BROOKE: Eliyanna mentioned the A&E reality show, 8 Minutes, which follows a cop turned pastor named Kevin Brown into the hotels of Houston, Texas. We see him pose as a client and phone prostitutes that he and his team have plucked from ads, based on who looks abused. He meets them, surprises them with the revelation that he’s a pastor, and brings in a prostitute-turned-counselor to persuade the woman (so far it’s only only women) to leave the life. And they offer to help make that possible.
In the opening sequence, words flash over images of shattered glass and women in short skirts (quote) “Every year, thousands of women are lured and forced into the illegal sex trade. A veteran police officer and his team have a mission: seek out women in danger, pose as clients, and offer them a way out. But with pimps lurking, they’ve only got 8 Minutes.”
The countdown begins as soon as each woman enters the hotel room, where hidden cameras track what Pastor Kevin calls a rescue operation.
Anti-trafficking groups like Project Safe and The Freedom Network, and the Legal Aid Society, as well as many sex workers’ rights groups, have signed a letter condemning the show. Writer Alana Massey is a member the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project of NYC. Welcome to the show.
MASSEY: Hello, Brooke.
BROOKE: Now, when you watch the show, what first struck you as problematic?
MASSEY: They used terms like "the life" for everyone who is participating in sex work. They use the word "victim" for every woman that they encounter. They use the term trafficker for people who are presumed to be facilitating prostitution and sex work in a way that is implied to be very criminal and very coercive. And they build this entire language around it that suggests a more monolithic experience than is the reality.
BROOKE: What is the monolithic narrative that they create?
MASSEY: Say a woman is participating in sex work and is being called a victim. If she is raped by a client, if every act of transactional sex is already a form of victimization then there isn't a form of differentiation between one that uses brutal force, and one that uses a consensual exchange of money and services. Erasing the reality of these differences is really dangerous to people who are victimized.
BROOKE: Another very explicit thing that the program does is remove the element of choice.
BROWN: Most people today think that prostitution is a choice. It's not like that. The vast majority of cases the victim has been so traumatized, so broken, that she cannot even conceive leaving this person.
MASSEY: When you speak to sex workers, The reality is, they can't conceive of walking away from an income. Distinctions need to be made between efforts that are actually anti prostitution and ones that are truly anti trafficking. Acknowledging the humanity and the complexity and the agency they do have in their lives, even when some of that agency has been compromised. On 8 Minutes, they come in with a narrative, and they retrofit it to these women's lives. And that's unfair.
BROOKE: Most of the women on the show recount histories of abuse and drugs, 8 Minutes presents itself as a show that's there to help get these women resources.
BROWN: You have a four month old, you want to get her back. But that's not gonna happen without some help. Just think if you had resources, people who could walk you through the system to get help - I have help for you right now. Do you want to take it?
WOMAN: That's like the most awesomest thing I've ever heard in my life.
MASSEY: I think that if what he was saying was true, that would be great! He identifies walking her through the system. The system fails sex workers, and it fails victims of trafficking over and over and over again. I can't speak to this particular woman's experience, but this is not the dominant narrative of what is happening to people that they are quote on quote rescuing from sex work in the various raids that do happen.
BROOKE: Actually, one woman who goes by the name of Kamyla came forward on twitter to hold the show accountable for broken promises. She told the Internet and also us, that when the show's producers first called her, they identified themselves immediately. And offered assistance and 150 bucks in exchange for her appearance on the show. The show's essentially scripted, and this is interesting. Kamyla really did want to get out of the business --
BROOKE: -- and she really needed help to do it. But after the taping they never got back to her, she posted an ad using the same number the 8 Minute producers had contacted her on, and she was arrested in a sting. Wrote the sex worker blog Tits and Sass, she was broke, frightened, facing criminal charges, and when she reached out for help to 8 Minutes, Brown offered to pray for her.
MASSEY: Yes. I'm actually in contact with her and have spoken to her at length about what happened with the show. And there's this idea that there are resources available if you just come with us.
BROOKE: So we know from Kamyla, that the show is at least in part, a lie. Is there anything true in it?
MASSEY: There is something very true about it. I don't want to deny anybody their truth. The bigger landscape of this is that if those are the only people who are represented, it makes it about sadistic traffickers, and not about inhospitable economies, inhospitable law enforcement situations, it doesn't make it about the system, it makes it about individuals. And when people who have been victimized have this sort of redemption narrative, and they do use a lot of very religious language around redemption, they are saying "pull yourself out of this by your bootstraps, because you can do it." Rather than saying, there is a system that has failed you. I can't fist bump myself into having an income. Like, I can't girl power into it. The language of, what actual help would look like, it doesn't look like somebody just having a pep talk with you in a hotel room and putting you in a van, which is literally what happens. At least in Kamyla's case, she got into a van, and they drove off to resources, which are the promised land. And she just got dropped off at her ride, you know? There wasn't a promised land at the end of this. There was a 150 dollars.
BROOKE: Alana, thank you very much.
MASSEY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE: Alana Massey is a member of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project of New York City. We asked A&E for comment, but it declined.
BROOKE: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Kasia Mychajlowycz and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Jenna Kagel and Ethan Chiel. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back this week, I’m Brooke Gladstone.