SWOP-Chicago is disappointed by the recent End Demand Campaign, “The Ugly Truth.” “The Ugly Truth” is a stigmatizing, shame-based campaign that proliferates biased, sensationalist research and statements about the sex trade, research that has drawn repeated criticism from academics, policy-makers, sex workers, and Canadian supreme court.
While it is important to raise awareness of exploitation and violence experienced by some individuals involved the sex trade (just as it is crucial to do so for any industry), it is important that this messaging does not add to the sense of stigmatization and discomfort individuals involved in the sex trade frequently feel. “The Ugly Truth” fails to do this.
We do not mean to single out this individual ad campaign. Rather, we intend to spark a conversation about a genre of public awareness campaigns that ultimately ignore the feelings, reactions, and complex lives of the target group the ad campaign is about.
Like so many abolitionist campaigns, “The Ugly Truth” directs messaging at individuals with no connection to the sex trade and overlooks the fact that sex workers, like everyone else, use public transportation and public spaces. It is disheartening when direct service providers who follow a non-judgmental approach in their work fail to consider the potential impact of very strong, likely triggering, likely traumatizing public messaging on the very population they are trying to ‘help’. And ultimately, sensationalist, costly campaigns both fails to educate the public about issues they can actively do something about and alienate individuals with direct contact to the sex trade.
Further, the message of this campaign and others, which ignore the complexity of sex work and sex trafficking, are misleading… perhaps with serious, detrimental consequences. It is imperative that public awareness campaigns about the sex trade recognize that many, many individuals can and do choose to engage in sexualized labor; and that discrimination, systematic inequality, criminal records, barriers to legal migration into the US, and stigma related to sex trade work, are at the root of forced and survival sex work. Recognizing the complexity of the sex trade is imperative, because simplification leads to policies that will ultimately harm sex workers, individuals engaged in survival sex, and sex trafficking victims.
Ultimately, “The Ugly Truth” campaign and others like it are a misallocation of resources, particularly when services that sex workers, individuals in the sex trade, and trafficking victims desperately need — things like targeted outreach, supportive housing, substance abuse recovery, and harm reduction services — are so underfunded. Perhaps more important, these campaigns compound stigma and trauma individuals involved the sex trade face, without producing any tangible benefits.
In brief, we hope that in the future, service organizations working directly with stigmatized and marginalized populations think critically about their public awareness campaigns, and — recognizing that their target population will likely be exposed to and impacted by their public messages — use the same approach in both.
SWOP-Chicago is not the only group disappointing by this ad campaign. We encourage you to also read the following responses:
- Good Intentions Are Not Enough: On Community, Voice, and the Ethics of Inclusion/Exclusion (Mona Shattell, DePaul University)
- “The Ugly Truth:” Ad Campaigns about the Sex Trade Will Always Fail… (Adil Habiba, Prison Culture)