Basis Sex Work Project and the media

Over the past few months there has been increased focus by the media on the managed approach to sex work in Leeds, triggered by the approval of the managed approach by Leeds City Council in October 2016 and the murder of Daria Pionko in December later that year.

For our organisation and the women we support this has presented a new challenge, with both positive and negative aspects. As a small organisation supporting sex workers in Leeds   initially we did not have the capacity to respond to the multitude and persistent request but we soon noticed the impact on the women. Those that had chosen to speak to the press were frustrated their anonymity had not been guaranteed as agreed, others had their words twisted or unreported which created further anxiety, already heightened by Daria’s death.

It was frustrating to see that, in many cases, the reporting was inaccurate or just voyeuristic and sensationalist. We decided to cooperate with the Vic. Derbyshire (BBC) to achieve a more accurate reporting, allow for less stereotypical reporting as well as raise awareness of how Basis contributes to the managed approach and how it works which featured in Apri 2016l.

For the women, engaging with the media can be extremely effective in breaking down stereotypes and reducing stigma, ultimately enabling further access to their rights and it empowers the women to share the messages they want others to hear. This can be done if it is based on terms mutually agreed beforehand, with clarity and consideration of potential consequences of such footage being shown for the women and their families and respecting appropriate boundaries. Some of the coverage we’ve seen so far still tends to aim towards looking at the women, rather than engaging with them on the basis of mutual respect, as human beings, and often reinforces the images that perpetuate the stigmatization of sex workers.

With a few exceptions, the media interest and disruption for the women and the organisations that support them has quietened down significantly, however its likely there will continue to be an interest. We hope for all concerned that any footage, quotes or pictures obtained and shared are obtained with informed consent by the women, including taking into account their mental health and the fact that, in some instances, their consent may be driven more by their immediate needs related to substance abuse rather than what might be better for them in the longer term for them (which may lead to a bias in the population willing to cooperate) – thereby exploiting their vulnerability.

Since the Vic. Derbyshire show, Basis Yorkshire have chosen not to collaborate with media requests involving service users as we do not want our relationship with the women to be defined or influenced by our engagement with the media, particularly so soon after the recent program we contributed to. We would also decline opportunities if we are not confident programs would respect the above recommended approach with regards to involving sex workers. We will continue to work with the women to make their voices heard, through the media or any other forms of communication channels – aimed solely at improving the outcomes for sex workers in Leeds and the UK.