To Catch a Sex Worker: A&E’s Awful, Exploitative Ambush Show

The retired cop used to interfere in sex worker’s lives by arresting them, now he just ambushes them with cameras. The problem with the reality show 8 Minutes.

Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times via Redux

Picture the movie Pretty Woman as a reality TV show. Keep the male fantasy of “rescuing” a sex worker intact, replace Richard Gere’s lonely businessman with an ex-cop turned pastor named—of course—Kevin, and swap out Julia Robert’s Rodeo Drive shopping spree with a pep talk about a halfway house and you’ve got 8 Minutes, a new series that was just greenlit by A&E. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, executive producer Tom Forman calls it “one of those great shows that was actually happening whether anybody was shooting it or not.” The sex workers I spoke with rightly call it “vile,” “gross,” “terrifying,” and “exploitative.”

8 Minutes will follow retired Orange County police officer and clergyman Kevin Brown as he attempts to convince women to leave sex work behind. Brown does this by posing as a client and confronting sex workers in hotel rooms, where he spends the eponymous eight minutes trying to persuade them to switch trades. According to Forman’s EW interview, we can expect Brown’s pitch to open with a smooth line like, “I’m not here to have sex with you, I’m here to offer you a whole new life if you want it” and to include such ominous statements as, “Even if this all seems okay to you right now, it’s quickly going to become something very different.” Forman claims that Brown has a success rate of “about 50-50” and that women who do leave with him are offered access to a “fairly intensive program,” that includes training in “life skills.”

If the idea of a religious vigilante ambushing sex workers in his spare time sets off alarm bells, it probably should. The fact that the show follows the basic template of blatant ratings grabs like A&E’s Intervention (now moving to Lifetime) and MSNBC’s To Catch a Predator would certainly suggest that this is a show about Brown, not about helping people. Last year, Brown was profiled in the LA Times alongside his partner Greg Reese for their work as founders of Safe Passage OC, a group with a website that looks like it was made in 1998 and a moral worldview from at least a hundred years earlier than that. Safe Passage OC recruits “volunteers from the faith-based community” who “rescue victims who are being forced into prostitution.” Volunteers only need to “attend a 16-hour course” in order to participate. That’s only about half as long as it takes to get a learner’s permit in the state of California—apparently learning when to use a turn signal is twice as complicated as conducting an undercover operation that jeopardizes women’s lives.

The sex workers and advocates I asked about 8 Minutes are also displeased with the prospect of pastor Brown parachuting into their profession. They describe him as being part of the “rescue industry,” a term coined by sociologist Dr. Laura Agustín to describe moralistic interventions into sex work worldwide. The “rescue industry” most directly describes anti-trafficking organizations like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which advocate for the global criminalization of sex work. To be sure, forced labor—including forced sex work—are real phenomena but, as journalist and author Melissa Gira Grant notes in the Guardian, current statistics on “trafficking” often include—and, by association, demonize—all forms of sex work, whether coerced or not.

And as Molly, an educator from Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), tells me in an e-mail, the “rescue industry” also refers to everything from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s Cambodian brothel raids to the Liam Neeson vehicle Taken. These texts and organizations circulate powerful but often misleading images of victimized women in need of First World saviors, images that guide us into viewing sex work as an inherently degrading trade that no one could ever choose. If Forman’s categorical statement to EW that “none of these girls would have chosen this life” is any indication, 8 Minutes buys into rescue industry ideology wholesale.

Given this cultural context, Kevin Brown’s vigilante preacher schtick is “disappointingly unsurprising,” as Lane Champagne, a community organizer for Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) tells me in a phone interview. The idea that all sex workers are victims who want to be “rescued” is so pervasive that some clients regularly try to convince sex workers to give up their trade—they just usually don’t bring a camera crew along with them. As Champagne suggests in her own critique of 8 Minutes for a sex workers group blog, Brown’s holier-than-thou angle is not a far cry from the “well-meaning but kind-of-a-dick regulars who fall in love with you and think it’s a compliment to say [things] like, ‘You’re so much better than this.’”

And in an e-mail interview, Kaelie Laochra, a sex worker who runs the popular Respect Sex Work Twitter account, agrees that clients who attempt to “save” her are often the most inadvertently insulting.

“Some of the creepiest and most disgusting people I’ve ever spoken with were people trying to save me,” she writes. “I feel good about myself with most of my clients. It’s only when people come in trying to guilt or shame me that I truly feel disgusting.”

