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“Listen to sex workers” in order to break down the stigma, Leeds Trinity academic Dr Kate Lister urges journalism students

A Leeds Trinity academic who specialises in researching the sex work industry has said the media is contributing to an ongoing stigma against women working in the industry, and called for journalists and society in general to work to destigmatise this area.

Dr Kate Lister – a lecturer, historian and curator of the online research database Whores of Yore – was speaking in a talk at the university as part of Journalism and Media Week last night (November 6).

She began her talk with a disclaimer: “I am not here to speak for sex workers or over sex workers. I’m here to speak to you as somebody that researches sex work and tell you what I have learnt about this community.”

Underpinning her discussion about how historical stigmatisation of sex workers continues today, was the idea that there is a chasm between research into and reporting of sex workers and the experience and input of sex workers themselves – leading to reporting bias and further stigmatisation.

Dr Kate Lister: “Challenging the Stigma of Sex Work in the Media”

Dr Lister analysed the reporting of murders in which sex workers were the victims, such as The Yorkshire Ripper, highlighting that the press tends to favour a “prostitute-murder sensationalist-narrative” over unbiased reporting, with coverage focusing almost exclusively on the killer as opposed to the victims.

Dr Lister also discussed the tourism industry around notorious crimes involving sex workers – for example The Jack the Ripper Museum – and how this is not the case with non-sex worker victims. “Would there be a Madeleine McCann tour?” she asked, giving credence to the idea that “some women’s lives are worth more than others.”

“How much easier is it to be violent to someone if you think of them as less?” she added.

“Stigma kills,” she warned an audience which included many journalism students.

“We are constantly receiving information, and whoever controls that narrative has an enormous amount of power, that they can shape opinion,” she said.

She had this advice to those wanting to report on or research sex work: “Neutralise your language; use the language that the people that you’re talking about have asked you to use.”

On the subject of media bias, she said: “I am not here to say that everyone involved in sex work is having a great time. I’m here to say that it is a more complex experience than perhaps we are led to believe and perhaps we should be open to that.”

Dr Lister pointed to organisations run by and for sex workers – including SWARM, Ugly Mugs and Leeds-based BASIS – and she encouraged researchers and journalists to go through these channels when writing about sex work.

“Listen to sex workers,” she said.

What do you think?