When looking at media articles, TV shows, films or any media that depicts women involved in prostitution, webcamming, escorting, stripping, etc more often than not we tend to get the same stereotypical stock images. No matter what the issue or key story is, the same images are used over and over again with little variation or alternatives.
Women are usually portrayed as either oversexualised or completely disenfranchised, they appear uniformly in fishnets and high heels, they are standing in a dark street under a spotlight, they are leaning into cars or exchanging money with anonymous men. Very often, women are shown just as body parts – legs in stockings, feet in high heels, arms, the back of the head or just a dark shadow. They are not shown as whole beings but reduced to objects, bodies sexualised in their entirety or a sum of sexy parts.
You only need to see these examples taken from local mainstream media articles (Daily Record and BBC News respectively):
But what’s missing from the picture is the fact that women selling or exchanging sex lead rich and complex lives just like anyone. They have been reduced to tropes, indicators and stereotypes which reinforce the message that this is about sex instead of women very often faced with difficult and complex choices and different pressures and coercion.
These images do not recognise women as individuals with qualities, personalities, experiences and skills, “othering” them instead. They can feed into stigma and judgements and hide the realities of vulnerabilities that put women into situations where selling sex is needed to bring money into households. There is no one-size-fit-all standard of a woman who becomes involved in this industry.
From direct work with women, we know they can be mothers, students, office workers, service workers. They may struggle to find work and they may have attended college or university; they may enjoy dancing, cycling, music or cooking; they may speak one or several languages. Of course, despite how the media portrays them, they are not one dimensional. Women involved may be close to us and we may not know of their involvement. This diversity and richness of experiences away from narrow stereotypes is what we wanted to represent in our CSE Aware illustrations.
Learning from previous work with women through Inside Outside and more recently the CLiCK magazine, there is a need to break these stereotypes and challenge the norms within how women are presented and shown.
To bring our project to life, we decided to commission a series of illustrations that will be feature in our website and resources. In order to foreground the reality that women from all walks of life may be involved in selling or exchanging sex, we created five characters: Alice, Alina, Paula, Precious and Sinead.
These characters are fictional woman based on the collective experiences of different women who have told us their stories through projects like Encompass Network, CLiCK, Inside Outside and through other research. Each character is shown in two different day-to-day setting: spending time with her kid, attending a clinic, going shopping, relaxing, etc. The idea is to move away from the typical trope of women shown only in situations where they are selling or exchanging sex.
The result are ten illustrations in total which will be launching on our website very soon. These images will also appear in our events and other resources and social media materials. We hope that they bring reflection on the stereotypes we hold of women involved and that they inspire new and more positive representations that attest to the complexity and variety of experiences that exist in this area.
Here is a sneak-peak of our illustrations: