Recently Fresh Air host Terry Gross introduced one of her shows by warning listeners that, ""before I go any further you should know that parts of our conversation will be about sex workers and may not be appropriate for children." We are grateful that Fresh Air used the term "sex worker" rather than "prostitute" or any other stigmatizing label. This *is* progress. And as one of our community members wrote, "it's fine to give an advisory along the lines of 'this segment may include conversations about sex and substance use' for parents who don't want their kids to listen to conversations about sex, drugs (or rock-n-roll)."
However, it is not fine to say that conversations about and with sex workers are in and of themselves inappropriate for children. I wrote a letter to Fresh Air explaining why: "Sex workers are people, advocates, workers and, indeed, most sex workers are also parents who can discuss many issues beyond what is deemed to be 'sexually explicit' or an 'adult theme.'" Mainstream media portrayals lead us to believe again and again that sex workers are inherently a risk to children, simply by being who they are and because of the work they do. This fallacious ideology painfully underpins the separation of sex workers from their children by the courts and by violence. Too many sex working parents have had their children wrested from them and some sex worker parents--like Petite Jasmine--have lost their lives in this struggle.
The discrimination inherent in "parental advisories" regarding discussion of sex workers' lives becomes clearer when we switch another word into the sentence. Consider how the advisory would sound if the interviewer were about to speak to someone from another profession that could potentially lead to discussions of death, injury or body parts: "before I go any further you should know that parts of our conversation will be about doctors and may not be appropriate for children." The reason that this advisory seems to no longer make sense is because we do not stigmatize doctors and we do not stigmatize what they do. (For the record, I know from working in an operating room, that surgery can be pretty graphic, involve a lot of blood, sexism and inappropiate 'humor,' so I personally keep a close eye on what my young child learns from the media about this topic). The problem in Fresh Air's advisory is, then, the stigmatizing of sex workers, a community of folks that is already so belittled in public discourse. Consider how offensive the advisory would be if we were to warn parents that the conversation might be about "gay men" or "lesbians," groups of people that in the past were--and sometimes still are--stigmatized as a risk to children. One of Red Umbrella Babies contributors concluded her letter to Terry Gross saying, "when you're dealing with a stigmatized population, stating 'parts of our conversation will be about [stigmatized population] and may not be appropriate for children' is simply compounding and legitimizing that stigma. If the concern is talking about sex, that's fine... but assuming conversations about 'sex workers' will be about 'sex' is as stigmatizing as assuming conversations about 'gay men' will be about 'gay sex.'"
At Red Umbrella Babies we look forward to the day when discussion of issues pertaining to sex workers will not be stigmatized and hidden from children and young people who may benefit from hearing about sex worker rights, their human rights, their movements for justice and struggles for labor rights. This may seem radical to say, but just as a child or young person might gain useful knowledge from hearing about the rights of people of different sexual orientations, gender identities, migrants rights and the rights of farm workers, they may also learn a great deal from hearing about the rights of sex workers. We also look forward to the day when representatives of the media come to understand the injustices faced by parents who are also sex workers and the impact of shaming on children of sex workers, and that together we work to ensure that these families are not stigmatized further through the words we use.