RENEE GERLICH AGAINST SALIENT

Case Number: 2616

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Salient

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Misleading
Nudity and Indecency

Overview

1. Renee Gerlich complained that an article called “Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore” published inSalient on July 31 was sexist, inaccurate and misleading.

Background

2. Salient is a student magazine published by the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association. Its main target audience is students attending Victoria University.

3. On July 31, Salient ran a story called “Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore”, which was written by a sex worker. In the opening paragraph of the story, the writer announces: “My name is Min, I am 23 years old, and I am a whore”.

4. The story is a first-hand account of Min’s journey from sexually abused teenager to “happy and healthy” sex worker.

5. The writer says that though there is a perception that people who enter the sex industry do so because they have been damaged by abuse, it was not the case with her. “Sex work has allowed me to move past my trauma by experiencing consensual sex in a safe environment with men who value my time and body.”

6. She says she has been able come off medication for depression, and can now afford to focus on self-care and recovery. She tells readers she enjoys her work, and if she is not in the mood to share her body, she can take a day off.

7. She says sex work has changed her life, made her confident, self-assured and in charge of her sexuality. “I am a terribly happy, healthy whore,” she says.

The Complaint

8. Complainant Ms Gerlich believes the article represents an unacceptable editorial commitment to promoting prostitution: publishing it was irresponsible onSalient’s part. She accepts that the story is a personal account, but believes it was promotional in that it discusses a dangerous industry in a misleadingly positive light, without any editorial warnings about the dangers and risks.

9. Salient has made no effort to provide balance of its positive representation of prostitution through in-depth, investigative, critical and/or conscience-based articles, she says. In publishing the articleSalient’s editors have demonstrated that they are willing to promote prostitution in spite of health and safety risks. “I am concerned how many female students may have entered prostitution as a result ofSalient’s encouragement.”

10. Ms Gerlich says when she complained to Salient’s editors, and requested they publish an article critical of prostitution to redress the problem of imbalance, they referred her to the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), a suggestion she strongly rejected.

11. Ms Gerlich complained that the language, jokes and slurs used in the article in question were deeply sexist, and for the magazine to promote the author’s enthusiasm for the sex trade was irresponsible.

12. She says she shared the testimonies of six survivors of prostitution in a comment box onSalient’s Facebook page but the editors deleted her comment. “It was therefore censored,” she says.

The Response

13. The editors of Salient pointed out that sex work is legal in New Zealand, and the article was a first-person narrative by the author.

14. The author clearly consented to sex, and there was no suggestion she had been coerced or pressured into working. In fact she states: “I fully enjoy every day for sex work.”

15. The author discusses only her own experiences and does not claim to represent all sex workers, they say.

16. The editors acknowledge that they could have run a disclaimer that the article was from the perspective of a sex worker, but they felt that point came across clearly in the story. In the future, they say, they would consider including links to student support services at the end of the article. These have since been included at the end of the online version. The article carried a content warning about sexual assault and violence.

17. They defended the publication of the author’s rape jokes as in context she was clearly denouncing those who make such jokes. As to her use of the word ‘whore’, she self-identifies as a whore and doesn’t use the word to describe others in the industry.

18. The editors published the article because they believed Min’s story was important as she was a survivor of sexual abuse. “Min’s experience is uniquely their own. It is also an experience of sex work that we haven’t read elsewhere and felt it was important to share.”

19. They had invited the complainant to respond with a 500-word article forSalient’s opinion section, but set clear parameters that she respond generally to sex work in New Zealand as opposed to Min’s personal experiences. It was particularly relevant that Min was a survivor of sexual assault, and that was why they had blocked the complainant from posting on the Facebook post of the story. They explained that blocking the complainant’s comments had inadvertently resulted in all her comments being deleted: it had not been their intention to censor the six testimonies of prostitution survivors.

20. The editors maintain the right to block comments. They say they are open to criticism and feedback and had published a letter which addressed the debate in response to “Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore”, in a subsequent issue of the magazine.

The Decision

21. As has been noted by the Press Council before (case 2508), student magazines as a genre have a history of provocation and pushing the boundaries of what may be considered decency with content that is challenging, irreverent and offensive. The Press Council acknowledges the genre and is prepared to make some allowances for it as long as essential principles are maintained.

22. The merits or otherwise of students working in the sex industry while studying at university is not an uncommon topic for student magazines and although the idea of teenagers entering into prostitution as a means of earning money is abhorrent to many, the fact is that sex work is legal in New Zealand, and they have every right to do so, the risks to health and safety notwithstanding.

23. The sex industry is therefore a legitimate subject for discussion and we see no reason why publications, student media or otherwise, may not report and express opinions provided they abide by Press Council principles.

24. “Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore” is a first-person account of a young woman’s experiences as a sex worker, and though the tone is deliberately provocative and some of the language is confronting, it is one person’s view and as such must be considered opinion. The sexist jokes and slurs within the piece are quite deliberate, but in context can not be considered sexist, as the writer is clearly making a point that sex workers are frequently discriminated against because of what they choose to do.

25. The Press Council preamble states: “There is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression.” As an opinion piece, according to Principle 5, Columns, Blogs, Opinions and Letters, balance is not essential.

26. The article did carry a content warning. We note that the editors ofSalient have stated their intention to provide links to support services at the end of any future articles of this type, and have added links to the online version of the story in this complaint.

27. We note that the editors have admitted they are still on a learning curve with regard to their social media postings, and did not intend to censor the complainant’s link to a blogpost containing narratives by six survivors of prostitution when they deleted her comments attacking the article. By happy circumstance, another reader had also posted the link to the blogpost, which was not deleted.

28. We also note that the complainant was invited to write a 500-word opinion piece expressing her views on student sex workers and the risks of the industry; this demonstrates a willingness to continue an open debate on the topic.

29. For these reasons we do not consider Salient’s decision to publish irresponsible, nor does it demonstrate an unacceptable editorial commitment to promoting prostitution.

30. Ms Gerlich’s complaint does not specifically cite Press Council principles, but we have considered it under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 5, Columns, Blogs, Opinions and Letters.

31. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.