Add to the mix the fact that Brown is a religious ex-cop and you have a recipe for even more deep-seated distrust. Neither facet of Brown’s identity tracks particularly well among sex workers and for good reason. In a phone interview, Ariel Wolf, a community organizer with the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) observes that “sex workers generally tend to fear the cops more than they do their own clients,” especially because “most of us know someone who has been raped or assaulted by a police officer.”

Forman, on the other hand, suggests that Brown’s 20 years in law enforcement give him special knowledge about sex work. Although he admits that Brown “doesn’t know when he calls” whether or not his target has been forced into sex work, he claims that Brown has a special talent for spotting women who have likely been trafficked: “[A]fter 20 years on the job, he can decode an ad or solicitation or posting on the Internet like no one you’ve ever seen.”

The women I spoke with balked at these notions.

“Usually being a police officer does not give you great insight into the lives of sex workers,” Wolf says. “It’s really just about the arrest.”

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Champagne adds that Brown must have a “huge ego” to think that he can singlehandedly determine whether or not someone has been trafficked just by looking at a picture.

And Molly of SWOU has this to say about Brown’s ad whispering ways: “For god’s sake.”

Brown himself spent years arresting sex workers when, as Forman relays, “what [he] really wanted to do [was] help them.” But if Brown truly wanted to help sex workers this whole time, perhaps he should have reevaluated his own profession long before he started asking women to give up theirs. The FBI estimates that there were over 60,000 prostitution arrests nationwide in 2010—that’s over three times the number of forcible rape arrests. Several studies, too, have uncovered startling rates of police violence against and harassment of sex workers, especially among non-white and transgender women. Those same studies unsurprisingly reveal widespread distrust of police officers among sex workers. In one key sense, then, Brown’s career hasn’t changed a bit in his move from the force to the clergy: He used to interfere in sex worker’s lives by arresting them, now he just interferes in their lives by ambushing them with cameras. Either way, he can’t seem to leave them alone.

But while Brown probably has the wrong résumé to earn a sex worker’s trust, he unfortunately has the right credentials to be a reality TV star in a country where most people still believe sex work should be criminalized.

“The fact that [Forman] is using someone who has a religious platform [and] a prior experience in law enforcement... is indicative of the fact that they are more interested in the moralistic elements of this rather than the ‘rescued’ human being that they are alleging to help,” Champagne tells me.

Wolf concurs that the conceit of the show seems to have everyone but the sex worker in mind. She calls it a “game show” and “an exploitative act of entertainment” that makes “a spectacle out of the possibility of someone’s pain.”

No one I spoke with denied that forced sex work is a problem in their trade but they all took severe issue with the idea that reality television was the appropriate way to address it.

“It is not acceptable to support sex workers—especially sex workers who are experiencing abusive, violent, or coercive situations—by springing a surprise TV camera on them that films them doing something deeply stigmatized,” writes Molly from SWOU.

“There are other ways of helping people in the sex trade who don’t want to be in the sex trade—who are coerced, victimized, and trafficked,” says Champagne. “It’s not with reality TV.”

But a show about a group of women who run a safe house or a cohort of politicians who fight poverty wouldn’t exactly make for scintillating television, even if the outcome would be more likely to benefit sex workers. Indeed, Laochra of Respect Sex Work finds it suspicious that people like Brown don’t seem to be as passionate about income inequality as they do about intervening in sex worker’s lives.

“Before they became something to be saved, they were just worthless,” she writes. “Now they are a notch on a belt, and the savior can feel good about themselves.”

But many sex workers are trying to prevent Brown’s self-congratulatory efforts from ever landing on television. A Change.org petition asking A&E to drop the show is already making the rounds online. Meanwhile, some concerned sex workers have been confronting Tom Forman directly on Twitter, where he has been defending Brown’s self-given right to offer sex workers a “choice” to leave. One of his most recent public tweets suggests some exasperation with—and perhaps more than a little contempt for—the very people his show is ostensibly supposed to help: “Today’s Twitter resolution: less arguing with angry sex workers. Yeah, there’s a backstory. No, it’s not as fun as you think.”

Forman’s dismissal is petty but it’s not particularly surprising. As Wolf says, “A lot of the narrative of what’s happening within the rescue industry involves not listening to the voices of the people who they claim to be saving.”

I asked the production company, Relativity Media, for their comment on the response to 8 Minutes among sex workers and I was told that they will not be conducting further interviews until the show is officially announced. With any luck, it won’t be.