Several organizations that advocate on behalf of both sex workers and survivors of trafficking have written a letter to MSNBC, urging them to cancel Sex Slaves in America, saying it “exploits those in the sex trade” and misleads the viewing public about the realities of both sex work and trafficking. MSNBC previously cancelled a show called Slave Hunter that sounded even worse.
The Sex Slaves series has been running since 2013. The letter, which you can read in full here, is signed by the Sex Workers Project, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network, Freedom Network, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, and Florrie Burke, a longtime human rights advocate who specializes in combating trafficking.
The organizations say that Sex Slaves in America sensationalizes a sensitive, complicated subject:
The reasons why someone may engage in sex work can include choice, circumstance, and coercion. A dearth of economic opportunity, marginalization, and the inability to access basic resources can contribute to a person’s involvement in the sex trade. Especially for youth, the lack of resources such as safe housing, living wage employment, and education can create situations where engaging in sex work is one of few options. This show addresses none of these factors and instead promotes stigma, shame, and ignorance around sex work and human trafficking, turning a complicated and nuanced reality into public spectacle.
They write that they’re particularly concerned with the way it seems to conflate sex work and human trafficking, and that it could compromise the anonymity of the women it films. Segments on the program’s Facebook page frequently show the faces of the women being arrested:
[P]reviews for upcoming episodes primarily feature women, often partially clothed, crying and in various stages of fear and panic as they are arrested for prostitution. In these previews, it is unclear whether the women being arrested are victims of human trafficking or sex workers engaged voluntarily.
In addition, the show defines only minors as victims of trafficking, when adults can also be victims of trafficking if they are coerced or forced into the sex industry. The show showcases violent arrests as the solution to all of it, despite the fact that organizations like ours know that hyper-criminalization of the sex trade is not a best practice in anti-trafficking efforts; it leads to more police abuse, violence, and health risks for sex workers and survivors.
MSNBC and Santoki Productions are likely exploiting their subjects, as it is unclear if they have consented to be filmed in these traumatic moments. Revealing the faces and legal names of those arrested for prostitution will only make it harder for those individuals to seek alternative employment or to leave a coercive situation. Showing these women being arrested for prostitution on national television may also alienate them from their family and support system.
The dehumanization in these clips promotes stigma and discrimination against all people in the sex trade, which only makes it more difficult for those who seek other options to meet their economic needs.
In 2013, amid protests and another sternly-worded letter from the same organizations, MSNBC cancelled a program called Slave Hunter, in which a guy named Aaron Cohen claimed to rescue victims of trafficking. (The letter pointed out a particularly odd quote of Cohen’s from his memoir, in which he admitted to getting “close” to the women he “rescued,” i.e. posing as a client and “cuddling and kissing” some of them: “I get close to the women I meet on the job. This might mean that they end up sitting on my lap or hanging on my neck while we’re talking in a karaoke bar. Some of them have even stayed overnight in my hotel room—which definitely goes against official rules. I have cuddled and even kissed a few of these women.”)
The Sex Workers Project and the other organizations are also requesting a meeting with MSNBC to discuss their coverage of sex work and trafficking.
Screengrab via MSNBC