Updated: Apr 25, 2022
This is the third in a series of advice to help sex workers and other navigate media interviews. You can also find part one (How to Protect Yourself Before Speaking to Press) and Part 2 (How To Protect Yourself During the Interview) on Sex Work CEO.
Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
In late August, after agreeing to an on-camera interview with the BBC, I got ambushed. Within minutes of the interview, what had been proposed to me as a discussion of age-verification efforts for youth in the UK, turned into an all out antiporn screed.
We started with some small talk, and then she hit me:
“Does the porn industry, do you think, have a sense of the potential damage done to a generation of kids who have been able to incredibly easily access, what you yourself describe as adult material, a lot of which involves the objectification and sexual objectification of women and indeed, you know, can it contain violent content and indeed, sex crimes per se?”
The goal of the interviewer — well, “presenter” in UK parlance — was to provoke a reaction. This wasn’t a question, but a series of sensationalist claims. In asking me to answer the question, she was also hoping I would inadvertently agree to a laundry list of other beliefs: the “damage to a generation of kids,” “objectification of women,” “violent content,” and “sex crimes.”
It didn’t stop there. A few questions later, she continued:
“... A lot of the young people we've spoken to, and of course, because of the nature of the program we're making, these have been young girls who've experienced serious sexual harm. A lot of them have laid responsibility, in a part, at the door of pornography in terms of the way it's influenced the behavior of young men and made them feel that consent is not an issue, and perhaps to feel a sense of entitlement and a sense that that's what young girls want is to be taken. Can you see why they might feel that way?”
In this case, she’s asking me to either confirm that porn is causing violence against young women (something not actually supported by data), or disbelieve survivors. It wasn’t an interview, it was a set up.
“Are you surprised that pornography, in a way, far from reflecting the changes that have happened, particularly in women's lives over the last fifty years, seems to compound the notion that women are purely sex objects just waiting to be sort of pounded into a wall or a hot tub or, you know, whatever other location you want, by aggressively sexual and predatory men? Because part of the problem with porn is surely the fact that it continues to substantiate this, you know, completely unreal image of what women are and what women's desires are.”
When questions like this come through, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being slapped in the face. An actual discussion about thorny issues? Happy to have it. A series of questions that try to put words in your mouth? Get me a beta blocker.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t furious. My head swam. I felt like I’d been slapped. She wasn’t interested in a conversation, she was interested in a reaction — hopefully, a negative one — from someone speaking on behalf of the porn industry. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give it to her. If I stormed off, angered by regressive questions, I’d look evasive, or worse, guilty. If I got too flustered in my answer, I might inadvertently agree with one of her false assumptions.
This is not an uncommon strategy for broadcast journalists. It allows the presenter to look bold and aggressive; the interviewee looks angry or defensive. It’s a video that can go viral among the true believers.
I wasn’t perfect, but I kept my composure enough that they mostly left me out of the final cut. She didn’t want to hear my answers unless they agreed with hers — or made the porn industry look bad — so I’ll take that as a minor win.
But these types of interviews are frustrating and difficult. Here’s how to deal with it when it happens:
Taking a breath not only calms you down, it gives you a moment to think. What is the actual question that I’m supposed to answer? How do I address the other elements of the question that I disagree with? Take the time you need before you proceed.
2. Reframe the question
If the question is a toxic mess, and not worth disentangling, speak to the basic issue. In this case, “What do we do about keeping kids from seeing adult content?”
When your heart is pounding and your brain floating above your head, it can be hard to get your bearings. The first thing to do? Talk about what you believe. This puts you on solid ground, and gives you the confidence to move forward with more complex issues.
“Adult entertainment is made for adults, not children. No one in the adult industry wants kids on their sites. I don’t think you’ll find any issue with the industry on that. The question is, how do we do it without widely censoring legal content for adults? ...”
3. Push back
Don’t be afraid to tell them that you think the question stinks. Not that it’s unfair, or that you can’t answer it, but that you don’t agree with some of the assumptions they’re making. This puts them on the defensive. Tell them you don’t think their assumptions are accurate, or that it presupposes a lot that you disagree with. Or, in the case, of a particularly complicated question, ask them straightforwardly: “I’m not sure what you’re expecting me to answer here.”
At one point, I told her there were real concerns about the BBC’s coverage of sex work recently, and that the industry found them inaccurate and regressive. I was calm when I said it, but it put the onus on her to defend.
4. Question them.
When a journalist is this unserious, they usually haven’t done a lot of homework. They’re working off of conventional wisdom and things they heard. When they mention something that’s clearly not based in your reality, ask them where they’re getting their information? Often they won’t remember where it came from.
5. Tell them your reality
They might cite data, or relay an anecdote, or claim that “everybody knows,” but as someone intimately familiar with this industry, you’re the expert. Tell them your experience. At one point, I told her that I found her statement — that all content was unreal, violent, objectification — offensive. As a gay man, I told her, I watched plenty of content that might seem to be offensive or degrading to others. But that doesn’t mean it is.
6. End the interview
Not in an angry way (that’s what they want), but in a disappointed way. “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like these questions are serious. I don’t feel like you’ve actually done much research on this.” (They won’t include statements like that in the interview). Stare at them. Wait. Blink like that GIF. Let them stumble, and fumble for the off switch.
7. Speak Out
After the interview was over, I posted about it on Twitter. I was immediately contacted by several reporters at the @BBC, and invited to do another interview, with a different presenter, that was much more balanced.
It also put the crew on notice, letting them know that if the interview edit was unfair, that I wasn’t going to be silent.
Mike Stabile is documentary filmmaker, journalist and media strategist. He founded Polari Media to help sex workers and sex-related business communicate more effectively with mainstream media. He currently serves as Director of Public Affairs at Free Speech Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter at @mikestabile
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