Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
While the passage of SESTA-FOSTA in 2018 was devastating to sex workers and sexual speech more broadly, it signaled a seachange in the way the media covered sex work. The outrage over the bill, and near simultaneous takedown of Backpage by the US government, led to an unprecedented level of coverage of sex worker issues in the mainstream media.
Both journalist and sex workers depend on Twitter for their livelihood, and the ability to connect directly with one another helped frame the debate, highlight stories and voices, and push back on monolithic narratives of exploitation and victimhood. That’s truer today than ever before.
In fighting a new War on Porn, nothing is more powerful than the stories and voices of those working in the sex industry. It’s important to get them out there. Still, many sex workers are rightly wary of media, which doesn’t always have a great track record when it comes to covering sex work issues.
So how do you keep yourself safe when talking with the media? I’ve been on both sides of the microphone — as a journalist and a subject — and now, when I connect sex workers with journalists, documentary filmmakers or other media, I like to give them a few tips on how to keep themselves protected.
This is the first in a series of pieces helping sex workers negotiate the media landscape.
Part 1: Should I Do This Interview?
When a journalist reaches out, it can be both thrilling and daunting. Good press can help advance a cause, bring you recognition, or help you gain new followers. But it can also lead to unwanted exposure or outting, ridicule, and harassment.
While everyone’s situation is different, and there are no guarantees no matter how careful you are, here are some strategies to use in evaluating if — and how — to proceed when a journalist reaches out.
1. Research the Journalist
Not all journalists are created equal. Some know the industry and its issues well. Some cover breaking news, and have no previous experience writing about our industry. Some are eager to understand the issues facing sex workers, and some have preconcieved notions about what or who we are.
Before you agree to speak with a journalist, research them like you would a prospective date. A simple Google search with their name + porn or + “sex work” should turn up at least some relevant information. (You can also ask them directly to send you any relevant links, but they may leave out ones that are unflattering.)
If you see they write for Buzzfeed News or the New York Times, go on that site and search for what they’ve written. Find them on Twitter and see what they’re covering, and how they’re covering it.
Are they familiar with sex work?
Are they hostile to sex work?
Do they uncritically quote anti-sex work activists?
Is it a tabloid?
Are they going to sensationalize the topic?
Do they use performer’s legal names?
Do they treat sex workers they write about with respect?
And most importantly,
Is doing this interview of value to me?
Does this interview present a significant risk to me?
This helps you know how to approach the interview — should you decide to do it.
2. Establish the Ground Rules
Always remember that anything you say to a journalist is on the record — meaning they can print it as a quote with your name attached — from the moment you respond to an inquiry, whether that be on a phone call, text, DM, tweet or email.
A responsible journalist will often set boundaries and make sure that they have your consent before moving forward, but they have no formal obligation to do so. Be careful what you say, and the email address you use (e.g. does your handle or signature contain your legal name or address?).
When setting up the interview, find out the relevant details:
What is the article about?
What outlet is this for?
What is your deadline?
Who else have you spoken to?
What questions are you interested in asking me?
Will the interview be recorded?
They don’t have to give you this information, or even tell you the truth, but doing an interview about the interview can help you understand what to be prepared for.
3. Consider the Subject
Not every journalist has a wide Rolodex of industry contacts. Sometimes, they just reach out to someone they’ve heard of, or seen on Twitter. (Before his arrest, Ron Jeremy was notorious for showing up in articles about the industry, even though he hadn’t been particularly active for decades.)
Some questions to think about before deciding to participate:
Is this something I know a lot about, or can speak to personally?
Is this about someone else? Do I really feel comfortable talking about them?
Is the topic sensational or serious?
Is there a personal risk in me discussing this topic?
Tabloid journalists are notorious for calling up the nearest porn star or sex worker and getting a quote (or pulling from their Instagram). Their goal is to get a juicy quote for a sensational piece, and will often ask people to comment on subjects or people, even if there’s no real connection.
If they’re looking to you for drama, it’s generally best to avoid it.
4. Limit Personal Information
For many sex workers, personal information like the printing of a legal name would cause significant issues if made public. Of course, the best way to keep this information private is to not share it with the journalist in the first place. However, they can potentially source it elsewhere, so it can sometimes be helpful to ask the question directly before agreeing to the interview:
If I agree to this interview, can we use my performer name, or another pseudonym?
If I agree to this interview, will you agree to not mentioning my employer?
Similarly, if there are specific matters that you want them to leave out — mentions of your location, your family, your school, workplace — it’s best to establish that prior to the interview. (Just ensure you don’t actually give them the actual information in the process.)
There are no guarantees with the press, but taking precautions can help you protect yourself before the interview even starts.
5. Control the Format
Some journalists like the phone. Some journalists like email. Some want it to be in person, or over Zoom. No matter what they ask for, understand that you can do it the way that’s most comfortable to you. (They don’t have to agree, but neither do you.)
The exception to this are broadcast journalists (radio, television and documentary film), which often require a filmed or taped-for-broadcast interview. But even still, the decision to participate is up to you.
In general, email gives you the most control over the situation, since you get their questions in advance, and can have more time thinking about your answers.
A phone or in-person interview can help a journalist see you as a whole person, and might provide more empathy. But, as with broadcast, you risk misspeaking or getting asked a question that is difficult or uncomfortable to answer.
Broadcast gives you the least control, as even the refusal to answer a question can be framed as evasive — think about all the people storming off interview sets.
Broadcast aside, remember that, in most cases, you can switch formats if it makes more sense. An email interview might be the easiest way to start, but if you feel comfortable, and are better spoken than written, it might make sense to move to the phone or Zoom to answer in a more nuanced manner.
Similarly, if you’re speaking by phone and are asked about a question that is complicated to explain, or especially sensitive, you can ask if you can get back to them on that specific question by email.
If you’re uncomfortable or unsure about a journalist, it’s best to start by email.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about the actual interview process, and how to stay in control, even when things get tough. Later, we’ll go into strategies for getting your story out there, including how to reach out to journalists effectively.
But sometimes our issues are more urgent — if you have a question about interviews in the meantime, feel free to reach out on Twitter: @mikestabile.
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