'Reality' TV Out of Touch with Reality

The TV network A and E has announced that it's developing a new show called '8 minutes' in which a christian pastor tries to convince sex workers to leave sex work. The Daily Mail quotes A and E executive producer Tom Forman as saying 'This is one of those great shows that was actually happening whether anybody was shooting it or not." The Daily Mail article and A and E's press about the show describe the pastor, Kevin Brown, a former vice cop, as a compassionate savior, noting that he started his mission because he didn't want to spend his life putting girls in jail for prostitution, he wanted to help them. Brown formed a mission group that reaches out to young women in the sex trade and offers them them help and resources to get out of 'the life'. It sounds both heartwarming and gut-wrenching with a little touch of sex thrown in - exactly what reality tv show producers are looking for.

But when you think about the premise, it's actually pretty scary and more than just a little creepy. How do Brown and his group get in touch with these young sex workers? They go through back page ads for sex workers and contact them. They pose as potential clients, set up a meeting, and then when the person shows up, they say that they don't want sex, they want to help. Yes, apparently, they really do this.

Doing this in the first place is all kinds of wrong. It's deceptive and hurtful. That person is trying to work and they are interrupting their life and their work time to push their agenda without consent. Although this is never discussed in the media about the show or in the short clip I watched, I am pretty certain they don't give the person the money they had agreed to during the initial contact. So they've just taken this person's time and offered nothing in return.

Then there's the scarier aspect of this. First of all, I would be pretty pissed if I was one of those people lured to a meeting under false pretenses. Do any of them ever get violent or try to steal money from these 'outreach workers'? I wouldn't blame them for considering it. It's not safe for the mission people to be doing this. Even more of a concern is that it's not safe for the workers. Who's to say that everyone on this mission team is really there to help? It's exactly the kind of thing that attracts abusers. The chance to be alone in a hotel room with someone you see as young and vulnerable? If one of those mission workers abuses or assaults one of those sex workers, will the mission team, or anyone else believe them if they report it? 'But that guy's on the mission team, we know that he didn't go there for sex, you have to be lying because you're angry that you didn't get any money'. The whole thing is misguided, disrespectful and dangerous.

But then there's the whole added layer of putting this on television. There is no way that people are told beforehand that they will be filmed. To do that would destroy the entire premise of the setup. That means they are filming people without their permission. This is unethical and may even be illegal, but I'm sure A and E has their legal ducks in a row and is somehow covering their butts on that. Do they air the show without the person's permission? I would guess that they do in some cases. Why would people give their permission to have something like that on television? In the clip that I saw, the person's face was blurred out. This may be how they get around the need for consent, but it doesn't make it better to simply blur a person's face. That person still did not know that they were going into an intervention, and they didn't know that there was a camera when they chose to say whatever they said in that room. Whether you can see their face and know their name or not, putting that on television could still be psychologically harmful to that person. It's also not all that difficult to identify someone based on their location, their body and body language and mannerisms, and their voice (which did not sound as if it had been altered). That could be dangerous to the people being filmed. Anyway you slice this, it's disrespectful and unethical at best and dangerous and illegal at worst.

The main problem here is that while these people claim that all they want to do is help young girls have a better life, they are actually not seeing these people as people at all. Their focus is on their own beliefs and their own mission and what they believe is right and wrong. They haven't considered the realities for people who work in this way and what they might actually need. They are assuming that sex workers cannot make decisions for themselves - that they are in such a dire situation that the only way they will be able to get help is if some savior drops out of the blue and whisks them off to a better life. In reality people who do sex work are like everyone else. They have other parts of their life that happen when they are not working, even if they are actually being trafficked or controlled by someone else. They read magazines and newspapers, look at billboards, surf the internet just like anyone else. The respectful way to run a mission like this is to put information about your ministry and your services in places where sex workers might see them. Make your information as broadly accessible as possible and people will see it or be able to find it if they are looking. Then they can make the choice to contact someone for help if they want it. I know that the people in this group will probably say that the sex workers they 'help' are essentially prisoners of pimps who control everything they do. Therefore they can't make a phone call or meet with someone without being monitored. That's why they do this in such a covert way. I would argue that this is much more our perception of sex work that it is a reality. Certainly, this happens for some people but for the majority of people who work through print ads, that's not going to be the case. And again, it's making the assumption that this is the case for every single person they contact, without knowing anything about that person and their life. It's assuming that every person with an ad on that page is a helpless victim who wants to be saved.

I have a lot of problems with a lot of the reality stuff that A and E airs. Way back when it started, it was such a great network, with lots of classic movies and theatre and shows like Biography. Now it runs Intervention and Hoarders 24/7. Those are bad enough, but with this, they've really sunk to a new low. There is a petition asking A and E to abandon their plans to broadcast this show. If you think it's as scary as I do, you might want to sign it.