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Kickstarter-funded Sex Work Documentary Puts Women in Danger

25/07/2013 12:21 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 10:12 BST
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A virulently anti-sex work Kickstarter campaign to fund a film that promises to "reveal the ugly reality of addiction, infidelity, prostitution, child abuse, rape and Human Sex Trafficking" (their capital letters) has, quite rightly, attracted fury.

The film, Hard Corps, made by the Salvation Army Vision Network, includes a series of interviews with porn stars, sex workers, directors, anti-porn specialists and addiction therapists, a subject selection that is, in itself, an agenda.

Hard Corps is steeped in biased assumptions, but far more worrying is the fact that, despite protestations to the contrary, some of the footage appears to have been filmed without the women's consent. Given that these women work in the world's most stigmatised professions, this is unthinkable. Sex work activists, including Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) have condemned the project and asked for people to demand its removal from Kickstarter.

Hard Corps has until August 19th to raise $100,000. So far it has just over $8,000. That the project will fail seems pretty much assured; even those who don't balk at its judgemental, repressive tone are likely to be put off by the amateurish wording on the Kickstarter page. Were it not so terrifying, the pitch for Hard Corps would be funny. It's badly written, nonsensical in places and uses bizarrely quaint terms such as 'World Wide Web' and 'flesh peddling'.

But 'flesh peddling'? There are few terms for sex work more loaded, more synonymous with Victorian views of morally-reprehensible, 'fallen' women. So, no, even if the film never gets made - and therefore does not endanger any of the women involved - the mere fact that this crass Kickstarter campaign exists is not OK.

In a FAQ section, hastily created after the furore kicked off on Twitter, the team behind Hard Corps offered assurance that no one was filmed without consent. "Everyone on camera signed an appearance release form, allowing us to use their likeness on film," reads a statement by the Salvation Army Vision Network (SAVN.tv).

Perhaps then, some of the grainy-looking, hidden camera-esque footage was just filmed that way for effect? Or were those on camera asked for permission only after filming had taken place? Doubt was cast on either of these possibilities by porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley, who appears in the film. When journalist and campaigner Melissa Gira Grant asked her on Twitter if she signed a consent form, Hartley said she couldn't remember but continued that she "did not know that they would use my interview that way."

If there is even the slightest doubt that other women in Hard Corps aren't aware they were filmed, even those who appear in the background of a shot, the project must be terminated instantly and the producers made to answer some serious questions. Anyone who doubts the stigma sex work still carries need only look at the horrific murder of Swedish sex worker and activist Jasmine Petite, killed by her partner on July 11th after authorities granted him custody of their children, deciding his violence was a less serious offense than her chosen line of work.

"Stigma kills," says Laura Lee, a sex worker and campaigner from Scotland. "I was incensed when I heard about the film. If any of these women were filmed undercover the ramifications could be horrific. In some cases women could have their children removed, it could jeopardise relationships, landlords could create problems and women end up homeless.

"Coming out in public as a sex worker needs to be an individual decision."

Hard Corp's perpetuation of this stigma is sickening. In a trailer, Commissioner Jim Knaggs, the Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army, USA Western Territory, calls on would-be funders to do whatever they can to save these lost, misguided women.

Referring to sex workers throughout as "these people", Knaggs simpers that the film is "Designed to help these people... so we can set them free."

We must, he says, "do even more for these dear people who are caught up in this cycle... [Because] it traps them, it holds them back, it hurts them, it removes the joy from life."

Though couched in terms of 'kindness', his is a view as damaging as any condemnation. Sex workers, if not downright evil, are victims.

"I know from long experience that this is not the case," says Lee. "I've known lots of women and men who have made a conscious decision to go into sex work for any number of reasons."

That women could lucidly choose sex work as way of making a living is a concept that still seems beyond not only the likes of the Salvation Army crusaders, but much of the general public. Feeding into this pity/condemnation vortex is the idea that many women are, in fact, working in the sex industry against their will.

"The midpoint of the film follows the natural transition from pornography into the darker world of prostitution. The filmmakers examine both legal and illegal forms of flesh peddling, ultimately leading into the inevitable world of Human Sex Trafficking," reads Hard Corp's clunkily-worded Kickstarter pitch.

In an interview for New Scientist this month, Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustín, who has spent 20 years investigating the sex industry, has this to say:

"The numbers of trafficking victims reproduced by the media have no basis in fact. There is no way to count undocumented people working in underground economies. Investigations showed that one big UK police operation failed to find any traffickers who had forced people into prostitution. Most migrants who sell sex know a good deal about what they are getting into."

It's a controversial stance. While not denying the horror of slavery - not just sexual, of any kind - slapping this label on any sex work-related project may have more to do with political agenda that reality. Hard Cop's portrayal of the Salvation Army as gallant saviours mimics other non-religious campaigns which similarly posit sex workers as victims who must be saved.

The fact is, people do choose to enter the sex trade. Yes, it's sometimes because of necessity, but isn't any job?

To campaign for people forced into sex work against their will is laudable and such groups do exist. But Hard Cops, from all appearances, is about women who have made an informed decision about their life. The "sex trafficking" tag is simply a means to whip up moral disgust.

"The film sounds like a junk-documentary, associating every repressive idea that exists about women as sexual victims to conclude there is an 'inevitable' bogeyman called Human Sex Trafficking," says Agustin.

Only last month, Kickstarter backed down and apologised after allowing highly misogynistic "seduction guide", Above The Game, to request funding on its site.

The same must happen with hate-peddling Hard Corps.