Let’s Talk About Sex: The Disparity Between How Sex Workers and the Media View the World’s Oldest Profession

Often referred to as the world’s oldest profession, prostitution has aroused controversy for millennia, with historical accounts dating back to the Book of Genesis. Sex work still exists and will likely never disappear, but the profession is nevertheless plagued with stigma. This stigma is especially prevalent in Nevada, the only state where prostitution is legal. A 2018 Wall Street Journal article labeled the industry “as much a part of the Silver State’s image of sin and debauchery as gaming and bachelor parties.” Much of the media coverage surrounding sex workers, however, delivers a skewed and incomplete representation of their work while failing to include the perspectives of the workers themselves, which reveal a completely different side to the sex industry. 

Two-thousand eighteen was an important year for Nevada sex workers as activists sought to outlaw prostitution in Nye and Lyon counties by lobbying Nevadans to vote on the issue on that year’s November ballot. The Washington Post reported on the activists’ efforts, noting how the Lyon County campaign was pioneered by the End Trafficking and Prostitution Political Action Committee, which “reject[ed] the idea that any woman would choose to do sex work for a living.” Instead, many perceive sex workers as victims forced into the profession. Awaken, a non-profit aimed at fighting commercial sexual exploitation, regards prostitution as “a legal framework which fuels sexual exploitation and violence,” according to its website.

Many sex workers, however, challenge the notion that the majority of people in their profession are forced into it, and the media rarely reflects this. The media often assumes that the majority of sex work results from human trafficking or dire financial situations. While these problematic issues must be addressed, they do not represent why most sex workers enter the industry. Kiteh Kawasaki, a sex worker at Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, expressed a similar sentiment in an email. “I don’t want [to be] rescued from my ‘awful’ predicament. Sex is natural and enjoyable,” she wrote. Similarly, Katie Summers, who works at the Kit Kat Guest Ranch near Carson City, enthusiastically shared how much she enjoys her work. After working as a dental assistant, she chose to transition to sex work, remarking how most women enter into the profession because they want to. 

But it is difficult for the American public to recognize that many women voluntarily choose sex work. Headlines such as “4 Women Accused of Running Prostitution Ring,” which ran in several state publications in 2019, contribute to the unrepresentative, dramatic, and narrow narrative surrounding the sex industry. Kawasaki, of the Bunny Ranch, shared how “American journalists tend to portray sex workers as victims or ripoff artists,” and Summers, of the KitKat Ranch, remarked how she wanted “affirmation of being a person, not just a prostitute.” Indeed, legal sex workers were not even eligible for the Small Business Administration loans made available to help those struggling during the pandemic, further highlighting the illegitimacy many people associate with the sex industry.

Kawasaki argues that the media often succumbs to “scripted, shallow, sensational and inaccurate” portrayals. Moreover, the intimacy and connection involved tends to be absent from the discussion. Alice Little, Nevada’s highest-paid sex worker who earned over one million dollars in 2019, emphasizes the emotional labor involved in her profession, adding that much of her work revolves around caring for others. “The original group of people who did this form of labor for society were sex workers,” Little said over Zoom. “We existed before psychologists, before therapists, before doctors […] We helped people through whatever it was that they were experiencing.” While Little does acknowledge the role sex plays, she stresses that it is largely a manifestation of physical closeness and trust as opposed to mere physical desire, adding that many sex workers view themselves as “therapists, but naked.”

Summers, too, described how her interactions with clients are often more than merely sexual, “quick and easy” encounters. She will often spend months getting to know a client prior to meeting them in person and works hard to ensure that they are comfortable. Summers wishes that, instead of focusing on money, the number of clients, and sex, the media would look beyond the physical aspect of sex work, highlighting its more therapeutic, intimate components. 

The media, Kawasaki claims, “rarely gets to really know people that work in this business […] Unbiased factual reporting is a lost art.” Like Summers stressed over the phone, sex work is not so “straightforward,” and much of its nuance becomes lost in its dominantly sensationalist and unrepresentative media portrayal. Indeed, articles describing the joy experienced by sex workers and their clients are difficult to find. “I enjoy having sex for money,” Kawasaki said. “I hate fighting busybodies for the ‘right’ to do that legally every legislative session. It’s legal. Leave us alone to work in peace.”

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