For Sex Workers, Any Camera Can Be A Police Camera
Police don't need to be outfitted and trained in surveillance—they know the power of images, and how powerfully they are networked.
Photo by Jason Bergman
This week, with Ferguson still reeling from the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, President Obama announced he's seeking $75 million to outfit American police with body cameras. For some it's an appealing administrative solution, but up against systemic police violence, technology can't be enough. Eric Garner's death at the hands of Staten Island police was caught on video, and on Wednesday, a grand jury ruled that the man who killed Garner, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, like Wilson, will not be indicted.
Police don't need to be outfitted and trained in surveillance—they know the power of images, and how powerfully they are networked. Any cameras they carry won't just be documenting them; they're trained on the public. These images aren't passively collected evidence to be judged somehow without pro-police bias and a racist history. Law enforcement–produced images also function as an extension of policing, transforming the policed from a person into a problem to be solved.
Vice police have long exploited images for this purpose, even when it includes documenting their own actions. For at least the last 15 years, they've targeted people engaged in the sex trade with digital surveillance. Police have covertly recorded anti-prostitution stings to leak to the media, which have later been re-published on YouTube. Aside from recording their own undercover operations, vice units collect sex workers' images from advertisements—they call it intelligence gathering. They publish and exploit suspected sex workers' images and videos and tell the public it's crime prevention.
Last month in Flint, Michigan, police threatened to post the photo of any person arrested on suspicion of selling or buying sex to Facebook. The photo will linger whether or not they plead guilty or are convicted. As Police magazine described such tactics, "It's a cyber scarlet letter with a punch."
Publishing a suspect's mug shot gallery updates the ritual shamings once carried out in the public square, now available 24/7 and forever lodged in search engines. Police work carries on without their presence. On November 4, the Flint Police Department celebrated its 10,000th "Like." "We're just here for the hooker and John pics," a user commented.
This is what anti–sex work law enforcement looks like in the data age—a whole world that's watching and at any time in the future can deny you a job, a visa, an apartment, a child. Who needs the courts when cops have cameras?
I won't further spread these photos. Reporting on them can magnify the damage police intend for them to do. The police rely on us—not only the media, but anyone online—to distribute their news for them.
In this case, the Flint Journal did put some critical questions to their police in a story published after an online outcry and criticism from advocacy groups. Sex Workers' Project managing director Sienna Baskin wrote, "While [a defendant's] new employer may not see a sealed arrest record, posting this information on such a widely and well-trafficked site such as Facebook makes it readily available for public consumption."
"We're going to make sure that we're not victimizing anybody else the best we can," Flint police chief James Tolbert told the Journal. The paper noted that "Tolbert's threat has drawn attention. [The] announcement was published by news organizations around the US and Canada." This is the clearest purpose behind publishing these images: to smear those even suspected of being involved in the sex trade, to make them guilty in the public eye. Reporters who share them risk becoming an arm of law enforcement.
Too many in the media do so without trying, as images of what we're told is the "underground" sex industry are often used in absence of reporting. A voiceover might inform us that women we're looking at are "prostitutes," their faces just out of frame, no names on the chyron, no interviews shown. A camera will be trained on a cable news personality scrolling through online escort ads, making for better B-roll than anything resembling journalism. A hidden camera on a special correspondent's bedside table promises to show us something more than the resulting banal chit-chat with a presumed escort preceding the threat of calling her some "help"—by which the correspondent means the actual police.
Journalists take cues for covering sex work from the police, fueling yet more surveillance and more stunts. The same week that Flint's police announced their Facebook plans, Ireland's anti–sex work campaign Turn Off the Red Light, with the help of an ad agency, "penetrated" the casual dating app Tinder with profiles purporting to be women forced into sex work. As male users seeking women swiped through potential matches' photos, these revealed in peep show fashion that the young woman they saw was not as she appeared. In one series, a woman's hand is gripped tight behind her back by a faceless man. "Your options are left or right," the next image states. "Women forced into prostitution in Ireland have none."
Turn Off the Red Light's catfishing-as-advocacy garnered coverage by major tech and news sites, which may have been the point. Hijacking Tinder did far more to raise the campaign's profile than lend direct support to anyone facing abuse. The story was the image and the trick behind it. They positioned the women. They had them photographed. They spoke through them. But to who?
Imagine the user, one of the (perhaps very few) people who alighted upon this campaign while idly cruising for free sex. Most men (or anyone) seeking paid sex would not be doing so on Tinder, which has been aggressive in evicting anyone who appears to be a sex worker from the app. These days, a user offering sex for sale on Tinder is likely a bot someone put there to drive traffic to some other site. Men seeking paid sex know this, as do the men who don't want to pay for sex and are used to encounters with the sex bots. What Turn Off the Red Light has really done is use the images of people they claim are there to have sex to entice men for a moment, and then stage what's meant to be an embarrassing "reveal."
Rather than inspiring empathy for someone trying to escape violence, this campaign shames users for "confusing" someone they sought for sex with someone in the sex trade. The campaign doesn't tell us anything about what exploitation in sex work looks like. It can't. These shock-and-awe tactics don't work without also playing on stigma against people in the sex trade—that they are invisible and helpless until an outsider unveils and saves them. The campaign also weaponizes a worse assumption: that violence is somehow equally invisible to the public, and that it only matters to them if it's happening to someone they find attractive—or someone they were just about to fuck.
This is what's supposed to be detestable about selling sex: It objectifies and sexualizes, it flattens the self into an image, consumable in a single sitting. Bot versions of sex workers facing app violence end up getting more charitable news coverage than real sex workers fighting real-world violence. Police and NGOs use images of sex workers, real or constructed, as stand-ins, putting them to work. Police this picture, we're told—you can ignore the person behind it.
How do you starve such a grotesque display, cut off its oxygen and its traffic? It's not enough to expose the images as evidence of a flawed system, but to understand that this is what such a system working perfectly will produce. No outsider can claim sex workers are impossible to see while simultaneously producing evidence of his surveillance.
It's not enough to give cops less of that work to do. We who are groomed on these images must also excise the policeman's eye from our own, to let the bodies and demands behind the picture get in.
Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Follow her on Twitter.