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The All-American Fantasy of Saving Sex Workers from Themselves

The men who stage rescues—police, pastors, television personalities—are engaged in something not unlike the men who pay for sex: a fantasy, starring them.

Melissa Gira Grant

Photo via Flickr user Melissa Maples

Sex workers are experiencing a new kind of public law enforcement. Photo via Flickr user Steven Depolo

The internet has supposedly changed everything about commercial sex. Reporters have discovered (again and again) that "prostitutes" are among the 288 million people usingTwitter. Web-based ads, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have all been blamed for making paid sex too easy to find. We can't know for certain if the web has expanded the sex industry, or—more likely—simply made it more visible. But the digitally-networked age of commercial sex has inspired at least one new form of sexual entertainment: the internet escort rescue fantasy video.

Set in the hotel rooms, apartments, and private homes where escorts and other sex workers see legitimate customers, these videos are secretly recorded. The men who stage them—police, pastors, television personalities—together are engaged in something not unlike the men who pay for sex: a fantasy, starring them.

Call it soft-core law enforcement.

Soft-core law enforcement's latest celeb is Kevin Brown, a former detective with the Santa Ana, California, police. Now he operates Side-by-Side Church International and an organization called " Lives Worth Saving." Once you scroll past the "donate" button on his website, you can apply to become a member of his "S.T.R.E.E.T." or "C.S.I." teams, which monitor places where sex workers may hang out or advertise, ostensibly to identify "leads involving trafficking." (Brown appears to refer interchangeably to "trafficking" and to online sex work as advertised on sites like Backpage and Craigslist, and makes no mention of forms of trafficking outside the sex industry.) He describes his mission and the amateur surveillance work as a "unique ministry."

These are volunteer gigs, but Brown's ministry has made him a go-to guy for the media when they need a man to explain what kinds of "girls" get involved in the sex trade. Brown even brings his own B-roll: In February 2014, a local CBS affiliate ran his hidden-camera footage of an attempted rescue on a woman presumed to be engaged in sex work, with Brown posing as a customer to get her to talk to him, recording her secretly. "Brown says many of the girls that he contacts are not what you might think," the on-screen reporter intoned. "Many are educated and they have families. He says what he finds is that they are simply manipulated by their traffickers."

Brown's own numerous deceptions—misrepresenting himself as a customer, bringing a camera, broadcasting the footage—are presented without comment.

For his efforts, Brown has been rewarded with his own reality show. From the producer behind Catfish, Gigolos, and Cellblock 6: Female Lockup comes 8 Minutes, starring Brown and another former cop, Greg Reese. The title refers to the time the hosts have given themselves to confront sex workers and convince them to quit on the spot. This is, as the pilot's logline puts it so honestly, "one of the most dangerous, voyeuristic missions in the country." (When I contacted Brown for comment, he directed me to the show's publicist at A&E.)

Audiences should ask whether these former police are not also acting as manipulators, seeking women out for their own gain. Or can most people not recognize the power trip involved in such a public and aggressive exercise in shame? For me, it calls to mind the long-lost term for a woman who sells sex: "a public woman." Sex workers' sin was once understood as an improper display of what was presumed available to all men, and for what the laws of the day referred to as "ill-gain"—her own.

Maybe there's no longer stocks set up for sex workers in the town square—if there even is such a thing as a modern town square—but there are hundreds of channels and clips through which the public can skip the shaming in the town square bit entirely. At night, or on demand, we can peer at bodies in bedrooms and pass our own judgments.

It would be easy to call this show a kind of pornography, clothed lightly in good intentions. A stronger comparison, given Brown and Reese's own histories, would be a real-life cop drama. Eight minutes is enough, the promo materials boast, to convince a woman to escape with these strange men to some promised better life. Flip through a prostitution arrest record, or sit an actual courtroom, and you'll see women there are given barely that much consideration.

In busy "trafficking courts," like the ones in New York, about which I've reported for some time, women arrested for prostitution are all presumed to be in need of such a rescue. Prosecutors decide if they will be offered diversion in the form of court-mandated therapy sessions. Judges can move women's cases along in just a few minutes—half the time Brown and Reese allow themselves. They all rely on the same pop-psych notions: what a woman who has sold sex needs is self-esteem, someone who truly cares for her. They don't deviate much from the sexist stereotypes about why women sell sex—they do it, the narrative goes, because of some personal failing, whether they love it or not, and certainly not for the money. Lines blur between all these fantasies. Even after women have been "rescued" or arrested, they are still expected to play out their role.

In December, 8 Minutes was greenlit for eight episodes. When I asked the show's publicist to explain how women are chosen, she refused to comment, "as we are still in production." How many women will be targeted by Brown? Who will have their work and lives disrupted by strangers and cameras and fears of exposure?

8 Minutes has already faced criticism. The Daily Beast's Samantha Allen called the production "To Catch a Sex Worker"; sex worker blog Tits and Sass likened the show to an ambush, putting even sex workers who want out in harm's way. Besides, writer Lane Champagne points out, "They've already been told to quit... many times." Though the show may sound shocking, there's not much new to see here, except maybe the size of the stage.

"This is one of those great shows that was actually happening whether anybody was shooting it or not," executive producer Tom Forman told Entertainment Weekly, like it was just an incredible coincidence a television crew was on hand.

Soft-core law enforcement shows and stunts are far from sordid. They are an all-American fantasy. They're from an America where young women are presumed to be doing absolutely okay until the moment they cross the threshold of selling sex—the act their rescuers move in to reverse. They're set in an America where behind any hotel room door, any woman might face a similar fate, waiting for the same solution.

This fantasy America has no streets where women are harassed, unsafe homes, overpriced and over-policed schools, jobs that barely cover the expense of getting there shift after shift, or jails or shelters they've already been sentenced to or escaped from. In this fantasy America, all these women need is some guy to come in and talk them out of their decisions. But that fantasy itself is what sex workers might be working to escape.

Follow Melissa Gira Grant on Twitter.

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