing as undercover cop to demand sexual favours from prostitutes, police say" (National Post)
"Manchester United's David De Gea accused of organising prostitute sex 'party' for Spanish U-21 teammates" (Manchester Evening News)
When we see stories of sexual violence against sex workers, we often aren't told that a sexual assault happened. The assumptions are the same: that it's not sexual assault if a person sometimes accepts payment for sex. That you can't rape a sex worker you're paying. That the sex worker asked for it.
This perspective obscures the fact that sex workers are often made more vulnerable to sexual violence through cultural, legal and economic oppression. Yet because of criminalization and stigmatization, sex workers are often unlikely to report the violence they experience.
To learn more about how we can shift this conversation, we spoke with Chanelle Gallant. Chanelle is a long-time organizer in sex working and feminist communities in Toronto (Haudenesaunee, Mississauga of New Credit, Huron, Wendat territory). She's the co-director of the Migrant Sex Worker Project and STRUT, co-editer of the prison/policing abolition blog Everyday Abolition and on the advisory board of the Transformative Justice/Harm Reduction Project. She also answers to the names rabble-rouser, fallen woman, comrade and sister. You can learn more about her work at chanellegallant.com.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against sex workers?
Chanelle: "Media reproduce a lot of the myths about sex work that increase the risk of sexual assault for sex workers. One of the main myths is that it's not work and that you cannot rape a sex worker because a sex worker has already given consent to sex with anyone and everyone. And this isn't true. Sex workers say yes and they say no. And they get raped and experience trauma from it. But in the media we often see the idea that a sex worker is somehow asking for any and all sex - including non-consensual sex - because they are trading or selling sex."
Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen sex workers creating consent culture?
Chanelle: "Sex workers are experts at sexual consent unlike any other professional... Consent is about power. Less power means less ability to establish meaningful consent. So if a sex worker is selling sex in an environment where they have a lot of power... they can better negotiate for safer sex, they can better protect their boundaries, they can be really clear about what they want, what they don't want, at what time, and when and with whom. If a sex worker has less power, then they have less control and there is less real consent in the sexual interaction.
"To be clear: No sex worker asks for sexual violence, ever, at all, under any circumstances. Sex workers negotiate sex more explicitly than non-sex workers and they say no and yes, and expect and demand to be listened to. And we want the media to take their no as seriously as anyone else's."
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that no not fit this narrative?
Chanelle: "I'd like really to see the media change how they cover violence against sex workers who are marginalized... You have someone who has been pushed into more dangerous parts of the industry due to issues like poverty, homelessness, colonialism, racism, lack of services available to substance abusers and then when that person experiences sexual violence they are actually the most likely to be blamed for it. When they're often the people with the least power..."
"I'd also like to see the media stop using stereotypes about 'pimps' that are loaded with anti-black racism. They need to ask sex workers-- particularly sex workers who have experienced sexual violence--how they identify the men in their lives. Because having a manager is a pretty normal part of most people's work life and it is for many sex workers too."
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors don't report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting?
Chanelle: "The legal system is notoriously abusive to survivors of sexual violence and this goes double for survivors who are further marginalized (eg. trans women, racialized, HIV+ or drug-using sex workers). So the criminalization of sex work and criminalization of entire communities means that the criminal legal system is simply not available to many people..."
"It's important to show that sex workers survive in their own ways, using their own strategies that are distinct to their experiences, that are valuable, strong, resilient, that other people have to learn from. Show how sex workers have come together to develop creative and compassionate means to respond to and prevent sexual violence."
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?
Chanelle: "We haven't seen any change on reporting on sexual violence against sex workers. In Canada, we have a new set of laws that continue to make sex workers very vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, there is a very strong community of sex workers who are fighting back across the country... I'm really glad to see that there's been increased coverage around sex workers' community-based message of organizing for justice, for advocacy.
"Lastly, sex workers face this strange situation where they're sometimes described by media as survivors of sexual violence when they're not. For example when trafficking is conflated with sex work or when media use the term 'prostituted' because they want to insist that sex work is itself violence. Sex workers need to be believed when they say they're not survivors too!"
This blog is part of a series of interviews on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.
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