Fallen Women and Rescued Girls: Social Stigma and Media Narratives of the Sex Industry in Victoria, B.C., from 1980 to 2005 *

By Hallgrimsdottir, Helga Kristin; Phillips, Rachel et al. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Fallen Women and Rescued Girls: Social Stigma and Media Narratives of the Sex Industry in Victoria, B.C., from 1980 to 2005 *


Hallgrimsdottir, Helga Kristin, Phillips, Rachel, Benoit, Cecilia, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MEDIA as an arbiter of social experience is well recognized. The media--newspapers, television, radio and, more recently, the Internet--educate, inform and entertain, all the while reflecting and refracting images and understandings of our social worlds with varying accuracy and truth. This paper compares media portrayals of people who work in the sex industry with these workers' self-reports of their personal backgrounds and experiences of what they do for a living. Our aim is to first, gauge the empirical distance between media depictions and workers' lived reality, and second, to understand how the media contributes to constructing, reproducing and deepening the social stigmas associated with working in the sex industry. We argue that pulling apart the historical and spatial variability of these stigmas and explicating their links to socio-structural contexts is a crucial step towards understanding their social construction. Exposing the socio-structural and human architecture of sex industry stigmas opens them to reinterpretation: insofar as new understandings position sex industry workers as individuals deserving of similar rights and protections as other "legitimate" workers, they have the capacity to facilitate a better and safer experience for this clandestine population.

We rely on two data sources for this paper. First, we analyse print media discussion of the sex industry in one metropolitan area of Canada, the Census Metropolitan Area of Victoria, British Columbia (B. C.), between 1980 and 2004 in a single regional daily newspaper, the Victoria Times Colonist. We then compare these media narratives with the self-reported experiences of sex industry workers in the same city and over a comparable time period.

Media Narratives and the Production/Reproduction of Stigmas

Academic interest in the sex industry has predominantly been focussed on understanding how the commodification of women's bodies, sexualities and sexual labour shapes and is shaped by larger orders of sexual and gender inequality. In recent years, this scholarship has become quite polarized between those who regard the commercial exchange of sex as inherently oppressive and violent and those who regard it as simply an economic activity, problematic largely because those involved are persecuted (Jenness, 1990; MacKinnon, 1987). The parameters of this debate have constrained the impact of a growing body of empirical and theoretical scholarship suggesting that sex industry workers, like other workers, represent a heterogeneity of experiences and identities, encompassing both of the positions noted above (Shaver, 2005).

Also missing in this debate is an interest in the historical and spatial variability of dominant understandings of the sex industry as a "social problem." Symptomatic of this disinterest is the relatively meagre scholarship dedicated to understanding media constructions of sex industry work and, in particular, how these constructions are the sites at which "whore" stigmas are produced and reproduced, contested and transformed, and how they might differ from empirical reality (Lowman, 1987; Stenvoll, 2001).

Media constructions of the sex industry, however, do constitute an important area of inquiry from both theoretical and harm-reduction perspectives. First of all, media representations of gender, class, race and sexuality are important loci of self and personal identity construction (Seale, 2003). For those who become objects of negative or subjugating media narratives, whether or not these narratives are "truth," does not mitigate their ability to detrimentally affect physical health and emotional well-being (Benoit and Millar, 2001). In addition, contemporary media create social understanding between spatially distanced and/or socially segregated groups (Gitlin, 2003); as the sex industry work force constitutes a particularly clandestine and hidden population, for a significant portion of the citizenry media narratives represent the only sites at which they might interact with sex industry workers. …

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Fallen Women and Rescued Girls: Social Stigma and Media Narratives of the Sex Industry in Victoria, B.C., from 1980 to 2005 *
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